This Poem Is a Nomad – Notes on Translating as a Bird

German author and performer Regina Dürig translated Savyon’s poems from Hebrew to German without any knowledge of Hebrew. The transition of meaning, sound, and rhythm from one language into the other was a journey through silence, echoes, and encounters in English. Savyon is a Tel Aviv-based poet performance artist and dancer whose texts have been translated into German for the first time. For Schlosspost, the two women reflect on this cocreative process with an additional text. This Poem is a Nomad – Notes on Translating as a Bird cultivates access to the world of the Other. Through articulation and translation, we may be able to venture a little into the spaces in between (us). For an audio glimpse of the reading from This Poem Is a Nomad please scroll down.

In fact, proximity to the other and the closeness between us can be reached when engendering a common world together, a world that will not destroy the world that is proper to each one. Calling into question one’s own world so as to preserve the existence and access to the world of the other, allows and needs to bring about a nothing which will permit the articulation between two worlds. (Luce Irigaray: How Can We Meet the Other?)

When we first met at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Savyon told me that she’s not only a dancer and performer (and mathematician) but also a poet, and that she’s using her own texts in her pieces. Since I’m interested in how one’s own texts can be performed on stage, I asked her about her strategies and if her poems are translated (she writes in Hebrew and I have virtually no knowledge of any Semitic language). She replied that her texts are untranslatable, as a friend of hers, who had studied Comparative Literature at Harvard and whom she had asked to try, told her. That’s when I knew that I had to try: Like a bird who understands nothing of what we hear, who hears what we do not understand. (Roland Barthes: The Pleasure of Text)

Dieses Gedicht wird unschuldig sein
Dieses Gedicht wird schlecht sein, armselig, überbemüht
Seid auf der Hut
Dieses Gedicht wird Recht haben, krudes Kupfer
Ein Tiegel für Tabletten, die appetitlich sind
Gebäck ohne Inhalt, ranziger Müll
Es wird eine Schwimmweste sein
Es wird sich hin und her bewegen
Nebensächlich, Nomade
Es wird heiser sein
Schmächtiger Säugling
Und es wird keine Dichtung sein und erst recht kein Gedicht


.הַשִּׁיר הַזֶּה יִהְיֶה תָּמִים
,הַשִּׁיר הַזֶּה יִהְיֶה אֻמְלָל, עָלוּב, קָלוּשׁ. הִכּוֹנוּ
,הַשִּׁיר הַזֶּה נָכוֹן, נְחֹשֶׁת נְחוּשָׁה
.כִּירָה לִרְקֹחַ מַטְעַמִּים, רָקִיק רֵיק מִתֹּכֶן, פְּסֹלֶת רְקוּבָה
.הַזֶּה יִהְיֶה חֲגוֹרַת הַצָּלָה
.הַזֶּה יִהְיֶה נָע וְנָד, מִשְׁנִי, נַוָּד
.הַזֶּה יִהְיֶה צָרוּד
,פָּעוֹט פָּעוּט
.לְיָדָהּ שְׁקֵטָה
.וְאֵין שִׁיר וְאֵין שִׁירָה

The longer I write, the more I long to become this bird Barthes writes about – tilted head, paper-light bones – hearing what they don’t understand. Gliding past meaning, past the idea of borders in language, in my thoughts. Leaving behind definitions to reach immediacy. Obviously, in using language to communicate, there must be sense, structure, shared agreements. I am well aware. But as a bird I am interested in the porosity inherent in between spaces. (Like the resting swallow fledglings in the arches below Schloss Solitude – you can see their nests huddled against the white corners, you can see the three of them sitting in there, but you cannot see how this tiny structure can actually contain them.)

One of my dearest references for porosity is Wittgenstein talking about inner feelings, about the impossibility to communicate them. As we don’t ever have a way to compare and understand what we are told about somebody else’s inner experiences, we have to accept to be seen, read, and heard indirectly. Wittgenstein asks and answers: But could we also imagine a language in which a person could write down or give vocal expression to his inner experiences – his feelings, moods, and the rest – for his private use? – Well, can’t we do so in our ordinary language?–But that is not what I mean. The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language. (Philosophical Investigations) Severin Schroeder further explains this not understanding in Reading Wittgenstein, taking pain as an example: When other people complain about pain, we cannot know whether any private experiences they might have are ever of the same kind as our experiences. […] Still, the word »pain« has a common use. It has common use but only insofar as it refers to our individual experiences: Whatever you find painful is painful to you. That is what we mean by »painful.«

מה מותה

בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׁחֹר הַגָּדוֹל
,הממותות בָּאוֹת
,הממותות חוֹזְרוֹת
וְאֶת כֹּל הַפְּחָדִים שְׁלִי שַׂמְתִּי בממותות
.כִּי הֵן מַסְפִּיק גְּדוֹלוֹת
בֹּאוּ נִצְבַּע אֵת הַכֹּל בְּצָהֹב
– שֶׁיִּהְיֶה חַם, נָעִים ואינפנטילי
.לֹא אִכְפַּת לִי
וְהָעֵדֶר מַשִּׂיג אוֹתִי
וַאֲנִי נֶאֱחֶזֶת בַּקְּרָנוֹת
,וַאֲנַחְנוּ דּוֹהֲרִים בְּיַחַד
.רָחוֹק רָחוֹק


