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Baudelaire's Translations into Hebrew

עודכן: 14 במרץ 2023

Published: Trans. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften, 2006, Vol.16, p.9

Translated from Hebrew by Prof. Nitsa Ben-Ari - Hebrew original essay על רקבובית פרחי הרוע

In his exemplary book Validity in Interpretation,(1) Eric Donald Hirsch Jr. argues that the critic should attempt identifying the intrinsic genre of the works he analyses, in order to locate the specific work of art and place it in its exact poetic context. Here, he elaborates on his early claim for "objective interpretation", suggesting that careful attention to genre, authorship, date of composition, external context, sources of influence etc., can greatly assist and increase the probability for the reader and critic to attain a solid interpretation.

Hirsch recommends that the critic should obtain a thorough knowledge of the conventions of each poetic genre of a generation, and compare them to the idiosyncratic aspects of the specific author. Needless to say, this is not an easy task, not even in English literature which is "only" a thousand years old. In the case of Hebrew literature, dating from antiquity to our days, it is an endless task, despite the fact that Modern Hebrew Literature is only 200 years old. Most prominent authors usually create a personal synthesis of modified conventions and specific characteristics. This personal synthesis makes the influencing text an integral part of a new, original work which (in its turn) influences other texts. When Abraham Shlonsky, one of the major Hebrew poets and translators was accused of being heavily influenced by Pushkin, he said that influence is like rain falling on an open field. Much depends on what is there in the field in the first place, before the rains began. Only cobblestones are not influenced (and eventually yield no crops).(2)

It must be noted that not every inter-textual relationship can be classified as "influence". Sometimes, the author looks upon a great masterpiece as a thesaurus for ready-made idioms or collocations. The bible or the prayer-book for the Hebrew writer cannot be looked upon as a source of influence at the turn of the 19 th century, just as our morning paper cannot be classified as one. A source of influence is a text which surprises the writer and pours into his writing new, unexpected, catalyzing elements that were initially ingrained in the author’s mind, but needed something that would materialize and accelerate the change.

In his famous book The Anxiety of Influence,(3) Harold Bloom claims that the influenced author undergoes a process of misreading. The young and inexperienced author tends to ignore the elements that do not comply with his viewpoint and individual poetics, striving to free himself from the overwhelming influence of his forefathers. Bloom’s theory is intrinsically psychoanalytical and Freudian in nature. According to Freud, the son perceives the father as a dangerous rival, thus trying to commit a literal or metaphorical patricide. By translating this universal complex into a literary theory, Bloom revolutionized the study of poetic influence which is now perceived as an Oedipal struggle. The young poet, through an act of misreading and misprision, represses the crippling influence of a powerful "ancestor".

In the case of the history of Modern Hebrew Literature, namely, the secular literature which emerged in Europe after the French Revolution, sources of influence are not easy to trace. Indeed, most of the prominent forefathers of Modern Hebrew Literature resided in small, provincial areas in East Europe, but usually they were multi-lingual and were familiar with the highlights of contemporary West European culture. Most of them were influenced to a great extent by German literature, due to the kinship of German and Yiddish. Some knew French and English, even Polish, Spanish and Italian. In the 19 th century, it was customary to translate a literary work into Hebrew (which was at that stage a literary language, and not a spoken one) with the aid of a wide range of translations. Bialik, for instance, translated Don Quixote into Hebrew with the mediation of German and Russian translations.(4) Once the translation was complete, it was not uncommon to ignore the origin and even to discard it altogether. The actual effort invested in rendering a piece of art into Modern Hebrew (which was then a wakening language, emanating from Old Hebrew which had been used for generations for religious purposes only) that the translator felt free to look upon the result as his own creation.

The poetry and critique of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), especially his collection of poems Fleurs du Mal, 5 was undoubtedly one of the major sources of influence on modern Hebrew poetry in the last 120 years. In fact, Baudelaire influenced Hebrew poets for almost two generations before the emergence of Hebrew Modernism in the 1920’s. The author and critic David Frishman was the first Hebrew poet to introduce Baudelaire to the Hebrew reading public. He did so in prosaic paraphrases of the French texts which he became acquainted with presumably through German translations of Baudelaire.(5) He belonged to the literary circle of Warsaw which was much more cosmopolitan and keen to absorb poetic innovations than the Hebrew literary circle of Odessa, which was much more conservative. Chaim Nachman Bialik, the Hebrew poet laureate, belonged to the circle of Odessa in which the national poetry flourished at the turn of the 19 th century. He absorbed the dicta of the manifestoes of his group, claiming that even love poems are useless at this crucial hour of the national struggle, but, at the same time, he was influenced by Frishman’s translations of Baudelaire, and wrote several Baudelairean poems which influenced his many admirers. One of these poems is an almost literal translation of Baudelaire’s "Une Charogne",(6) but Bialik imbued his poem with many-sided national overtones, rendering a European hedonistic poem of carpe diem into a manifold national allegory. This Janus-faced technique allowed Bialik to address two alternative reading publics at the same time: the conservative and the revolutionary. Each read a different text, and could identify with its values.

