On poetry, translation and religion

On poetry, translation and religion
Feb 2023

On poetry, translation and religion


<strong>In this wideranging conversation, Lord Williams of Oystermouth and Hebrew scholar Dr Irene Lancaster discuss the selection of Jewish poems for his new book on poetry and their relevance to both Christian and general audiences, and offer some further reflections on the relationship between poetry, translation and religion.

Irene: Rowan, recently you published a book on A Century of Poetry: 100 Poems for searching the heart (SPCK Publishing) and I helped you with the Jewish poetry, including the translations from Hebrew, Yiddish and German, which we discussed in detail, didn't we? It was particularly enjoyable looking at the German, which you know very well yourself, and discussing from every angle which was the apt English expression to encapsulate the term 'Spruch' in Holocaust poet, Paul Celan, for instance. And I said that musicality was the most important issue in translating poetry when all other angles had been incorporated and you actually agreed!

Because, as well as being a leading Christian thinker, you are also known as a poet and translator of poetry yourself, especially from your native Welsh. I have always wanted to discuss this aspect of life with you, as I also got interested in religion through poetry and music, which in Judaism are inextricably related, the term shirah conveying both singing and poetry.

So, first of all, how did you choose the religious poems for this anthology, especially the Jewish ones, and why 'searching the heart'?

Rowan: I decided to use that phrase about 'searching the heart' because it's one that rings many bells for me. I believe it's a Jewish saying that 'Jerusalem is a place for the searching of hearts'; and I take that to mean that it's a place where you discover more about who you are, what you're failing to face and deal with, what the possibilities are for discovering a new world in God's grace and love, and so on.


So I wasn't looking for easy poems but ones that would challenge the reader - which doesn't mean negative or sceptical ones, but poems that prompt you to think again about what you take for granted about God and yourself, and that renew the landscape of faith.

A very important element in this is trying to sense how those who don't share the same faith might speak about God - and for Christians, this is especially crucial in regard to Judaism. Most Christians won't know just how rich the world of Modern Jewish poetry is (I certainly wouldn't have known the half of it without your help!), and I wanted to make a small contribution to helping raise awareness of this.

Irene: It's very commendable that you wanted to promote awareness of positive aspects of Judaism, a religion and tradition which is downplayed or simply ignored in the educational curriculum at all levels, as in civic life and culture, to a most alarming extent. And now, Jews and Judaism are even being ridiculed in the public sphere, which I've learned from listening to a very popular history podcast, which is being recommended by all and sundry. It's as if Jews and Jewish culture simply don't exist in this country in their own right, but simply as an example of the dinosaur 'other', the jester of history. Let's hope the Jewish poems chosen for this anthology, some of the greatest poetry in the world, will start to open up hearts and minds in the Christian and literary world.

So, Rowan, when did you first realize that language, poetry, translation and religion are intertwined, or would you perhaps word that differently?

Rowan: That's a very interesting question, especially coming from someone like you who has a lot of experience in translating both poetry and prose, and I hope you'll tell us something about how you understand this too.

Ever since I studied poetry at school and started writing it a bit, I've been aware that it's near the heart of a religious approach to the world. You come at a poetic subject with humility, not trying to say the last word or to wrap things up so that no-one could ever disagree. The essential thing in a poem is the process by which you try to let something - a thought, a visual perception, a memory, a story, an experience - sink into your mind at a deeper level and (as it were) find new words for itself. You realize in this process that you're always returning to the search for words, because the world is such that you can't exhaust what there is to see and absorb And that in turn, if you're a believer of some kind, gives you an entry-point into the mystery of God, who above all is never exhausted.

Think of a great poetic book like the prophecies of Isaiah: in the central section (40-55) especially, the prophet goes on and on reworking and rethinking what can be said about God's promise and activity - he doesn't repeat himself, but he circles round this vision like a bird circling around a possible place to nest. Similarly in Christian Scripture, we can find substantial poetic passages in which someone like Paul or John especially is 'circling around' in the same way, trying out words that might express the mystery that Christians believe is shown in Jesus and never quite getting it clear or right and needing to try all over again.

And when you try to translate poetry, you become conscious all over again of the different ways in which words can work, and how impossible it is to capture everything. The experience we shared trying to do some new translations of Paul Celan and others brought this out, didn't it? Asking what nuances and echoes we might be missing if we settled for this rather than that translation.

