Tal Nitzán is an Israeli award winning poet, novelist and a major translator of Hispanic literature. Recipient of a dozen literary prizes, among them the Women Writers’ Prize, the Culture Minister’s Prizes for Beginning Poets and for Debut Book, the Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan University prizes for poetry, and the Prime Minister’s Prize for writers, Nitzán has published seven poetry collections, two novels, a short stories collection and six children books, and edited three poetry anthologies. Her poems are widely translated and anthologized, and thirteen selections of her poetry were published in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Italian and Latvian. An ardent peace activist, Nitzán has edited the anthology ‘With an Iron pen’, Hebrew protest poetry against the Israeli occupation (subsequently published in English and French). Nitzán has translated to Hebrew circa 80 works of poetry and prose, mainly from Spanish, by authors such as Cervantes, Shakespeare, Neruda, García Lorca, Paz, García Márquez, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, Ian McEwan, Aleksandar Hemon, Angela Carter. For her translations she won the Culture Minister Prize for translators (twice), the Tchernichovsky Award for exemplary translation, and an honorary medal from Chile’s president for her translations of Pablo Neruda. She is a founding editor at ‘The Garage’, the Israeli national library’s online literary magazine.
The truth and I are flat mates.
Since I moved in before her
my room is larger than hers. Since
I sleep late and she wakes early
we share each day only
eight hours, half of them
darkness, half light.
Some mornings she
longs to wake me up,
hesitates at the edge of my room
while I fall dizzy from dream
to dream to dream, and her small
hand, clenched for a knock,
casts on my door
a trembling black bird
of a shadow.
All summer long you didn’t succeed to unravel
the secret of the simple caress
and time was suddenly sucked
like air from a diaphragm.
In a display window a mannequin
is softly donned an autumn shirt.
Night-drops in the grass, the moon
flattened and pale like a plot-canceled fable
the birds’ cries more piercing and desperate
in the aftermath of rain, a piano hesitates a sonata
in a nearby house, and I am thrown back to love,
forcefully, without being asked.
It’s not a green bench in the children’s room
It’s a crocodile
It’s not a crocodile
It’s the future:
here’s the slow shift of his eyes
here’s the dreadful snap of his jaws
But where are the children?
It’s not the children’s room
It’s the childhood’s room
Here’s you standing in it
with your small dress and shut mouth
and your whole crocodile ahead of you.
The white dress has a long row of buttons, from the open neck to the rim almost touching the floor. And my time is scarce. I button quickly, sometimes the anxious fingers push a button into the wrong hole and after three or four buttons the worried eyes notice it and I unbutton it and start again. In the back I hear the bride who is before me amusing the guests in the microphone, to the sound of laughter and applause. I didn’t know this too was required, and my head is hollow of words in the buttoning race. They are already handing me the microphone, warm from her touch, and I haven’t finished yet. I look imploringly at the groom (judging by the age, the tie, the posture, it’s him) that looks back at me with empty eyes. I realize that in this wedding I’m alone. I tighten the dress’ aperture with one hand, bring the microphone to my lips and take a deep breath.
a dream, 9.7.2011
In a river as wide and deep as a sea there sailed a ship, and high waves broke upon its sides and shook it and sprayed water on the deck. Two men stood by the railing, the lean old master, in white linen clothes, and the young, pure, wise disciple, his favorite.
Said the master, if I told you that within a minute you would jump into the turbulent water of your free will, you wouldn’t believe me, would you?
Of course not, smiled the lad.
I can’t swim, said the master in a tone suddenly cold and jumped into the water.
And the lad jumped after him so fast an onlooker would have thought they jumped as one.
a dream, 1.6.2009
It snowed again
Like fine ash from a fire
that spread in the sky while we slept.
Fluffy and clean on the roofs underneath my window,
mucky already from footprints on sidewalks.
In a world whose colors vanished
I see the black-fingered loneliness.
Small distant feet,
a twitch tires and freezes –
again she writes me as I watch the snow
and her hand trembles, not from the cold
and not from the lie.