The first to practice Baudelaire’s modernistic poetics (combined with many paradoxes, unnatural landscapes and immoral ideas) were Abraham Shlonsky and his followers, among them Nathan Alterman who translated some of Baudelaire’s poems. Another member of this poetic school was Lea Goldberg who was also a gifted translator of Russian Symbolist poetry and an important critic who studied the poetics of the symbolists. Baudelaire’s influence, however, is still evident in contemporary Hebrew poetry (the modern translator and poet Dori Manor and his group are devout followers of the French decadent poet who expounded unconventional ideas and literary norms some 150 years ago). Most of these poets are devout translators of Baudelaire. Shlonsky and Alterman, as opposed to their contemporary Eliyahu Meitus who translated the entire corpus of Fleurs du mal,(7) translated only a few choice poems, but recently – after 50 years of unrhymed and non-metrical Hebrew poetry, some young poets, most of them disciples of Dori Manor (who is himself a gifted translator of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal) started writing using neo-Baudelairean style-markers, including pseudo-Baudelairean versi­fication.(8) Each of these generations reflects Baudelaire differently, thus proving the validity of Bloom’s theory of misreading, or misprision, in his exemplary book The Anxiety of Influence.(9)

It is impossible to describe in a short paper the scope and nature of Baudelaire translations into Hebrew and their impact on Modern Hebrew poetry. I shall therefore try to give one example which can capture, in a nutshell, this multi-generation literary phenomenon. The biblical figure of Cain appears in Baudelaire’s poems several times. In the most direct and clear-cut way it appears in the poem "Cain and Abel", concluding a small cycle of poems, titled "Revolt", towards the end of "Fleurs du mal". The poetry of the "poètes maudits" (the cursed poets) could look upon Cain as the primordial archetype of the modern bohemian who lived and acted with disregard for conventional rules of behavior. At the beginning of Modern Hebrew Literature (i.e. in the first decades following the French Revolution), Hebrew poets depicted Cain mainly as a cursed criminal who disrupted the cosmic order. In opposition to Cain who bore the cursed mark on his forehead, there were the righteous, those who were blessed by God and bestowed a mark of justice.

However, in the Romantic period (namely in the poetry of Bialik and his many imitators at the turn of the 19 th century), Cain took the form of a tragic Promethean figure who was entangled against his will in a struggle with supreme powers. In the National Poetry of Bialik and his followers, he appears in the image of the Wandering Jew, or the vagabond, with his staff and haversack. Bialik wrote a Baudelairean poem, named "Upon my Return", in which he describes the wandering Jew returning to his home town, confronted with a Baudelairean cat stretched out on the oven and with an old Jew, who remained at home. The old Jew is described as someone who is wandering in his books, thus merging the dynamic figure of the nomad with the static figure of the learned scholar who does not leave his room. Although Cain was grasped as a militant, aggressive figure, as opposed to his innocent brother Abel, Bialik and his contemporaries depicted him as a Jew, combining their nationalistic orientation and their ambivalent poetics.

Hebrew modernism, however, exploited the Baudelairean figure of Cain in a totally different way, imbued with paradoxes and contradictions. They took no interest in the Promethean revolt against the gods, and the national revolt against the oppressors did not cross their minds. They revolted against the satisfied and self-contented bourgeoisie, against the philistines, against the so-called "stuffed swans" who oppose the agonized albatross – symbol of the modern poet, the homeless bohemian.

Baudelaire argued that the artist should not be judged by conventional moral standards. The poet can be corrupt and evil, but should reveal authentic poetic talent. In his poem "Cain and Abel" he presents the descendants of Abel as middle class lowbrows, seeking the immediate pleasures of life and the descendants of Cain as gigantic figures who challenge the rule of God. No wonder that the French symbolists and their followers from East and West worshipped Francois Villon – the medieval poet who lived a promiscuous life.

