7/15/2010

Beyond the Melting Pot: A Review of Haim Sabato's "From the Four Winds"

[This review appears in the June-July issue of Segula and is posted here with their permission.]

For all of the acclaim that Haim Sabato has won during the past decade or so of his literary career, he remains underappreciated. His best-known work, Tiyum Kavanot (translated into English as Adjusting Sights), drew interest for its portrayal of the Yom Kippur War through the eyes of a religious soldier and budding Torah scholar, a perspective that had been overlooked despite the ubiquity of things military in the Israeli cultural milieu.

In his other three works, Sabato portrays cultures that have largely been marginalized in Israel or that have vanished altogether. In this sense, Sabato is creating an Israeli postcolonial literature, recovering the voice of Israel’s Mizrahi subaltern (indeed, the religious soldier of Adjusting Sights can be read this way as well) as he tries to find his way in the modern, westernized State of Israel. By giving voice to Israel’s Jewish “others,” Sabato’s oeuvre decouples Zionism from the colonialist elements of its European proponents, paving the way for a much-needed and refreshing postcolonial Zionism.

A meeting of cultures
In the semi-autobiographical From the Four Winds (Hebrew: Bo’ee Ha-ru’ah), Sabato describes his own naïve and bookish childhood in the Beit Mazmil (today’s Kiryat Hayovel) immigrant neighborhood in Jerusalem, in which Jews from Arab countries and from Hungary lived side by side. The historical circumstances that threw these unlikely groups together were the near simultaneity of two major events on different continents in the Autumn of 1956: the Suez Campaign and the Hungarian Revolution. As a result of the former, Egyptian Jews were declared enemies of their home state, causing tens of thousands of them to flee for safer havens, including Israel. A similar number fled Hungary in the wake of the failed revolt against the Communist regime and subsequent Soviet occupation of the country. Sabato, however, offers no background information. He writes through the eyes of his second-grade self, for whom the global forces that threw these two immigrant groups together would have held little interest, certainly much less interest than the situations created by their daily interactions.

His encounter with Hungarian Jews in the late 1950s allows Sabato to take on another 800-pound gorilla of (Ashkenazic/ European) Israeli culture: the Holocaust. The most poignant and touching scene in this regard takes place toward the end of Chapter 9 (pp. 74-75). Haim (for the sake of convenience, I will refer to the character as “Haim” and the author as “Sabato”) recites a Holocaust elegy of his own composition, based on stories he had heard from his teacher. His audience is Mr. Farkash, a Holocaust survivor; the normally garrulous Farkash responds with silence.

One gets the sense that Sabato is communicating the predicament of a Mizrahi youth growing up in Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust. On one hand, it would have been impossible to grow up in the early years of the state without the Holocaust impressing upon one's understanding in significant ways, especially for a sensitive and imaginative child like Haim. At the same time, the experiences of a Holocaust survivor were not his or even of those closest to him. As a result, his “memory” of the Holocaust would ring hollow to those who experienced it directly. By juxtaposing Haim’s elegy with Farkash’s silence, Sabato manages to recover the voice of a community whose indirect but significant and unique experience of the Holocaust has been all but ignored (though, to be sure, Prof. Hanna Yablonka has written extensively on Sephardim and the Holocaust); although Egyptian Jews did not endure the Holocaust, those who grew up in Israel did experience it through the very fabric of their cultural milieu, and the prior generation experienced the dread of Rommel’s advance toward Cairo and beyond toward Eretz Israel. Sabato describes those anxious times:

Father remembered that Hakham Anteby had gathered a whole group of children, ninety-one in total, into the Ahavah ve-Ahvah synagogue in Cairo, to recite the ninety-first Psalm… as a means of warding off the enemy. They did so in a dreadful din, with great fervor, chanting beautifully while concentrating their minds on the German soldiers… during Rommel’s advance the kabbalists of Jerusalem had gathered in fast and prayer to ward off the decree. (pp. 18-19)

Transcending Bitterness
After describing the multiethnic matrix of Beit Mazmil in the early chapters, Sabato focuses on the development of Haim’s relationship with Moshe Farkash, the Hungarian Holocaust survivor who is about 30 years Haim's senior as it progresses from a point where Farkash takes a very young Haim under his wing, through a phase in which Haim becomes Farkash's Talmud teacher, to the point where Farkash, at the end of his life, charges Haim to carry out three tasks that Farkash himself had been unable to fulfill.

The first part of the book is rife with references to Farkash's past that become clarified as the narrative progresses; in fact, Haim's refrain throughout the early part of the story is “everything must become clear on its own.” These references are sometimes explicit but often allusive. The reader learns why Farkash feels so strongly that childhood should be filled with happiness; why he insists of “wearing a mask” on all days but two; why he suggests a particular chapter of a particular talmudic tractate to study with Haim; how he became such a proficient baker; why he undertakes to ensure that every child in the neighborhood enjoys a bar mitzva celebration.

