Culture, Global, Identity, Israel

Shall I let myself be translated alive? In Memory of Avrom Sutzkever (1913-2010)

It is with great sadness that I learned, a few days ago, of the death of the great modernist Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever ז”ל. Sutzkever’s immense talent as writer was matched only by his heroism as a freedom fighter.  During WWII, Sutzkever fought as a partisan and famously saved Yiddish documents in Vilna from destruction at the hands of the Nazis, who killed both his mother and his son. After the war, Sutzkever immigrated to Israel, where he became editor of the Israeli Yiddish literary quarterly Di Goldene Keyt.sutzkever
Sutzkever has never received his proper due among literary audiences, especially Jewish American readers, and if you have never read anything by him, I commend his understated but intensely powerful writing to your attention (yes, go ahead; buy two copies: one for you and one for the Yiddish lover in your life). Here is a poem he penned in 1948, entitled Yiddish:
Shall I start from the beginning?
Shall I, a brother,
Like Abraham
Smash all the idols?
Shall I let myself be translated alive?
Shall I plant my tongue
And wait
Till it transforms
Into our forefathers’
Raisins and almonds?
What kind of joke
My poetry brother with whiskers,
That soon, my mother tongue will set forever?
A hundred years from now, we still may sit here
On the Jordan, and carry on this argument.
For a question
Gnaws and paws at me:
If he knows exactly in what regions
Levi Yitzhok’s prayer,
Yehoash’s poem, 
Kulbak’s song,
Are straying
To their sunset —
Could he please show me
Where  the language will go down?
May be at the Wailing Wall?
If so, I shall come there, come,
Open my mouth,
And like a lion
Garbed in fiery scarlet,
I shall swallow the language as it sets.
And wake all the generations with my roar!

4 thoughts on “Shall I let myself be translated alive? In Memory of Avrom Sutzkever (1913-2010)

  1. I should quickly mention here that the anthology I’ve directed you to contains only a few of his many works. These are the only easily accessible English translations of him–of which I am aware. Anyone have any other leads?

  2. I’ve dug up some poems online. In The Forward, Philogos presents a poem in both Yiddish and English. Tablet reprints three poems from the Penguin anthology. Zachary Sholem Berger translates Ode to the Dove.
    The Harshav’s translated his poetry for University of California back in 1991; it’s out of print, but you might be able to find a copy at your local library. The three used copies available go for $95. Anyone interested in paying $20 if I bring it back into print?

  3. Yes! Please bring the Harshav translation back into print. You’d have at least one thrilled and grateful reader. (And others, I am sure)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.