The biblical figure of Cain was among the favorite personae among the Hebrew modernists (Shlonsky, Alterman, Pen and their colleagues) since it gave them the chance to tackle a paradoxical figure of a static peasant and the dynamic figure of the vagabond; the abominable outcast and the pitiful tragic hero. Moreover, Cain’s descendants erected the first city, and therefore Cain’s name was associated with urban life and with agricultural life, at the same time. Therefore Cain’s figure became the symbolic dual figure of modernism and the opposite of the old Romantic world-picture of innocent harmony.

A quick glance over Shlonsky’s and Alterman’s poetic works would prove how popular the figure of Cain was among the Hebrew Modernists between the two world wars. The figure of Cain appears in countless forms throughout the works of these two prolific poets. They translated Baudelaire into Hebrew (this time from the original French, not from second-hand translations); At the same time, this biblical figure appeared in many forms and transfigurations in their own poetry, becoming an international symbol of wandering, rather than a national symbol as in the former generation.

50 years ago, a young group of Israeli poets – known as "the generation of the statehood", headed by Nathan Zach – waged a war against Abraham Shlonsky, Nathan Alterman and Lea Goldberg. They revolted against the French-Russian rhyme schemes of their "ancestors" and against their hyperbolic style, recommending free verse and understatement. Most Hebrew poets still adhere to the non-rhyming and non-rhythmic poetic style advocated by Zach. Nowadays, however, there is an ever-growing trend among young post-modernist urban poets to return to the polished poetry of Nathan Alterman and Lea Goldberg, influenced by Baudelaire. A group of young and talented poets, headed by Dori Manor, publish Baudelairean, rhymed and rhythmic poems, arousing endless controversies in the literary supplements. Some, among them Nathan Zach, blame them with anachronism; others praise their unexpected "retro" style. This time, the biblical figure of Cain serves an altogether different role. These urban young poets elaborate on their homo-erotic experiences, travel endlessly from Tel-Aviv to Paris and from Paris to Tel-Aviv. This time, Cain is the symbol of "the other" – the outcast who has no roof and no family. As translators, these young poets struggle with the textual difficulties and restraints of the Baudelairean text, and as a result they offer us crystal-clear poetic lines, with virtuoso unprecedented rhymes.

This is one manifestation of a complex phenomenon. I tried to show how an influential poet like Baudelaire could be absorbed by different poetic schools, each time in a different manner, and how his style markers enhance new and unexpected combinations when they challenge poets who are themselves translators. The translation paves the way for the poet to overcome the Oedipal struggle with the admired "ancestor", if to use Harold Bloom’s terminology, to attain individuation, to form himself into a distinct entity and form a new personal synthesis in which the origins of his originality are difficult to detect.

© Ziva Shamir (Tel-Aviv University, Department of Literature)


(1) Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1967 (Chapter 3, "The Concept of Genre", pp. 68-126).

(2) A. B. Yoffe, Shlonsky – Ha’ish U’zmano (Shlonsky – The Man and his Times), Sifriyat Po’alim Publishing House, Merchavia, 1966, p. 138.

(3) Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973; 2d ed., 1997.

(4) See: Assaf Inbari, "Don Quixot shel Bialik" (Don Quixot by Bialik), Ma’ariv November 18 th and 25 th 2005. See also:

(5) Charles Baudelaire, Fleurs du mal, Poulet-Malassis, Paris 1857 (précédés d'une dédicace à Gautier et du poème au lecteur).

(6) Ziva Shamir, And Where Shall Poetry Be Found: Ars Poetica in Bialik’s Works, Papyrus Publishing House, Tel-Aviv 1987, pp. 229-235.

(7) Eliyahu Meitus, Pirchey Ha’roa (Fleurs du mal). Chechik Publishing House, Tel-Aviv 1962.

(8) Dory Manor, Pirchey Ha’ra (Fleurs du mal): Selection, Ha’kibbutz Ha’meuchad, Tel-Aviv 1997.

(9) In this revisionist psychoanalytic literary theory, Bloom relies on Freud’s assumption that the son perceives the father as a dangerous rival. Translating this complex into literary theory, Bloom assumes that a powerful anxiety renders literature the scene of an Oedipal struggle. The young poet attempts at repressing – through creative acts of misreading, or misprision – the crippling influence of his powerful "forefathers".


For quotation purposes:

Ziva Shamir (Tel-Aviv University, Department of Literature): Baudelaire's Translations into Hebrew and Modern Hebrew Poetry. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005.


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