A new Sutzkever translation of mine was recently published in Tupelo Quarterly.
This is one of my favorite poems from the Diary collection. I don’t think that one has to have survived the Holocaust to have an experience like the one Sutzkever describes, in which hearing or seeing or smelling some particular thing suddenly takes one back to another time in one’s life. In Sutzkever’s case, the catalyst is seeing, and listening to, the storks who migrate through Israel back to northeast Poland/Lithuania/western Belarus—where Sutzkever was born but to which he could not return.
This poem featured the word Lite, a tricky word to translate, as I have explained elsewhere: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/70170/translators-note-the-blade-of-grass-from-ponar-by-abraham-sutzkever
While in The Blade of Grass from Ponar, I translated Lite as Lithuania, this time, I chose to translate it as “what then was Poland.” I did this for a number of reasons, one being that, in this context, it is correct: Sutzkever’s hometown, Vilna, was indeed part of Poland at the time he lived in it. Going with what some might describe as an over-translation had other benefits, the first being musical: Poland goes better with “caravan” than Lithuania does.
Beyond that, “what then was Poland” drives home for the English reader that the place Sutzkever is longing for is one that no longer exists as it once did. Unfortunately, using either “Lithuania” or “Poland” as the translation for Lite carries the danger of leading an English reader to believe that Sutzkever held more attachment to each of those countries, as we currently define them, than he really did. The Vilna he had known and loved, which had shaped him, was a city with a significant Jewish presence, but where Jews were not necessarily seen as fellow citizens by Poles or Lithuanians. At the time when Sutzkever wrote this poem, Vilna was still behind the Iron Curtain. Even today, he might have had difficulties visiting: Lithuania has, in recent years, taken to prosecuting former Jewish partisans, claiming that they murdered innocent Lithuanians (they didn’t, but Lithuanian volunteers did carry out the majority of the murders of Jews at Ponar).
While it’s always a danger, when translating from Yiddish, to make too much of the presence of words borrowed from other languages, there is a certain Polish presence in “A Horizon of Furious Salt.” “Butshan” the Yiddish word for stork, is borrowed from the Polish bocian. At the very end of the poem, Sutzkever uses the rather unusual Yiddish verb brentslen, to describe the demon strumming the “string of storks.” This word may be a related to a similar Polish and Russian word, which also means to pluck or strum, but which my klezmer friend Michael Alpert tells me has also come to denote playing a stringed instrument badly. When this poem appears in a book, I may change “pluck” to “strike.”
In the original collection, “The Blade of Grass from Ponar” and “A Horizon of Furious Salt” appear next to one another. I look forward to replicating this order when these translations are published as a book, so I can keep readers on their toes about the imperfect translations of Lite.
If you are interested in the connection between Poland and storks, be sure to read this article: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/travel/poland-storks.html?fbclid=IwAR1LVzIIh7uotdlcQYaDewrzCpSekmuZXHhV5h0J27NL6vcYrlp9HJeI6w8
Migrating birds, hundreds of thousands of storks among them, travel through modern-day Israel, and are particularly fond of the Hula Valley. There was a time when the Israelis were, as Yehuda Amichai once wrote, “convinced the Hula swamp had to be drained” due to malaria. However, doing so proved disastrous for migrating birds, and the valley was eventually filled with water again. As Amichai wrote, “it was all a mistake.” Now some birds are so comfortable in the Hula Valley that, in a twist that is both fitting and ironic, they stay year-round.
Here is an article about Israel’s migrating birds: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-israels-500-million-birds-the-worlds-eighth-wonder-1.5485176