Yehuda Amichai: “Tourists”

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
And on the top of Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust over our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
Yehuda Amichai

Translated by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt


~ by matt on 5 January 2010.

14 Responses to “Yehuda Amichai: “Tourists””

  1. thank you
    for this beautiful poem.
    i feel a shame
    not to have any poetry book
    in hebrew. i shall change that
    as soon as i can
    Y. Amichai
    will be a good start..

  2. Thanks, Dhyan. I think Amichai would be an excellent place to start: his poetics are decidedly modern, and, compared with other hebrew language poets, he translates well into english (and other languages too). If you click on the word “Translated” at the bottom of the post, you’ll find the bilingual collection of Amichai poems from which I took this translation–highly recommended. Matt

  3. “he translates well into english ”

    what do you find ‘hard’ to translate from hebrew?

  4. A good question, Dhyan, and my oversimplistic answer:

    While all translations are challenging, this is especially when the languages one is moving between have very different structures and histories. This is true of Hebrew-to-English translation, but not uniquely so. The same structural factors that are challenging about Hebrew-to-English translation would make translation from, say, Russian to English challenging as well. Relative to Hebrew (and Russian, and Arabic, and Latin, etc), English is only weakly inflected. One result of this is that end rhymes that come naturally in more highly inflected languages, are more difficult and less natural in English.

    Amichai doesn’t use end rhymes or fixed meters, and has a modern (less lyrical bent) than older hebrew poets. That helps relieve the load of his English translators.

    Differing histories also matter, and this makes all translation tricky. Take diction–having descended from the mixture of Latinate and Saxon languages (to mention only the main two), English is flush with “synonyms” and an apparent abundance of different words meaning the same thing (for poets, that’s only just apparent, a veil to be penetrated). By contrast, just about every Hebrew word arrives with a large entourage of connotations and in moving from Hebrew to English, the translator must be mindful of that. (Same difficulty in Russian-to-English translations, etc)

    A related point, and critical for translators, modern Hebrew cannot help but allude to its own long past much of which is documented in written texts like the bible, that have been around for thousands of years. (You have the same allusional potency in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Greek, etc). Accordingly, a Hebrew poet need do no more than merely mention the name of particular place (e.g., Mount Gilboa) and the reader picks up so much more than the surface or immediate denotation or intention (e.g., “we hiked Mount Gilboa” would necessarily pick up the suicide of the biblical King Saul and David’s moving elegy on that spot).

    Amichai can be every bit as allusive as the next hebrew poet, and a big challenge for his translators is to pick that up and, if possible, transport that into the translation. Often it’s simply not possible.

    Back to your question: because of his relaxed meter and his use of simple things, Amichai translates well into English (though he can be very tricky at times). At the other end of the spectrum might be a hebrew poet like Natan Alterman (his early works) whose poems are complicated tapestries of infinitely allusive images, diction, and syntax, bound together by dense rhyming (end words, in line, across poems of his cycles) and unforgivingly strict meters. Altermam has not translated well into English. (It’d be near impossible to translate him into hebrew!)

    I hope this helps, Dhyan. I’ll try to provide some examples in coming posts. Any other readers of hebrew poetry, please feel free to chime in!

  5. thank you for this enlightening comment matt

    it explain much of my straggle in translating my own work. (and the reason for reading L. Cohen in hebrew makes such a bad read)
    i was, till now, mainly, but not only, difficulting with the amount of words english requires. one translator of books estimated 25% more english in compere to hebrew.

    by the way – how many language you speak..?

  6. Wow, what an amazing poem, thank you, Matt! & thanks, Dhyan for pointing me here.

    Loved the discussion on translation too!


  7. […] at Matthew Salomon’s golempoem is an amazing poem by Yehuda Amichai. ‘Tourists’ is the first translation of Amichai’s that I’ve read and it is brilliant – so too […]

  8. Thank you both, Dhyan and Ashley. I’m enjoying the poetry you’ve posted at your sites.

    Ashley–thank you for the ping.

    Dhyan–as to your question, I’m a native english speaker and still learning something new every day. Through age 18,, my schooling and social community was bilingual (English and Hebrew) but since then have not been immersed–reading books and newspapers keeps the comprehension up but the speaking skills have deteriorated. Thanks to my parents, I have reading skills of varying degrees in several other Euro-Slav languages…nothing formal though.

    all the best, matt

  9. This is an amazing poem, and the insight into the translation process is fantastic.

  10. Thx Mark

  11. Thanks Matt! Love to have you visit, and thanks again for this. I’m really enjoying the stuff of his that I’m reading online, it’s time to order a book I think!

  12. […] mentioned a little while ago, I came across a fantastic poem here and was inspired to hunt down more of Yehuda Amichai’s […]

  13. […] presses on it (you should too, on the bottom-lined ‘it’) and was surprised to read me commenting on a […]


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Natalie E. Illum...

is a poet, performer and disability activist. Bring her stumbling to your city.

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