May 032014

Well, this being the world’s largest repository of Italian Hebrew poetry in translation, I suppose it was inevitable that I’d eventually get to Rahel Morpurgo, one of the very few Italian poets anybody knows about and whose works are (fairly) widely distributed. Why is those things? Well, Mrs. Morpurgo (née Luzzatto, which is like being a Kennedy in Jewish Italy) is the very first female Hebrew poet of the modern(ish) era (although not the first female Italian Jewish poet, just the first one to compose in Hebrew), and really the first female Hebrew poet we know by name (and whose poetry we have) since, um, Miriam?

Anyway, this is an entry into that classic Hebrew genre, the riddle-poem. First person who guesses the answer gets a shiny piece of…money.

Rahel Morpurgo (1790 – 1871)
A Riddle: Dust Am I

Dust Am I in Life, All the More So in Death

Before you here discern me
You’d profit if you burn me;
My light would sate your soul,
Your treasures I make whole.

Upon me priests make offerings,
Beneath me reign your mighty kings,
If for this you held out your hand
You’d find fulfilled your wishes grand.

רחל מורפורגו
חידה: עפר אני

עָפָר אֲנִי בְּחַיַּי קַל וָחֹמֶר בְּמִיתָתִי
הֲרֵי אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ
שָׂרְפֵנִי לְטוֹבָתֶךָ;
לְאוֹרִי תִּשְׂבַּע נַפְשֶׁךָ,
וְעָלַי כָּל-חֶמְדָּתֶךָ.
עָלַי יַקְטִיר כֹּהֲנֶךָ,
וְתַחְתַּי יִמְלֹךְ מַלְכֶּךָ,
אִם בָּזֶה תַּהֲפֹךְ יָדֶךָ
אָז תִּמְצָא מַאֲוַיֶּיךָ.


Haréi ‘aní lefanékha
Sorféini le-tovatékha;
Le-‘orí tisbáʕ nafshékha,
Ve-ʕalái kol ḥemdatékha.

ʕal0i yaqtír kohanékha,
Ve-taḥtí yimlókh malkékha,
‘Im ba-zéh tahafókh yadkhá
‘Az timtzá ma’avayékha.

May 032014

The first line and title of this poem represent one of the great challenges of modern Hebrew translation, not because there aren’t plenty of harder lines of Hebrew poetry to translate, but because this is a frequently-translated poem by perhaps the most significant early modern Hebrew poet, a poem that discusses his feelings towards his own poetic gift that’s short and punchy, not the kind of long and difficult (but far more thorough and engrossing) poem on the matter that only the insane endeavor to translate.

Anyway, the problem word is hefqeir, from the verb lehafqir, to abandon or forfeit. In rabbinic law, it’s a term for a status potentially acquired by goods: if any given item is left unclaimed in a public space for a certain amount of time, it is hefqeir, meaning that anyone can take it (and thereby become its legal owner) without fear of being accused of theft (the term is applied not only to the object, but sometimes to the space itself). My rabbinics professor, may he live to 120, liked to (effectively, I think) describe the concept in modern terms this way: the curb, and anything left lying on it, is widely understood in our society to be hefqeir. If you see a couch or TV lying by the curb (that nobody is in the process of transferring to a moving van), you can take it, and it’s yours (given that it seems the poorer or more frugal among us, your humble translator included, spend our 20s acquiring most of our furniture this way, it’s strange we have no widely-used English word for the concept). So really, the best way to render what Bialik is saying here is “I didn’t find light [i.e., his poetic gift] lying by the curb,” but I suppose that’s a bit colloquial. So various translators struggle with it in various ways, some better, some worse. Who was it who did the one about “windfall,” one of the Harshavs? Tfu. Anyway, love it or hate it, here’s my version.

Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik (1873 – 1934)
I Didn’t Stumble on Light

I didn’t stumble on light left abandoned
No bequest from my father’s my art,
From my stone and my bedrock I’ve gouged it,
And hewn it deep from my heart.

In the stone of my heart a spark’s hiding,
A tiny spark — yet mine completely,
I asked it of no one, nor did I steal it —
For truly it’s of me and in me.

And under the hammer of my many sorrows
My heart and my strength will crack and disperse
That same spark, off flying, hot sprayed towards my eye,
From my eye — and into my verse.

From my verse it shall scatter forth into your hearts,
In the flame of your fires I’ve kindled, recede,
And then, with my own flesh and blood,
The bright-burning blaze I shall feed.

חיים נחמן ביאליק
לא זכיתי באור מן ההפקר

לֹא זָכִיתִי בָאוֹר מִן-הַהֶפְקֵר,
אַף לֹא-בָא לִי בִירֻשָּׁה מֵאָבִי,
כִּי מִסַּלְעִי וְצוּרִי נִקַּרְתִּיו
וַחֲצַבְתִּיו מִלְּבָבִי.

נִיצוֹץ אֶחָד בְּצוּר לִבִּי מִסְתַּתֵּר,
נִיצוֹץ קָטָן – אַךְ כֻּלּוֹ שֶׁלִּי הוּא,
לֹא שְׁאִלְתִּיו מֵאִישׁ, לֹא גְנַבְתִּיו –
כִּי מִמֶּנִּי וּבִי הוּא.

וְתַחַת פַּטִּישׁ צָרוֹתַי הַגְּדוֹלוֹת
כִּי יִתְפּוֹצֵץ לְבָבִי, צוּר-עֻזִּי,
זֶה הַנִּיצוֹץ עָף, נִתָּז אֶל-עֵינִי,
וּמֵעֵינִי – לַחֲרוּזִי.

וּמֵחֲרוּזִי יִתְמַלֵּט לִלְבַבְכֶם,
וּבְאוּר אֶשְׁכֶם הִצַּתִּיו, יִתְעַלֵּם,
וְאָנֹכִי בְּחֶלְבִּי וּבְדָמִי
אֶת-הַבְּעֵרָה אֲשַׁלֵּם.


Lo zokhísi vo-óyr min ha-héfkeyr,
Af lo vo li virúshoh mei-óvi,
Ki mi-sáli ve-tzúri nikártiv
Va-khatzávtiv milvóvi.

Nítzoytz ékhod be-tzúr líbi mistáteyr,
Nítzoytz qóton — akh kúloy shelí hu,
Lo she’íltiv mei-ísh, lo ganávtiv —
Ki miméni u-ví hu.

Ve-tákhas pátish tzoróysai hagdóyloys
Ki yizpóytzeys levóvi, tzur úzi,
Zeh ha-nítzoytz of, nítoz el éinai,
U-mei-éinai — lakhrúzi.

U-mei-khrúzi yismáleyt lilvávkhem,
Uv-úr éshkhem hitzátiv, yisáleym,
Ve-onóykhi be-khélbi uv-dómi
Es ha-be’éyroh asháleym.