Degenerate Café Conversation and Beyond


Edited by Peter Cole
320 pages. Trinity University Press. $24.95.

Hebrew Writers on Writing depicts the struggle for Modern Hebrew, even—and especially—among the greatest Hebrew writers of the 20th century. In an excerpt from the diary of Avraham Shlonsky (1900-1973), we read:

What a curse—to be a writer in a language that hasn’t been spoken for generations. A tongue that has no great-great-grandfathers. To always have to create something from nothing (and even something from something). By means of literary association. From books. And not from life. For how long?! Blessed are you, O infants. Mischevious Hebrew children—you are a comfort.

Edited by Peter Cole, a Jerusalem-based translator and poet, Hebrew Writers on Writing is a rare gift for those who teach about the Hebrew Revival (the Tehiyah, in Hebrew) in English translation. The short, concise pieces collected in Hebrew Writers on Writing reflect not only on the writer’s craft in general, but on the Hebrew writer’s craft throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. Although there are moments when the excerpts included here feel somewhat unmoored, since they generally do not appear in conjunction with any of the poetry or fiction for which these writers are famous, more frequently Cole has selected exquisite stand-alone essays that require no further contextualization. These texts stand independent of the writers’ better-known works, and reflect deeply and brilliantly on the ambiguity inherent in the secularization of the sacred, the modernization of the ancient, the nationalization of a diasporic people—all dichotomies that characterize the miracle, as well as the madness, of the revival of Hebrew in belles letters throughout the 20th century. In an essay entitled “Thoughts About Our Language” by Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), the famous scholar of Jewish mysticism, we read:

The land is a volcano, and it hosts the language. People talk a great deal here about many things which may make us fail—particularly these days about the Arabs. But another more serious danger than that of the Arab people threatens us, a danger which follows of necessity from the Zionist enterprise. What will be the result of updating the Hebrew language? Is not the holy language, which we have planted among our children, an abyss that must open up? People here do not know the meaning of what they have done. They think that they have turned Hebrew into a secular language and that they have removed its apocalyptic sting, but it is not so.

Anticipating the terrifying power of Hebrew in its process of secularization so eloquently described by Scholem several decades later, Asher Ginzburg (Ahad Ha'am) (1856-1927) and Micha Yosef Berdischevsky (1865-1921)—neither of whom is represented in Hebrew Writers on Writing—engaged in a famous polemic on the pages of the Odessa based Hebrew monthly periodical ha-Shiloah in 1896. There they argued about the comparative cultural advantages of fostering Hebrew writing for its own sake, or encouraging translations into Hebrew (and Yiddish) from other languages, for the edification of the Jewish masses. Ahad Ha'am advocated for the gradual cultural rejuvenation of modern Jews through translation of European literature, history, and science into Jewish languages, while Berdischevsky called for the creation of original belles letters in Hebrew.

Tension between those who advocated for translation and those who advocated for original Hebrew literary creation was embodied in the figure of Leah Goldberg (1911-1970), a well-known Hebrew poet, who founded the department of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University, and translated Shakespeare, Petrarch, Brecht, Tolstoy, Gorky, and Chekov into Hebrew. At a meeting of the “Higher Council of Culture,” held in Israel in 1952, Goldberg gave a lecture on translated literature and was virulently denounced by a fellow poet, critic, and translator, Avraham Yitzhaq Krib. He said that Goldberg was

‘a typical representative of that stream which wants a translated nation’ and cried out against all those who have no need for roots in Israel, those who know what the goyim did to us and still kneel before them. What do we need these Balzacs and Stendhals for? We don’t need any Balzacs, they’re good only for degenerate conversation in the cafes.

The centrality of translation to the Hebrew Revival is a subtext of Hebrew Writers on Writing in the kinds of selections Cole makes and how he chooses to introduce them. Peter Cole, an extremely agile and accomplished translator, best known for his superb translations of Medieval Hebrew poetry from Spain, chose the writings included in this anthology with an eye toward the translation activities of the authors represented, as well as their own struggle with multilingualism within a Hebrew literary environment. Cole points out, for example, in his introductions to these writers, that Dvora Baron (1887-1956), known for her lyrical short stories about Eastern-European Jewish women’s experience, translated Flaubert, Chekov, and Jack London into Hebrew, and that Shaul Tchernichowsky (1875-1943), best known for his epic poetry in European classical meters, translated The Iliad, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Plato’s Symposium, Goethe, Shakespeare, and many other writers.

The work of translation is never simply a process of rendering a text from one language into another. Rather, the excellent translation is one that successfully transitions its readership from one cultural context into another. The labor of creating a modern vernacular Hebrew out of its component parts was, and continues to be, a dynamic process not only of importation and adaptation, but also of sensitive translation.  Amos Oz, in his autobiographical book, A Tale of Love and Darkness, reflects on his great uncle, Joseph Klausner’s, lexical innovations in Modern Hebrew during the first decades of the 20th century. These neologisms, in many instances are really no more (and no less) than translations from other languages:

As a child the thing I most admired Uncle Joseph for was that, as I had been told, he had invented and given us several simple, everyday Hebrew words, words that seemed to have been known and used forever, including “pencil,” “iceberg,” “shirt,” “greenhouse,” “toast,” “cargo,” “monotonous,” “multicolored,” “sensual,” “crane,” and “rhinoceros.”

Oz concludes by saying that, “a man who has the ability to generate a new word and to inject it into the bloodstream of the language seems to me only a little lower than the Creator of light and darkness.” The writers represented in Hebrew Writers on Writing were (and still are) at the forefront of this nearly divine process of translating a new language into existence.