Irene: Yes, well, you are certainly right about what is generally called 'Second Isaiah' (and by the way, the medieval Jewish scholar, Abraham ibn Ezra was the first person in the world to posit the idea that those particular verses might possibly be written by a different hand than Isaiah 1-39).

And in the Paul Celan contribution, if we look at page 59 of your book, we have a splendid example of his way of working, totally related to Jewish practice. I pointed out to you when we were working together on the Jewish poems that in Jeremiah chapter 1 (which the Sephardi community recently read on Shabbat as the Haftorah accompanying the first chapters of the Book of Exodus), the prophet puns on the word sh-k-d, which is both the almond of his vision and the watchfulness of G-d and the Jewish people. Celan writes a great deal about almonds, incorporated into the almond cakes his mother used to bake and which he as a child helped her 'count into' the ovens, in which she was eventually incinerated during the Shoah. I first learned this poem with George Steiner at Cambridge University, probably around the same time that you were learning Russian and studying theology. Food for thought there ....!

However, there is far more to this than meets the eye. Exactly 40 years ago, on family sabbatical in Jerusalem, I was asked to do 'shmira' at my daughter's primary school in Rehov Pisgah. I had no idea what shmira was and thought it was related to 'schmieren', spreading jam, or some such. In fact, the term 'shmira' meant regular security duty against terrorists, such as we have in front of and inside our Jewish buildings in England today. And that made me think - they had taken the Hebrew word meaning to 'preserve' the Torah, first mentioned in the 'Ten Commandments' and then extended the usage to encompass safeguarding the Jewish community. This made a huge impression, and I realized that modern Hebrew was a truly magical language, stemming from an ancient language of multiple possibilities which could be extended in all sorts of ways. And this is to me what both music and poetry-making are all about.

Furthermore, the same word, shmira was used at that time of the year, usually February, to denote those of us tasked to travel by truck with the pupils on our annual school outing into the woods and forests around Jerusalem in order to plant trees for the festival of Tu Bshvat, the New Year for Trees. In other words, we had to 'safeguard' the children while at the same time 'preserving' the festival. This festival is always timed to take place when the first almond appears in Israel, the time when in that part of the world, winter morphs into spring. Again, Jerusalem, almonds, watchfulness, flourishing and danger all wrapped up in each other.

I first became engrossed in language as a very young child helping her father come to terms with English in order to become a citizen of this country after his entire family had been exterminated in the Shoah. And I myself was bullied incessantly at school for my slight Polish accent. But then I heard Brahms for the first time at that same school, in a music appreciation class, and knew that music and language were part of the same journey towards self-discovery and also transcendence. And that in the large scheme of things this school and her students were not the main thing in life.

Aged 8 or 9, I tried for the entrance exam to Merchant Taylors School in a suburb of Liverpool. Part of the exam was a reading exercise from a book that they took for granted that we all knew. It was called Winnie the Pooh, and although I hadn't a clue about this book, all went reasonably well until the stumbling block of the name 'Eeyore'. I had never encountered this name before, and having helped my father with his own excursions into a foreign language called 'English', was fixated on getting things right. I therefore took 'Eeyore' to be a misprint and duly pronounced it as 'Eyesore'. The teacher was not amused, not amused at all. In fact she was convinced that I was deliberately insulting an English tradition. What is more, she couldn't believe that a normal girl trying for their prestigious primary school had not read the book. Instead her ignorant parents had provided her with Fairy Tales from Many Lands, encompassing Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian horror stories for naughty children which aimed to give you nightmares, rather than the lazy glow of whimsical self satisfaction of much children's literature deemed suitable in England at that time.

As a result of my misdemeanour the teacher informed me very gravely that I simply wasn't up to scratch and therefore had only a very tiny chance of getting into the school. And, what is more, by mispronouncing the name of a literary deity, I had committed a crime if not a sin and should feel truly guilty, but for what exactly? For the fact that this country had turned its back on the Jews of the Shoah and continued to promote its illusion of superiority through ludicrous fables, which simply didn't exist in real life. Because even then, I knew that much East European literature was far more profound than the English public school imbecilities they expected us to imbibe as part of their acculturation exercise, and that this attitude would, eventually, end in tears, as it certainly has done for the Jewish community of this country.

