A translator reflects on how to return Hebrew writers to Ukraine
The translator Victor Radutzky discusses translations from Hebrew to Ukrainian and the reverse; Amos Oz, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, and Vasyl Stus; and Kyiv and Jerusalem.
Iryna Slavinska: Our guest on the program today is an exceptional person, the translator Victor Radutzky. I would really like to discuss various topics with him. For example, translating from language to language is an incredibly fascinating story, as is the topic of the return of writers back home to Ukraine, thanks to your translations. But we’ll begin with a general question about translation. Are there many people who work in Hebrew and translate into Ukrainian?
Victor Radutzky: I can’t say that I have all that many colleagues. But I know a few names. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to publish a book of translations because this means a lot of money and our translation work is not esteemed very much. In general, we translators don’t work for the money, it is said. In Israel, literature cannot be profitable. Only literature that is created by world-famous writers can be so; people like my late friend, Aharon Appelfeld, a native of Chernivtsi, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev.
They can work, but none of them works only in literature. All of them are employed at some university, or they teach somewhere, or they are invited as visiting professors by overseas universities. So, we always have another profession, even though we live only through our work on translations.
Iryna Slavinska: As someone who translates Ukrainian-language texts from the French, I understand you perfectly. On the one hand, it’s kind of a hobby, and on the other, it’s an important part of your inner life, am I right?
Victor Radutzky: With a few exceptions, the lives of translators are difficult. My late friend, the most famous Israeli writer Amos Oz, once told me that his English translator, with whom he was very well acquainted, Nicholas de Lange, said that he would translate one book into English. It is published in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Britain, and he can live well for a year. But he is a professor of literature. He says that if it were the same thing with Russian or Ukrainian, then translators’ lives would be better. But I think that, in the final analysis, this is not the main thing. It’s essential, but not the main thing.
The main thing is the work. I will give you a small example. Right now, we are preparing to have a discussion about the work of our 1966 national Nobel Prize winner in Literature Shmuel Yosef Agnon. He is from Buchach and wrote well about this. In preparation, I translated short fragments from the Hebrew. And I think: May God send someone who would like to read all this, not just this small fragment that will be published somewhere, but everything. So that the book will be published. And it is wonderful. In the Heart of Walls. These titles of Agnon come from the Holy Writ of the prophet Jonah, who, as you may guess, was inside this core when he was in the belly of the whale. This book, like all his work is in the form of a parable. How I would love to translate this! But right now, I can’t do it because I have a very interesting project: a project commissioned in Kyiv to translate five plays by our famous dramatist Hanoch Levin.
Iryna Slavinska: They will be staged in theaters?
Victor Radutzky: No. The project is complex, as they say. First of all, they asked me to translate this into Russian because there are still quite a few different theaters in Ukraine that work in the Russian language. Second, to do this in Ukrainian. In other words, the book will be bilingual. But these play projects will be presented on the stage, too. There are interested people who are waiting for me to translate these plays. All five are ready. The only thing left to do is to find the money to publish the bilingual book.
I would like it to be trilingual, so that people will see the Hebrew, the Ukrainian, and the Russian; so that they will see how this translator works. Because there was a project to translate Hebrew poetry into the Ukrainian language, which I supported. And I made arrangements with the poets. But the publishers did not respect all the points of the agreements, meaning, that there would also be a Hebrew text. But this means expense and problems. And I think that there is no sense in this if you can’t read the original.
As part of this project, and I’m very happy to say this, I took on the reverse: to translate some Ukrainian poets into Hebrew. And one of the poets that I chose was Vasyl Stus.
Iryna Slavinska: I think that translating such poetry into Hebrew would be very complicated.
Victor Radutzky: That’s putting it mildly. But this is the most fascinating work that I have done in recent years. All literary translations are generally complicated. If the translation is simple, then the text is not worthy. As for the translation of Stus, I sent what I had translated to our renowned poet Ronny Someck, so that he would say what he sees in it. He returned the text and wrote to me saying that I should contact this literary periodical and tell them that he was asking them to publish it.
And they compiled a selection entitled Translations of World Poetry. The pages were practically A3 size. I wrote a short introduction because people don’t know about Stus, and I sent a photograph. And they published all this. I will present this at the discussion. Vasyl Stus was published in Hebrew among the most prominent poets in the world. If someone publishes a bilingual collection, I am in favor of having the original and the translation appear side by side. Stus’s language is wonderful. A remarkable poet! I even think that for capturing all these associations and images, he is difficult to read in Ukrainian.
Iryna Slavinska: A translation is not a conversion of words from one language into another. Often you end up in a situation where it is necessary to translate the entire culture, with all the coded things that might be in it. And speaking about the work on Vasyl Stus’s texts, where the issue is about translating him into Hebrew, or on translations of Amos Oz into Ukrainian with the need to translate all this culture as well, how do you work with this?
Victor Radutzky: You must understand that every translation into a different language is the problem of translating the culture. For example, I became acquainted with a female translator of Oz’s who is translating this in China. I ask her: What is it to the Chinese how we were building and defending the state in 1947 and when seven Arab states began advancing against us in order to crush us? What do they understand about this? And she says a wonderful thing: feelings. If you can translate feelings, then you have translated the text. For me, translating a culture is translating feelings. When I was reading Stus and saw his sufferings, how he is not repenting… he knows that he is doing everything correctly. He had only one thing: that his son did not understand him at first. This was his great pain. With a photograph of my son in front of me, I translated feelings. And in this case, Hebrew has great advantages over other languages.
