70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel
He dreams in two languages
Itamar Yaoz-Kest, poet, translator
By Sándor Silló - 2018-03-29
Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll
It was rather strange reading a poet in translation and then facing him and talking with him in our mother tongue. I could not have got a grip on the situation, but fortunately, in the anthology of Dávid tornya [David's Tower], I had found the following poem of my would-be interviewee, Itamar Yaoz-Kest:
You were asleep already,
and I listened to the children calmly breathing,
and to the clock marching along its tick-tock,
no other sound but a scuttling
among the heaps of books jammed into the bottom of the cabinet.
As if they were rustling,
as if they were leafing through their pages,
to uncover their pale bodies to me,
through their faded garments, until -
until I reached out, reluctantly,
and turned to face them.
And behold, long forgotten lines occurred to me,
Teeming and clamoring for my return,
written in my long denied mother tongue
pleading for my love,
grasping my hands,
dragging me to the door -
while you were asleep
while the kids were in bed
while I felt the cool touch of the wind.
And my defenselessness terrified me:
What if I were to scream,
I, who does not know what language
My dreams are; night after night.
(translated by Ágnes Nemes Nagy from Hebrew into Hungarian – into English by Bea Sara Goll)
Dreaming in two languages? I can’t imagine that but that is the question.
It was so in the first years. I had come to Israel very young. About 70 years ago, when I was 16 years old, after Bergen-Belsen. For ten or twenty years I always woke up not knowing whether I had dreamt in Hungarian or Hebrew or in what language. Maybe not in English, one would not dream in a third language. Nowadays it has become clear that I normally dream in Hebrew. This does not mean that when I wake up, it cannot happen that there is some Hungarian word on my lips, silent, but in Hungarian. In this case, I remember dreaming in Hungarian, but not always in a Hungarian environment. It also happened to me that in my dream I spoke in Hungarian with my wife, who was born here in Tel-Aviv, and was unable to speak anything in Hungarian apart from a few sentences; or I spoke in Hebrew with my parents; granted, they knew Hebrew a little. This is true, not a poetic fantasy, that I do not know what language I dream in. This is a test of the propagation of the language, the transfer of language from one culture to another. I just wrote a book on this issue: From culture to culture, is the title. It is an essay with excerpts from poems and their analysis. This is a very important question about what's in your subconscious mind. From this point of view, your mother tongue has a really great impact. Yet, when your mother tongue is facing your fathers' tongues, in the Israeli case, in Jewish cases, something else happens. If let’s say I lived in England, which is absurd for me, then this would not be a problem.
This shift, that the mother tongue was replaced by the fathers' tongue, how did it take place? How long has this process been?
Long story. Even in Hungary I started studying in Hebrew before I left in 1951. I finished the sixth grade of high school there. Back then we still had religion class. I had a religion teacher, Erik Steiner, well versed in Hebrew culture. I grew up in an assimilated family, my dad was a doctor, and my grandfather was a judge. For me, it was very strange at that time to find a man with Hebrew language and culture in Hungary, after the camps. I had thought I ought to leave behind everything related to being Jewish. I was 14-15 years old. I was proud of forgetting the Hebrew letters I had learned in the first classes. I tried to move away from Judaism. But this religion teacher knew that I wrote poems, still in Hungarian back then. He once asked: Do you know the similarity between the Madách: The Tragedy of Man and the Book of Job? Are you interested in this? I nodded because I was interested in literature. Then we’ll sit down and I’ll show it to you. He talked about this, and then brought me a book, an anthology of Hebrew poets. This anthology had an enormous impact on me. Do you want to learn a few words in Hebrew? And then a process started. There is no rational explanation. I was captivated by it like by a fire. I was 15 when I came here with Mom and Dad - my sister had already been living here – and by then I spoke in Hebrew. I could go to school. I finished high school here, the seventh and the eighth grades. Of course, this language was different from the one I had learned before - I was in a kibbutz - but the point was what I had brought with me. I came, and like a person who changes himself, getting another identity, so I experienced it at the end of adolescence. But that was not just a couple of years! This process lasts until your very last day. My Hebrew is now much better than my Hungarian. I read both in Hebrew, and in Hungarian, but I speak very rarely in Hungarian. My parents died. I have spoken Hebrew with my sister, no idea for how many years. This process is permanent, I still have it. If I read too much in Hungarian, then I have to read in Hebrew to balance it.
When did you switch languages as a poet?
When I came here I already wrote in Hebrew. Before that, in Hungary I had written a few poems in Hungarian. These were poems during puberty.
Were those the last Hungarian poems?
Last year, in Hungary, a small volume by me was edited by Ági Gergely at János Kőbányai as the publisher, and it says Nyolckezes [by eight hands]. Ági Gergely, András Mezei and Magda Székely translated it with me providing the raw translations. I'm listed in the volume as if I had translated it, but this is not true because I wrote the last Hungarian poem in 1949 in Hungary.
When has your Hebrew become so stable that it could be said it was a poet's language?