In der grossen Schwärze
kommen die Mammuts zurück
kehren die Herden heim
und ich lege all meine Angst in die Tiere
weil sie sind gross genug dafür
lasst uns alles gelb anmalen
damit es warm wird und freundlich
und kindlich
was kümmert’s mich
und die Herde holt mich ein
halt mich an ihren Hörnern fest
und wir reiten zusammen
hoppe, hoppe


The ineffable inside of us, this December white sky, produces the possibility of poetry – as there are no ways to be precise about what is inside, we have to be poetic and imaginative; we have to create our own room of meaning, a room which is different for every other who enters it. This is the room in which I lingered when I translated Savyon’s poems: We met and she read her texts to me – that unbelievably lenient and perpetual sound of pebbles in a creek – and then explained every word to me in English: what it means, why she chose it, what its roots are, what it sounds like, what she associates with it. What was apparent, even to a bird’s ear (which usually is to be found right beneath the eye) is how Savyon’s poems are built on rhythm and sound. I tried to find equivalent echoes in German, which in many cases led to shifts in the meaning. I, in return, read my versions to Savyon, who doesn’t know German, explaining the meaning of the new words that were chosen because of their sound and thus added new layers, new nests.

For example in one poem the word נשמה (soul) and לנשום (to breath) were interlinked by their sound, which reveals the words’ shared roots. In German we don’t have a verb that has the same root as Seele (soul), apart from beseelen (ensoul), but that is way too close. As the noun Seele was probably derived from See (lake) I decided to use die Ufer fluten (flood the banks) instead of atmen (breathing) in order to retain the inner logic more than the apparent words. This is what mattered most: the connections and the composition of sounds, honoring the originals’ cosmos.


Flüstern, flüstern, flüchtiges Schüchternsein
flüstern, flüstern, Müttermütter rühren auch
flüstern, flüstern, Glückseligkeit
Silben, die laut zu sagen ich
nie riskieren wollte
schicke sie flugs zu dir
werde flüstern,
flüstern, flüstern
fünf, sechs, sieben Tage lang
bis die Seele sich selbst nützlich
gemacht haben wird fürs nächste Sein
sitzt im Geäst
ihr Überrest bleibt
erholt sich von der Seele
ein Fluss voll
(Flüstern, flüstern…)


,לַחַשׁ לַחַשׁ שֶׁאֲנִי חָשָׁה לְלֹא בּוּשָׁה
,לַחַשׁ לַחַשׁ וְגַם סָבְתָא בָּחֲשָׁה
.לַחַשׁ לַחַשׁ קְדֻשָּׁה
מִלִּים שֶׁלֹּא הֵעַזְתִּי לְהַגִּיד בְּקוֹל רָם
אֶשְׁלַח בְּאָזְנֵךְ אֶלְחַשׁ
חֲמִשָּׁה, שִׁשָּׁה, שִׁבְעָה יָמִים
עַד שֶׁהַנֶּפֶשׁ מַשְׁמִישָׁה עָצְמָה לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא
,אוֹ לְשָׁטוֹת בְּנוֹ מִמָּרוֹם שִׁבְתָּהּ
,שֶׁגּוּפָתָהּ מַכְחִישָׁה
,נוֹפֶשֶׁת מִנִּשְׁמָתָהּ
רִקּוּד שֶׁל

Savyon writes: The possibility to imagine with words is the possibility of becoming a poem. To suspend yourself between the words. To dream and doze, surrounded by the silence of the gaps. Just like a silent moment in between your mother’s pulse, when you were a fetus. To be awakened by the constant galloping consonants. To trust that they will always be there. To invite the reader to join your stroll. To let him mold inside his own poem. To be translated into an unknown language is to loan your body to another soul. You trust them to use it gently and naturally, as if it’s their own.

וְהִגַּדְתְּ לְבִתֵּךְ

,אָנִי וְלֹא מַלְאַךְ
,אָנִי וְלֹא שָׂרַף
,אָנִי וְלֹא שָׁלִיחַ

,אָנִי וְלֹא כְּרוּב
.אָנִי וְלֹא אֶרְאֵל

,אָנִי וְלֹא שָׂטָן
.אָנִי וְלֹא הָאֵל

.וְלֹא אַחֵר

Die verlorene Tochter

Mein Ich ist nicht das sondern die
Ich und kein Engel
Ich und kein Seraphim
Ich und kein Bote

Mein Ich ist nicht das sondern die
Ich und kein Kerub
Ich und kein Engel

Mein Ich ist nicht das sondern die
Ich und nicht der Teufel
Ich und nicht Gott

Mein Ich ist nicht das sondern die
Ich und keiner sonst

The bird in me thinks of writing as a space in which the writing subject constantly disappears (Foucault), already spreading the wings. Gradually fading into layers of the atmosphere, at last into nothing. What started as a slightly silly stubbornness, translating texts from a language I don’t speak or read or hear, became a strategy of cultural approximation, even poetic intimacy. I have not only encountered Savyon’s work and thoughts and references, but also my own mother tongue heard from Hebrew, my own culture (including its distressing irrevocability – birds have ancestors, too), my own language. By listening and whispering, we have both encountered the power of silence.

The matter is no longer to simply show things to each other as we have been taught in our culture. What we have to tell each other is not yet determined by a discourse existing outside of us. Therefore, the first word we have to speak to each other is our capacity or acceptance of being silent. (Luce Irigaray: How Can We Meet the Other?)

For more translations: (Savyon) or (Regina)


Audio glimpse of the reading from This Poem Is a Nomad in Hebrew and German.