Iryna Slavinska: What are they?
Victor Radutzky: Because our entire literature is constructed on feelings. If you open up the “Song of Songs,” Ecclesiastes, the “Proverbs of Solomon,” the prophets Amos and Isaiah, all this is feelings, not just events. And feelings can be translated. This is the most fundamental basis, ensuring that a translation can be completed.
I know some things that cannot be translated, say, the Russian writer [Andrei] Platonov. He is almost impossible to translate into any language. You can translate feelings. But a translation that does a good job of conveying both feelings and language, that is the most successful translation. But this happens rarely. For example, all of Russian poetry has been translated into Hebrew: [Fyodor] Tiutchev, Pushkin,[Nikolai] Nekrasov. Everything you may want. There is an anthology of Russian poetry that has been translated into Hebrew. Alexander Sergeevich [Pushkin] is not world-famous because no one can translate him. He has great renown in Hebrew because of a successful translation. And I thought that this was the acme of translation. But, no!
Now young translators with a young language and youthful feelings have appeared. And they did two translations of Eugene Onegin into Hebrew. I have never seen such beauty! That is poetry. And that’s why I think that if you were able to translate feelings, then you have created a translation. But if you are fluent in the language as well and you convey in a beautiful language, this is a translation.
Iryna Slavinska: I would like to raise another very interesting topic: the return to the Ukrainian context of authors who are connected with our country. I made a point of copying down a fragment of the Book Arsenal program, for which you came specially to Kyiv to take part in it. One of the discussions that you took part in was “Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld: The Return of Two Sons to Ukraine.” Why “return”?
Victor Radutzky: It is a return because these people know about Ukraine and its people from their childhood and they never parted with Ukraine. For some time they were famous Israeli writers, but they always held Ukraine in their hearts. This is not fiction. This is what they told me, what is on a tape recording. I am still using a tape recorder. And I call their work on Ukraine in the Hebrew language a “return.”
I will say a couple of words about Amos Oz, my great friend, who died in 2017 [sic: read 2018]. He was born in Israel, but his mother was born in Rivne, and she brought this Rivne to Israel. In his novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, which will be presented at the Lviv forum, Amos describes… there is a lot written about Rivne, Ukraine, and his feelings; about how he senses Gogol. Gogol was one of his favorite writers. When his mother would talk to him about vast forests and fields, and when he read Gogol in Hebrew as an adult, he said that they have a country in common. He carried these feelings with him his entire life.
I helped arrange the Ukrainian writer Maria Matios’s conversation with him. She wrote her questions. I translated them into Hebrew and gave them to him. Later he provided a recording of his answers by Dictaphone. And he says there: “I believe that if the Israelis, the Jewish people, especially those who were born in Ukraine, do not initiate a dialogue with Ukrainians or if the Ukrainians reject a dialogue—something that he never considered possible—then there is no future.” Our future lies in our peoples’ being in dialogue always. This can be a political or cultural dialogue, or one connected with high-tech or trade. If there is none, woe betides both.
“And I,” says Amos Oz, “see my mission in making sure that this dialogue exists. That’s why I wrote what I did about Ukraine. Therefore, I believe that I initiated it. I say that this 300-page novel launched this dialogue.” The whole book is a dialogue with him, but it is autobiographical. He recounts the milieu in which he spent his life.
The work of Agnon, whom I like very much, with whom it was convenient to meet because he is a Jerusalemite, mentions Chernivtsi, which he left because of the occupation, and the ghetto, from where he escaped when he was eight years old. He said that the city hurled him into the unknown. But I did not abandon the city that rejected me. It formed me, always on the inside. As a Kyivite who was born here, I want to tell you that for me there are only two cities in the entire world: Jerusalem, where I live and which I know well, and Kyiv. I left at a time when I had no idea that I would ever return. When I was leaving Jerusalem, I said that I am returning to Kyiv. And these two cities are linked; they are not sister cities; they are not here on earth but somewhere over there.
Those who want to read about Jerusalem in the Ukrainian language should start with Hegumen Danylo, who arrived in Jerusalem in 1098. He was the first hegumen to come there, who spent time there. Danylo’s pilgrimage from a monastery in Chernihiv. And he gave rise to the genre of travel writing describing pilgrimages to holy places. They should look at [Ivan] Hryhorovych-Barsky’s drawings of Jerusalem done in 1725. These things are always with me. They are on my bookshelf. And whenever I host someone from Ukraine, I always pull out these engravings, in order to show them what Jerusalem was like. They should read Nikolai Gogol. He came to Jerusalem and wrote a letter to Zhukovsky, who was a tutor to the tsar’s children. He was always mindful of Gogol’s having an income. And he gave him money for this pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Gogol writes that he prayed at the grave of the Redeemer; the praying lasted the whole night. “And it seemed to me, [Gogol writes] that in the morning I will be a different person. And what a coarse soul I have, it did not change.” I can only imagine what [Leo] Tolstoy or [Fyodor] Dostoevsky would have written. But Gogol wrote what he was feeling. Once again, he translated all of literature with feelings. That is why he is a great writer.
This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.
Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.