From the Four Winds tells the story of the lives of two people: Haim and Farkash. The narrative arc follows the chronology of Haim’s life, beginning when he is a child and ending as he approaches middle-age. Farkash’s story, on the other hand, is presented in the order that Haim, the first-person narrator of the story, hears it. The reader thus pieces together Farkash’s past along with Haim and shares Haim’s esteem for a man whose twinkling eyes belie his tormented past and true heroism.

On the surface, Farkash's struggle is against circumstance – the events that brought about the early death of his father, a veteran of World War I, when Farkash was six years old, the poverty he faced with his widowed mother, the travails of apprenticing under a brutal mentor, and ultimately the horrors of the Holocaust – in order to make a new life and raise a family in Israel. On another level, Farkash's struggle is internal, against the impulse toward blaming circumstance, bearing grudges, or surrendering to the blackness that succeeded in pervading the lives of so many others – be they Holocaust survivors or refugees from whichever suddenly inhospitable land. Farkash (the character) mirrors Sabato (the author) in that his contrived naïveté is not an attempt to recast past horrors in pastel colors. It is an argument that sometimes one must “pretend not to hear” (a trope that recurs in the book) in order to keep the demons at bay, that once certain forces come into existence, like the typhus outbreak along the Central and Allied trenches along the Eastern front that claimed so many of Farkash’s father’s comrades and enemies alike, the destruction they create is indiscriminate and uncontainable. Farkash is a hero not because he survived his terrible suffering, and not even because he managed to create a new life, but because he succeed in keeping the blackness of his past from causing paralysis or breeding anger.

Suffering in Translation
No review of a work by Sabato is complete without a treatment of his language (and the translation of his language). Often described as Agnonesque, Sabato's frequent intertextual allusions and use of Lishna De-Rabanan, the rabbinic Hebrew that remained the lingua franca of rabbinic literature throughout the centuries in which Hebrew was not spoken, lends Sabato's work a beauty that is hard to duplicate and that allows for a wealth of meaning to be packed into relatively terse descriptions. Sabato will often signify his intertextual allusions in the Hebrew original though the use of diacritical marks (nekudot), but occasionally will not, especially if the particular reference has entered standard Israeli parlance. The book – in Hebrew and especially in English – would have benefited from an unobtrusive style of end notes (e.g., ordered serially but sub verbo, leaving out encumbering superscript numerals) in which the frequent allusions are explained and their sources cited. Hebrew readers are hard-pressed to catch all of Sabato’s allusions; without any type of citation, it is even more difficult in translation.

In order to adequately render Sabato’s loaded formulations the translator should have deployed a variety of strategies and should not have been concerned about providing too much explanation – in a work that is only 160 pages long, using an entire sentence to describe a single term or concept is fine. I will provide an example or two of each of the more serious types of translation blunders, and the astute reader will no doubt encounter others.

Va-yiten Lekha” is the name of a prayer according to the Ashkenazic rite; a bit of explanation of this prayer and when it is recited would enrich the English rendering. Simply translating the title of the prayer, the strategy chosen by Dweck, is not very helpful, and simply transliterating the title only helps those who are familiar with Ashkenazic custom. There is also the matter that the title of the prayer derives from Genesis 27:28. A good translation strategy would have transliterated the title but also provided enough peripheral data for the curious reader to recover more meaning.

The English reader would only be confused when reading the italicized sentence “Might made right” in the middle of a description of a large group of children trying to enter into a single door. The corresponding Hebrew saying is the talmudic “Kol de-alim gevar,” which literally means “who is violent will prevail.” A translator has several options when rendering such a dictum: he may choose to ignore it and simply render the passage idiomatically; he may choose to render the statement from a foreign body of literature and provide enough context for the reader to appreciate the intertextual playfulness of the original version, even if only in some rudimentary way. Yaacob Dweck chose a third option – to render the statement in a way that is superfluous at best and frustrating at worst. The reader encounters a sentence that contributes little to the understanding of the overall passage and that includes a signifier – namely, the use of italics – that promises but does not deliver some sort of larger meaning.

In some cases Dweck simply misses the reference, such as when Farkash refers to the Holocaust era, based on Psalms 90:15, as “shenot ra'inu ra'ah”, which Dweck renders as “the years that saw wickedness” with no indication that it is, in fact, a reference to an external work. It comes off as merely an awkward reference to the Holocaust.

