Amichai, or Lost in Translation
Excerpt from Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath
Heads turned when Ted and Assia entered the Festival Hall on the opening night of the Festival. She was strikingly beautiful, resplendent in shimmering white satin, her skin glowing pale gold against the gown. Ted towered next to her, seeming immense against her delicacy, wearing his signature corduroy jacket, his hair unruly, looking every inch the romantic poet.
In keeping with the cosmopolitan theme of this star-studded occasion, Assia’s Semitic beauty was the perfect foil to English gentility. There were suppressed oohs and ahs, especially from some of the younger women. Assia moved with a haughty grace, ignoring stares, some of admiration, others mocking. Amongst the luminaries, Ted Hughes and Assia Gutmann reigned as the royal couple. To Assia, this night was a fulfilment of all her fantasies, enhanced by the bridal theme of her gown.
The visiting speakers included Pablo Neruda from Chile, Miroslav Holub from Czechoslovakia, and Allen Ginsberg from New York. For Ted and Assia the most important guest was Yehuda Amichai, from Israel. A leonine presence, Yehuda arrived escorting his young wife, Hannah. Assia had heard that he and Hannah had had a clandestine affair, and that Yehuda had left his wife for her. The knowledge gave her hope that she, too, would one day walk at Ted’s side as his true wife.
Ted had discovered Yehuda’s work when researching for his book of translations. Immediately the two became friends; Ted was full of admiration for the poet’s honesty and courage. Like Assia, Amichai had fled the Nazis in Germany, but unlike her, had made Israel his permanent home.
‘My wife grew up in Israel,’ Ted told Yehuda, by way of recommending Assia as the translator of Amichai’s poems. Assia knew Ted was trying to ingratiate himself with the great poet, who’d become like a touchstone of genius for him. Still, a small thrill of pleasure went through her, hearing Ted say the words ‘my wife.’ And to think he trusted her, Assia, with the translations.
‘We’ll work on Yehuda’s poems together,’ Ted said later, although he knew not a word of Hebrew. ‘You’ll do the technical part, finding the roughly equivalent words, while I’ll fashion the language into poetry.’
Assia was affronted; wasn’t she attuned enough to the nuances of the ancient language, to turn Amichai’s words into the same powerful images in English? Ted didn’t seem to realise that translating was an art in itself, not just a technical exercise. Finding English words to replace Yehuda’s powerful images, the nuance of his Hebrew metaphors, was complex and challenging. She knew she’d tuned into the music of his language, and that her translations matched meaning and sound as closely as possible. Give me some credit, she thought, but didn’t say.