From the first minute onwards and also never. We did Bergen-Belsen! But as soon as I got past the shock, the anti-Semitism, something exploded. Then it turned out, not so long, about 30 years ago, that I was a descendant of Jesaja Silberstein, the Wonder Rabbi of Vác, who wrote in Hebrew, just like his whole dynasty. I can only explain my relationship with the Hebrew language in a mystical sense. I was never any good at high school. I had to study Latin, English, and also Russian, and I was very middling, but Hebrew felt like a fire that engulfed me. This is somehow working inside me here even today.
This is perhaps not a proper thing to ask: did your faith appear in parallel with it?
Religion was a special thing. I married a religious woman - I was not that then. My parents were liberal Hungarian intellectuals, and Hanna's parents were very religious people. At first this was a problem, but where there is good will ... We were married for 57 years and it was a good marriage. As long as Hanna lived, it was stronger, but today I'm religious. Although I do not wear the kippah here at home, but I keep the Sabbath and eat in a kosher way.
How did you, after such a start, begin to translate Hungarian poems? I know many Shoa survivors who have moved away from Hungarian culture out of spite. I’d even dare say the word ‘vengeance’ in some cases ...
This is a natural thing. I know this feeling, although I have never experienced it in relation to Hungarian poetry. It ran over and over again through me when translating. And why did I translate? Because I did not want to break away from it. At first, as a teenager I thought I wanted to be a Hungarian poet. But the first encounter with the first teacher changed it all; God knows what it would have been had I not met him... I did not want to give up on Hungarian poetry! I brought it with me and carried it over to Hebrew. This is a very serious task.
How did you choose which poems to a Petőfi or an Attila József volume to translate?
It was intuitive at first. I do not enjoy translating poems that I do not love. Talpra magyar! Hí a haza! [On your feet, Magyar, the homeland calls!] - this is a good poem, like a poster. It had to be translated, at least in the preface of the Petőfi volume. I usually choose subjectively, but there are poems that can’t be neglected because they are included in all anthologies in Hungary. It was so with Attila József, Mihály Babits, Miklós Radnóti, Dezső Kosztolányi, but it is like that also here. I have edited many Hebrew anthologies. It was also important not to miss a poet if he had a certain place in literature, in the public mind, even if I did not like him. There is a technique that one acquires in translation. This was true for contemporary poets as well. Ferenc Juhász, Sándor Csoóri, István Vas, Ágnes Nemes Nagy - I visited almost all Hungarian contemporaries, and had a great relationship with them. I had often asked for advice from Hungarian critics. For example, Lóránd Kabdebó helped me a lot in the compilation of the contemporary anthology called Csodaszarvas [Magic Deer – this character is part of the Hungarian mythology]. I was in good relationship with András Mezei. I often stayed with him when I was traveling to Pest on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The book Dávid tornya [The Tower of David] was being prepared at that time: an anthology of Hebrew poets in Hungarian. This editing took a lot of time. They were dragging it on because they did not want to have it that much. Then, in the end, it was published thanks to Mezei as the publisher.
Do you still translate today?
This was published last year: A szegény kisgyermek panaszai [The poor little child's complaints]. I had to change the title a bit.
Have you not thought about translating your Hebrew poems into Hungarian?
I can’t! It's like suicide: I mean that seriously! For several reasons. Spiritual reasons, not because I do not have a vocabulary. I do, if I want to, but I have the feeling that it is the end of the world by the time I arrive at, find a word in Hebrew, the right word. If I see the same text in Hungarian - and it is my mother tongue - I have the feeling that it is not mine. My poems, I know, are called Nyolckezes, [by eight hands] but it is really strange. What is more freely translated is often much closer to me. The trouble is they do not look like strangers, but they do not look like mine either.
Poets are flamboyant adolescents or wise old people in the public mind.
Object after object. A house. Draped in the barbed wire of the night.
Drawers yanked open and locked on command.
It's like when blindly crashing, looking for someone only aware of the past – who’d rather sleep through his present.
(excerpt translated by István Lakatos into Hungarian – into English by Bea Sara Goll)
Does the age really come when the poet is only aware of the past?
These poems over-emphasize this a bit. I really do not get out of home; for a cup of coffee, not much more. My kids are coming, the relatives. I have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Age is counted in Israel in terms of great-grandchildren. I live this life in the present, the literary life. Not as intense as when I was President of the Writers' Union, but there is still work. There is this poetic magazine that I've been editing for over 30 years, the Mosaic. It is published every three to four months. If the secretary becomes ill, then I have to do everything. I’m still writing, still translating.
The dreams? There was a time when I did not dream at all. Somewhere I read that the survivors of the Shoa did not dream - I do not know if it is true but sounds good. I do not remember my dreams, this is a more correct definition. Since my wife has died, I'm dreaming again in what language I do not know.
What's the next plan?
I'm 84 years old this year. What could you be planning at this age? I’d like to turn 85 next year.
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