NEA Literature Fellowships

Maia Evrona

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(2016 - Translation)

"After What and Whom Do You Yearn?" by Abraham Sutzkever

[Translated from the Yiddish]

After what and whom do you yearn? – I yearn for nothing, for no one.
Everything is engulfed in nothing. And everything is my family. 
Between neighboring cherry trees I yearn for one young man:
He’ll throw a stone down the well and rattle a scene of tranquility. 

And what else? After mezuzah-bees. Those that pleasurefully
sting, in place of a kiss with the fingers.
They have committed a sin and unintentionally:
A berry pillaged in the forest by little birds, by singers.

And what else? – After the key in the sea, at the bottom;
The master craftsman lost it there during the world’s creation.
And furthermore I yearn for a time that no longer has any hours,
like a magnate with a full purse, I have squandered them.

I yearn for nothing. For no one. Behind that cover
words bloom, blue-eyed, and rain lives in them.
And between them an abyss. And both say a prayer:
For a rainbow from the abyss to bridge the shores.

Original in Yiddish

About Abraham Sutzkever

Sutzkever is considered to have been both a great poet and a hero of the Holocaust. That combination has made him larger than life, though one of the elements I find most moving in his poetry is the evidence of his continued life, following the Holocaust and the loss of so many Yiddish speakers (and readers). Translating his poetry is humbling, as that life experience is felt throughout, and, as a poet myself, I am continually struck by his prolificacy. Just when I think I must already have translated all of his truly notable poems, I piece together another.

Maia Evrona’s translations of Yiddish poetry have appeared in Poetry Magazine, The Kenyon Review Online, and numerous other print and online journals. Her own poetry was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and has appeared in Prairie Schooner, New South, Poetry East, and elsewhere. She has also published excerpts from her memoir-in-progress on chronic illness.  Her website is http://www.maiaevrona.com/

Photo courtesy of Maia Evrona

Art Talk with Maia Evrona

Translator's Statement

I began translating poems from Yiddish around eight years ago, partly as an exercise to improve my fluency in the language, and partly as an exercise in the writing of poetry. Naturally, Sutzkever was one of the poets I was drawn to, both because of his reputation and because I had studied Yiddish in Vilna, his hometown (now known as Vilnius, and the current capital of Lithuania). Though I knew his Diary poems were considered his masterpiece, it took me years to reach them. When I finally chose a few to translate, however, and my translations came together in English, I was astounded by just how good the poems were.

From then on, I focused mostly on this collection: gathering my more finished translations together and then moving on to new ones; submitting batches to literary journals—without any success for a long stretch of time and then a seemingly ever-increasing number of acceptances.

The initial stages of any endeavor in life consist of at least some fumbling in the dark; this is especially true of creative endeavors. I had begun translating Sutzkever because I was curious about his work and I enjoyed wrestling it into English. I continued to translate his work because I believed in his poems and my renderings of them. Yet, I also began my journey with this project, and with each individual poem, without knowing what, if anything, was going to come of this work, apart from my own appreciation of the poetry involved. It can slow one down to not have a clear view of the road ahead. This fellowship has illuminated that road, making it easier to simply proceed.