Dweck does not seem to have any consistent strategy for when he translates and when he transliterates foreign words (due to its multi-ethnic setting, this particular novel includes words from eight different languages: Hebrew, Hungarian, Romanian, Yiddish, Arabic, French, English, and Aramaic). It should be noted that Sabato effectively deploys these foreign words in a manner that contributes to the tone of the scene. Dweck, however, does not always follow Sabato's lead and sometimes fails even when trying. For example, Sabato’s Yiddish “vecker,” charged with waking up the boys in the yeshiva, is rendered by Dweck as “the alarm-clock.”

Sabato words for kite and spinning top are the Arabic “tayara” and “forera,” respectively. Both of these words have penetrated Israeli usage to a greater or lesser degree. Dweck chose to keep the Arabic terms, a defensible decision, but then does not provide the contextual clues that would allow the English reader to immediately decipher their meaning. Furthermore, he mistransliterates tayara as “tiara.” Finally, Dweck renders the plural of forera as forerot – applying a Hebrew grammatical form to an Arabic word – and the plural of tiara as tiaras.

Dweck’s nomenclature cannot be described as other than careless. He often transliterates names and terms from Hebrew into English without realizing that the Hebrew itself is a transliteration from a language with Latin characters. Thus, Janusz Korczak becomes Yanush Korzak. Similarly, there is no consistency regarding when a Hebrew name is phonetically rendered (e.g., Binyamin) and when it is Anglicized (e.g., Moses), even when context would indicate a preference (Dweck has “Yosi is short for Joseph”). Some of Dweck’s renderings ignore conventional spellings or pronunciations: anyone who has flown into or out of Israel knows that the airport is in Lod, not Lud.

Finally, there are instances in which Dweck’s simply misunderstood Sabato or was unfamiliar with the relevant idiom: although “dag malu’ah” literally means “salted fish,” it refers to herring. Hayyim ibn Attar’s father’s name was Moshe; “Hayyim the son of Attar” is simply a mistranslation. In the final scene of the book, the reader meets Farkash's grandson and namesake. The boy's full name is Moshe Aviad Farkash. The name 'Aviad', based on Isaiah 9:5, means “my eternal father,” a fitting memorial name. Dweck, however, renders this final line in the book as “a witness to my father,” misunderstanding 'ad' as 'eid'.

Rising to the Poetic Challenge
To his credit, Dweck does an admirable job rendering the various poems – liturgical and otherwise – that frequently appear in the book. To the extent possible, his translations of the poems keep the scheme of the original – rhyming when the original rhymes and forming an acrostic when the original does so. One of the most dramatic scenes in the book, recalling the opening scene of Adjusting Sights, is set during the afternoon of Yom Kippur, when some Sephardic congregations pass the time between the morning and afternoon services by reciting a liturgical composition describing the Binding of Isaac. Sabato describes how in 1973, the first military call-ups took place at precisely that hour. The poem's vivid description of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father is punctuated by the names of the boys from Beit Mazmil who fought in the Yom Kippur War, and which of them never returned. Dweck succeeds in capturing the tension and drama created by the juxtaposition of frantic military activity with the chanting of a heart-rending composition. Sabato is at his best in scenes such as this, and this is reflected in the English as well:

                        “See how my mother’s joy is gone,”
                        Said the son she bore at ninety years of age.
                        “Consumed by the flame and consigned by the knife,
                        Now I shall beg her forgiveness,
                        It pains me that Mother shall cry and sigh.”
                        The binder and the bound by the cord, upon the altar of the Lord

The poem gripped the heart. It was as if it had been written by the matriarch Sarah herself… the sirens continued their menacing wail. Captain Nissim Israel, whose mother, Mrs. Israel, had emigrated with us from Egypt, and who used to spread a thick helping of jam on the pieces of bread the children of immigrants received in the Tikvateinu community center – folded his tallit and parted from his father in a whisper… He was the commander of an artillery battalion…

The recitation of the poem continued in the circular cavity of the synagogue. (pp. 115-116)

The translator faces the daunting task of reproducing great literature in another language. This task, more art than skill, has been described as follows by Spanish-English translator Edith Grossman (whose renditions include a 2003 edition of Don Quixote) in her work Why Translation Matters:

...what we do is not an act of magic, like altering base metals into precious stones, but the result of a series of creative decisions and imaginative acts of criticism. In the process of translating, we endeavor to hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient, cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate. This is a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be.

In the final analysis, the present translation is not terrible. It is very readable and faithful to the original, and the reader of From the Four Winds will not be disappointed. However, Sabato produces Hebrew literature of the first rank, and Bo’ee Ha-ru’ah is no exception. Unfortunately for English-speaking audiences, Dweck is deaf to the vast array of tonalities to which the translator must be attentive, and which mark the difference between a good book and great literature.
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