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A translator’s note on Avraham Ben Yitzhak



“Scrupulous, luminous, reticent, receptive”

The pleasure received is the pleasure one hopes to convey. In the case of Avraham Ben Yitzhak’s poetry that inevitably involves a fusion and confusion of the gentle and severe, the remote and the near—the high Hölderlin-like pitch of his spirit and a sensibility finely calibrated to register even the humblest of moments and things. All this is transmitted within Ben Yitzhak’s cadence and quiet music, his intensity, his clarity. Elias Canetti, his friend in Vienna, recalled that “when [he] translated the Psalms or Proverbs to me, I saw him as the royal poet. Yet this same man, prophet and poet in one, could disappear completely; hidden behind his newspaper, he was quite invisible, while he himself was aware of everything around him.” That utter immersion in language is everywhere in these poems as well, along with the writer’s ability, or desire, to vanish so as to let the world he is seeing more fully be.

Among the eleven poems Ben Yitzhak published in his lifetime—his entire body of work, so far as he was concerned—the first nine are perfect in their haunting, crystalline way, familiar as that manner might be to readers of early twentieth-century German literature. His two late poems, however, are masterpieces of modern Hebrew (or any) poetry, and they resonate with a tremendous depth of feeling and the limitlessness of the poet’s release into wholly individual poetic terrain. Saturated with the ancient, they are utterly, and always, new.

By and large, the translations here remain very close to the Hebrew in all respects, though certain effects have at times been shifted to other sites along the line, and punctuation has been adjusted to establish deeper equivalence. Likewise the steepness and subtlety of the scriptural dimension have occasionally called for small departures from that strict loyalty in order to hold to the spirit if not precisely the letter of the work.

Scrupulous, luminous, reticent, receptive, Ben Yitzhak and his eleven poems have stayed with me over the past twenty years as a model of Hebrew verse and its potential—an enduring link between the archaic and the current, the current and the poetry at its core.

© 2003 Ibis Editions

© Peter Cole  
• Editors & Translators (Israel)

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