Heroic Poetry and Revolutionary Prophecy: Russian Symbolists Translate the Hebrew Poets

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To the memory of my father, Mordkho Nachtajler, who grew up in pre-war Lublin, Poland, loved the Hebrew poets passionately, and knew them by heart

THE NATIONAL RE-AWAKENING PRODUCED BY THE MODERN Hebrew poetry of Bialik and Tchernikhovsky inspired the revolutionary Russian poetry of the early twentieth century. Translation was both occasion and engine, as Russian poets learned new poetic roles from their Jewish counterparts. The Hebrew anthology, a collection of Jewish poetry of the Hebrew renaissance--Evreiskaia antologiia: Sbornik molodoi evreiskoi poezii, published by the Moscow Jewish publishing house, Safrut in 1918--in Russian translation--was a major cultural event. (1) Edited by Leib Yaffe in collaboration with the poet Vladislav Khodasevich, the collection consisted of translations of the major Hebrew poets living in Russia at that time by distinguished Russian Symbolists. Not knowing Hebrew, the Russian translators worked with literal translations, often with the participation of the Jewish poets who suggested phrases and reviewed the translations. Translating these Hebrew texts was a challenge the Russian poets took seriously as is clear from the quality of the translations; it is also evident in the expression of admiration for the Jewish poets who by 1918 had succeeded in revitalizing an ancient national language without a homeland, on Russian soil. The power of their poetry and the extraordinary personalities of the established poets--Hayim Nakhman Bialik and Shaul Tchernikhovski, as well as the work of I. Fikhman, Z. Shneur, and D. Shymonowich, along with the less-known younger poets--impressed the Russian literary world. (2) An extraordinary poetic community formed among and between these Russian and Hebrew poets.

The Russian writers took on the project as a poetic and political response to the plight of the Jews. The result is a remarkable instance of an inter-linguistic poetic dialogue between two cultures which, until recently, had co-existed in the Russian Empire in a state of alienation and ignorance--at least as far as the Russian knowledge of the Jews living beyond the Pale of Settlement was concerned. This had been a one-sided relationship: the Jews had been reading and studying Russian literature assiduously since the middle of the nineteenth century. There had not been much knowledge of or interest in Jewish culture on the part of Russian writers before the early years of the twentieth century, when Russia experienced its own cultural renaissance in philosophy, arts, and poetry, known as the Silver Age. (3)

We have to wonder whether this was a dialogue of equals or an unequal conversation of the elite Russian members of the Empire and its Jewish subalterns. And what were its long-term implications for Russian literary and cultural history?

Most of the Russian poets involved in the translation project belonged to the younger generation of the Symbolist movement, which began at the turn of the century primarily as an esthetic and metaphysical movement, in a revolt against the positivist civic tradition of the "fathers." This changed dramatically after the revolution of 1905, as political and social reality intervened. Writing in 1906, a prominent critic and scholar, Evgenii Anichkov, concluded that Russians were experiencing "not only a revolution but a renaissance as well." (4) As poets became conscious of their history, seeking a sense of pattern in their meditations on Russia's past, their work became imbued with an apocalyptic anxiety about the nation's future and a sense of an impending cataclysm. The Symbolists believed in the potential power of poetry to transform the world; the poet was considered to be a theurgist and a prophet. These views would be contributing factors to the emerging dialogue with the powerful poetic voices of the small nation of the Jews whom they discovered living in their midst. …


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