Translating Eli Eliahu’s Difficult Efficiency

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“When you read an article or news brief, once you have read the words, they fall away and die, like carcasses on the roadside,” he has said. “But in poetry, the fourth line stands connected to the first, and all the words likewise stand connected to each other.”

“I like simple writing, straightforward and uncomplicated, and I try to write like that,” Eli Eliahu said, upon receiving Israel’s Matanel Prize in 2013. His work is characterized by this lack of pretension, and it lingers as much on the unsaid as it does on what is spoken aloud. In his poems, not is as present as what is; part of the challenge of translating his work is to catch the rhythm of the no, as it recurs in his poems, and convey it as seamlessly and easily as he is able to do in Modern Hebrew.

Eliahu grew up in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, but his roots are further east than Israel’s central coast, the narrow strip of land where he was born, went to university, and still resides. Eliahu is from an Iraqi Jewish family—his father was born in Baghdad—and the Mizrahi experience in Israel informs many of his poems. “Mizrahi” is a broad but important term in Israeli culture; literally translated as “Eastern,” it refers to Jews who immigrated to Israel mostly from Arab lands (and many Mizrahi families previously spoke Arabic as their primary language) but also includes Jews from Iran, India, Turkey, Central Asia, and other places. Israeli culture has traditionally been dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, and a sense of second-class status became fundamental to Mizrahi identity. Eliahu told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “When you are a member of an Mizrahi family and you look at the peak of Hebrew poetry and see only people from Europe—who belong to another culture, who speak a little differently, who came from a different home from you—you feel a bit like you do at the cinema, seeing only blond people with blue eyes.”

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