Rachel and Mt. Nevo–A Translation

Haim Watzman

    <em>Mt. Nevo, photo by Argenberg</em>
Mt. Nevo, photo by Argenberg
I’m reading Rachel’s collected poems straight through for the first time. And being a translator (but not, I should emphasize, a poet), I can’t resist the temptation to try my hand at an English version of one. This is an ongoing project that I’ll be updating as I polish and improve it.

I told Rachel’s story in my book A Crack in the Earth. I noted there how Mt. Nevo was a central image in Rachel’s lyrics—and a central image for her readers as well. Nevo is the mountain from which Moses looked out over the Land of Israel, which he would never enter. In Rachel’s poetry, it’s the place from which the speaker looks out on an alternative life, the life longed or hoped for. The poetess stands in the wilderness and looks to the Promised Land.

As in other of her verses, this untitled poem, dated 1927, has the poet defiantly, but perhaps not so persuasively, affirming that Nevo is a worthy place to be. At the very least, it is a place where poems can be written—as the Promised Land, perhaps, is not.

אֵינִי קוֹבְלָה! בְחֶדֶר צַר
תִמְתַק כָל כָך עֶרְגַת מֶרְחָב,
לִימֵי תוגָה, לַסְתָו הַקַר
יֵש אַרְגָמָן וְיֵש זָהָב.

אֵינִי קוֹבְלָה! נוֹבֵע שִיר
מִפֶצַע-לֵב בְאָהֳבוֹ,
מֵרֹאשׁ פִסְגָה, מֵהַר נְבוֹ.

I don’t complain! In a narrow room
The need for space becomes so sweet;
On melancholy days, in autumn’s chill
There’s scarlet and gold to see.

I don’t complain! A poem wells up
From a wounded heart, a heart in love,
And desert’s sand is like a greening field
From atop the peak, from Mt. Nevo.

15 thoughts on “Rachel and Mt. Nevo–A Translation”

  1. I’m not a poet either, but as a musician I’d fully affirm her sentiment. Looking towards, striving for perfection is a worthwhile endeavour for any artist, having arrived (more often than not, fooling oneself into thinking so) is the end of art. Or, as David Byrne put it, Heaven is the place where nothing ever happens.
    Her imagery also reminds me of Andre Gide’s dictum that art lives of confinement and dies of freedom.

  2. I first heard of Rachel after a trip that took me to mount Nebo. In fact, an Israeli travel friend wrote me her poem “Meneged” – which I’m having all the trouble in the world finding a translation for.

    So if you’re keen on trying your hand at another translation, perhaps you can take on that one!

  3. Aaron–poetic license! I think (at this point, anyway) that “winter” sounds better than “autumn.” It allows me to preserve a sense of the string of identical vowels that I hear in that section of the Hebrew line.

    Mo-ha-med–“MiNeged” is a tough one. But I’ll give it a try. It’ll take some time, though.

  4. Perhaps you should look on Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines instead. It is taller than Mt Nebo, but you have an equal claim to it

  5. To HW: Well I’m sure not going to start agreeing with you now! You’re right on the vowels, but wrong on the botany: you’ve moved “scarlet and gold” from fall to winter!

    More importantly, autumn is a less “pure” or “perfect” season than winter, and Rachel is your prophetess of the less-than-perfect. Autumn is an “intermediate” season in the transition from summer to winter (“scarlet and gold” illustrating this transition) like Mt. Nevo is an intermediate stage of transit on the journey to the Land. The autumn setting is integral to the poem.

  6. Aaron –Interesting point on the intermediate nature of autumn. I’m not sure about the scarlet and gold. There’s not much of that in an Israeli autumn. Of course, she could have been thinking about Mother Russia. I will ponder this.

  7. There’s not much crimson (“scarlet” is שני) and gold in an Israeli autumn but there is some. I’ve never been to Mt. Nevo so I don’t know what the landscape looks like, but on second thought the “crimson and gold” might refer not to leaves but to the “desert sand”. In that case it would not be connected to autumn, so my claim that the autumn setting is integral to the poem would be wrong.

    My preference would still be for the literal translation, “autumn”, though. Autumn is still an imperfect stage between summer and winter, so it’s related to the imperfection of Mt. Nevo even if the poem itself doesn’t develop that connection.

    Also, just on general grounds, while we have some idea of the importance of the repeated vowels, we don’t know what meanings of this particular use of “autumn” we might be missing.

  8. Aaron & Haim- though I think Autumn works better for scarlet and gold ( being the color of leaves here in New England) it also could mean the setting sun- spectacular at this time of year. I don’t agree that Autumn is imperfect, not anymore than winter.

  9. Suzanne, by “imperfect” I meant incomplete, not self-contained. Summer and winter are more “perfect” than spring and fall. (Don’t take any of this too seriously.)

  10. To translate ערגה as the “the need (for space)” is wrong. It’s more desire, a yearning. Maybe that’s how you ended up writing “Nevo is a worthy place to be. At the very least, it is a place where poems can be written—as the Promised Land, perhaps, is not.”

    And to translate מִפֶצַע-לֵב בְאָהֳבוֹ, as “From a wounded heart, a heart in love” is I suggest off. I think “from a heart wound in its love” but in any case, the heart is not wounded but rather the writer-figure’s song/poem שִיר which is matched in the masculine to באהבו, whereas the poetess identifies herself as feminine: אֵינִי קוֹבְלָה

  11. Yisrael, thanks for the thoughts. Obviously you are more precise in your translation of ערגה, but the words you suggest don’t work for musical reasons. I think you’re wrong about the wound–it’s the speaker’s heart (m), not the speaker herself (f). As for Nevo being the poet’s place, certainly Rachel’s literary life bears out my statement. After all, as I wrote above, she wrote her poems at Nevo (Tel Aviv) and not in the Promised Land (Kinneret).

  12. Translating is an art, not only a science, or maybe not a science. I think it’s important to come out with something that captures the feeling, the spirit and is also beautiful. Not easy. I often try to read more than one translation of something I like, particularly poetry. But in this case the gift seems to be that without Haim getting on with this project we will not have anything. Maybe this will inspire more translations. But I am asking here for more of Rachel’s poems translated. Thanks.

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