This month, Restless Books releases At the End of Sleep, a bilingual Hebrew-English anthology of poet Tal Nitzán’s past decade of work. The recipient of numerous awards, including the Women Writers’ Prize, the Culture Minister’s Prize for Beginning Poets, and the Prime Minister’s Prize for Writers, Nitzán writes from between cultures and into both intimate and global realms.
Acclaimed and award-winning poet Robert Pinsky says, “Tal Nitzán’s poetry thrills me with its double nature, at once passionate and sardonic. It’s a pleasure to read a book of translations that have formal grace in English. It’s the formal grace that enables that dual voice, compassionate and harsh, capable of being topical and inward, heartfelt and ironic.”
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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.