POETRY DOESN’T HAVE TO WIN: AN INTERVIEW WITH TAL NITZÁN
After touring Europe and arriving back at her Tel Aviv home, Nitzán took the time to answer some questions from Restless publisher and fellow Spanish translator Ilan Stavans. Here she talks about her favorite poems, literary influence, and the intersection of poetry and politics.
Ilan Stavans: Parents are not supposed to have favorite children. Do you have favorite poems of yours?
Tal Nitzán: Several are more essential and may form some sort of a poetic portrait. “The Third Child,” “The Point of Tenderness,” “In the Narrow Boat,” and “Thus” [all of which appear in At the End of Sleep] are a few of them.
What is your relationship with the various languages you know?
I dream and write in Hebrew. I find it an ideal language for poetry.
Spanish is dear because it’s the language of my parents and my childhood. Some things come to mind only in Spanish. The names of the months, for example. When I moved from Israel to Argentina as a child, in the gap between the no-longer useful language and the not-yet learnt one, I became mute. The memory of that experience remains, and has probably been a significant factor in my life.
French and Portuguese are more passive, I read and translate from them. They come alive after a few days in France or in Brazil. And English is English.
How do your poetry and your work as a translator intersect?
It’s a complex relationship. Translation was almost lethal to my poetry, which preceded it. Curiously, as soon as I started translating, I stopped writing altogether. The impact of the Hispanic titans I translated – Paz, Neruda, Vallejo – turned out to be paralyzing to my own writing. They cast a shadow too large. At that early, frail phase it was too easy to silence myself and leave the stage to them. For some years I wrote their work instead of mine. It took a long process to find the way back to my own voice, to realize that it can and should be heard too. But translating has also enriched my writing, given me a wider range; for instance, I don’t know if it would occur to me to write sonnets having not translated Cervantes.
How did you come to translate Hispanic literature?
I read a poem of García Lorca, “La luna asoma” (“The Moon Comes Out”) and just had to translate it. It was an imperative need: the ultimate reading of a perfect poem. Then the same happened with a book by Octavio Paz. I was studying art history at the time, and instead of writing my papers about Mannerism and Egon Schiele I’d translate poetry from Spanish. It was a criminal waste of time, and it was the most urgent thing to do. The translation of Paz has won the annual literature prize of the university. That was the largest sum I earned till then (I spent it right away on a trip to Thailand and Nepal) and I realized that this enjoyable, seemingly pointless activity, could actually be work. Soon afterwards I started translating for publishing houses.
Has Pablo Neruda been an influence in your work?
How many versions of a poem do you usually generate until you consider it ready?
It varies. Many poems walk around with me for weeks or months, developing in my mind. Some are revealed complete, and I just have to write them down. And some have come as dreams – not meaning that the poem describes a dream or is inspired by it, but that I actually dreamed the text, it was written in the dream. This only happened twice.
Does writing anti-war poetry in Israel feel futile?
Yes, if poetry is regarded as an elections slogan or something of the kind.
But poetry doesn’t have a duty or an external goal to achieve. It doesn’t have to win, convince, influence. It doesn’t even have to be loved. Will it be read and understood? Hopefully, but one doesn’t ask these questions while writing. You write what you must, what screams to be written, what wouldn’t let you sleep if you didn’t write it. That being said, a text that defies the false axioms and propaganda planted by those in power and echoed by the media, that plants doubts and resistance and may arouse mental insubordination, can’t be futile.
Is there a connection—any connection—between Israeli and Palestinian poetry?
Unfortunately there are scarce translations of contemporary poetry on both sides, so it’s hard to talk about mutual influences. As other aspects of culture and everyday life, Hebrew and Palestinian poetry exist side by side without really touching. It’s one anomaly among many. These days I’m involved in the editing of a joint anthology of contemporary Palestinian and Israeli poets, to be published in France. I hope that similar projects will follow.
Does poetry matter?
Not to most of humanity. Others would find it hard to live without it. Naturally, I belong to the latter.
Source：International Liaison Department of China Writers Association