For some reason, though, I did pass the exam in the end, got in by the skin of my teeth, and didn't do badly in life. To this day, I am aware of religion, language, sound and idolatry all being somehow intermingled and that is how I have approached the many translations I have completed, both here and in Israel as a member of the Israel Translators Association, which I was eagerly asked to join on arrival in Haifa in 2006.

So, onto the third question. Are there any similarities in your view between the Jewish poems you chose for your anthology and some of the Christian ones, or is the Jewish sensibility always different, do you think?

Rowan: There will always be differences of perspective - and differences of power and privilege as well. You can't read most of these Jewish poems without an awareness of how Jewish voices have been silenced by Christians in so many ways over the centuries. Poetry touching on the Holocaust, of course, is especially distinctive - and I'd want to stress that Christians should never try to blur or minimize the particularity of this.

So you can't just read Celan, say, as if he were simply saying the same thing as a Christian mystic writing about the 'dark night of the soul'. He is writing about a very specific set of events which killed a very specific set of people, the Jews, in part because of a poisonous and distorted Christian rhetoric. Plenty of heart-searching there for the Christian reader, and I've had to note here and there that some of the Christian poets included here share the guilt of this in some of their writing (T.S.Eliot, Saunders Lewis).

But also something like the poetry of Rav Kook, deeply and distinctively Jewish as it is, can echo for the non-Jewish reader because it speaks so wonderfully about the nature of religious faith itself and the necessary but very fragile structures we build to stop ourselves being burned up by the intensity of divine presence. We can all recognize something of the same thing there.

Irene: Yes, sad to think that Saunders Lewis, who I understand was the founder of the Welsh National Party, Plaid Cymru, supported Hitler during the war and was also a fanatical anti-Semite. As for T.S. Eliot, major recent biographies have finally exposed the depths of his Jew hatred, which simply knew no bounds and which his famous conversion to the Church of England, once he decided to make this country his home, did absolutely nothing to attenuate. In fact, some people think that his antisemitism grew even stronger with age and adulation....!

So, bearing all this in mind, what do you think that a readership composed mainly of poetry lovers steeped in a Christians culture will make of the Jewish poems in your anthology? Why do you think that Jewish poems are neglected in the school curriculum, when poetry from other cultures and ethnic groups are positively embraced? In fact I have had to teach some of the non-Jewish ethnic minority poems included in a school setting for GCSE exams, and often wondered why this country seems to be averse to Jewish geniuses such as Rav Kook and Bialik, who, in my opinion, as a translator of poetry from many languages, have never been surpassed, even by the English-language poets included in your anthology.

Rowan: Well, I'll be interested to see what response comes from Christian readers. I'd love to see more good English translations of writers like the ones you mention. But - to go back to something we have often discussed - it's quite important to remember that Jewish poetry is not somehow defined by the Holocaust alone. Celan is not the only great poet of Jewish heritage. That's why I've looked for poems like Rav Kook's, which simply celebrate Jewish faith and identity so positively, and also Sutzkever's challenging poem in Yiddish about Jewish resistance.

It's perhaps an aspect of another thing we've talked about a lot, the way in which 'Holocaust education' of a certain kind can push out a really strong and intelligent awareness of Jewish identity as active and celebratory, not only about tragic victimhood. And I wonder whether poetry from non-Christian cultures, but not from Jewish cultures, get on to the reading lists partly because they are not writing about this kind of focal, concentrated history of a people, and so may seem more approachable when teachers and others are looking for someone to represent 'diversity'? It doesn't confront so starkly as some of our Jewish poets here do. Different kinds and levels of heart-searching.

Irene: But, Rowan, this is not always the case. For instance, I recommended that you should include the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Israel's national poet of the mid 20th century, who was actually translated into English by our own Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes in around 1966. I mean, why is Amichai, of all people, not included in our own school English Literature curriculum, when one of our greatest 20th-century poets, based near here in West Yorkshire, regarded this immensely popular modern Israeli poet, writing in Hebrew, as more than worthy of rendering into English?

It's not, after all, as if Judaism actually is as exclusively 'tribal' as is often made out. No-one is more universalist in approach than the Prophet Isaiah, whom you've mentioned above, and none of the Jewish poets you've included in the anthology, including at least one recent Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, could be accused of neglecting the wider global readership. This accusation of tribal petty-mindedness is of course what Christianity has always posited about Judaism as a way of defending their own negative history towards the Jewish people.

A case in point is the very popular history podcast mentioned above, and compered by two typically self-important adult English school-boys. When they do mention Jews or Judaism it's always with a snigger of dismissal. Yet, one of the comperes of this 'show' is a proud Christian, something he never stops mentioning in every one of the hundreds of podcasts he has composed, which are supposed to be on the subject of world history, not on his own particular prejudices.

Even when speaking about Jesus, to whom he devotes an entire podcast or two, he refuses to state that Jesus was Jewish, even when taken to task in written correspondence which has now been publicized in the Jewish Press and which demonstrates that Jews are simply expendable to the Christian world. It's as if the word 'Jew' is now a dirty word which should be avoided as much as possible. This simply doesn't help in the attempt to stem the antisemitism which is on the rise in this country and which will lead to our total annihilation as a cultural and religious presence if we don't watch out.

And, in any case, even if Jews were as 'tribal' as people make out, most of the sometimes non-Christian, but always non native-English poetry from many global cultures I've had to teach in the English school curriculum is specific beyond belief and doesn't go beyond its particular specificity. Yet, all these cultures and ethnicities are promoted and we Jews are always downplayed, in every sphere, and not even included on the latest Census Form.....

You cannot, however, argue that Rav Kook's best poetry of yearning and despair (after all he was also Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel under the dreadful British Mandate period of our history) can't speak to humanity at large, or that Chaim Bialik's City of Slaughter, probably the greatest Jewish poem since the Spanish Golden Age of the Middle Ages, is simply discussing the Kiev Pogrom of 1903, but isn't rather a universal poem of cowardice and abandonment, mostly by the non-Jewish community towards the Jewish people wherever we live.

Both these towering Hebrew-language poets take the specific as a first step in order to speak to the universal. What is bad about the English school curriculum is that it is often just written by people 'sounding off' about their 'truth' without taking the rest of us with them, and therefore unable to transcend what, after all, many Jews in this country, as elsewhere, have gone through, and still do.

For instance, despite what was for me an early very traumatic English school experience, I would probably not write a poem about Eeyore and antisemitism. It simply wouldn't speak to others. And anyway, I got over the 'trauma' pretty quickly. So, there is no good reason at all why the school curriculum is and remains stubbornly and insultingly Judenrein. The reason for this state of affairs is that, firstly, people tend to love dead Jews only (i.e., as you say exclusively emphasizing the lachrymose view of the Shoah), and also want to deny at all costs that Jews have in any way contributed to the society we live in. And why is that? Probably jealousy, pure and simple. It's the only explanation for such a mendacious approach to literature and to much else. Unless, you have a better idea, of course?

Rowan: I wish I knew the answer to the question about the silencing of Jewish voices in literature. But is it also something to do with the entire poisonous legacy of just seeing Judaism as The Other, not just religiously but economically (left-wing anti-semitism) and racially/culturally (right-wing anti-semitism)? So that it becomes harder to see it in its own right, in its own terms, not just as a shadow or rival that somehow depends on 'us' (Christians, Europeans, proletariat....) for its reality? Don't know, and I don't want to let the Church off the hook here, believe me. But all the more important to focus, as you've always said, on live Jews, actively presenting a living identity.

Irene: So, bearing in mind all of the above, what do you hope can be a positive gain from a poetry anthology such as yours, and especially from the Jewish poems, most by Israelis, which will be unknown to 99% of readers?

Rowan: I'd like to think that readers will find here some texts they can go back to and re-read and learn from. And it would be a very foolish and narrow Christian who thought they had nothing to learn from how their Jewish brothers and sisters have struggled and triumphed in finding words for God, especially in the light of the terrible history that Christians have made for Jews. There are one or two poems here where Christian writers do make use of Jewish images and ideas - and if that is done without a sort of imperialism and superiority but seeking to learn and grow in awareness of God, it must be a good thing.

Irene: I'd just like to finish by saying how much I enjoyed working with you on all these poets and poems, and also point out the happy serendipity that this month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Chaim Bialik (January 9th 1873), in my view the greatest Jewish poet since the Middle Ages. Bialik, who studied with Rav Kook at Mir Yeshivah in Lithuania (naturally destroyed by our enemies) was regarded as the first National Poet of Israel until his death in 1934, to be succeeded in that post some years later by Yehudah Amichai, friend of English Poet Laureate Ted Hughes!

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