The Translator’s Laboratory: A Draft from the Dan Pagis Archive

Na‘ama Rokem

The suspicion that translation is a form of betrayal is often heightened when it comes to poetry. But what happens when the translator and the poet are one and the same; that is, when the poem is written twice by the same author, in two different languages? What would a "faithful translation" mean in this case, and who might be betrayed? Can the self-translator "get it wrong" at all? The document presented here— an archived draft of a German translation that the Israeli poet Dan Pagis prepared of his poem "In the Laboratory," a poem that describes an uncanny experiment in which a vial full of scorpions is injected with poisonous gas—raises these questions and others.

Pagis is not simply a self-translator, but a translator who is—in some sense—bringing the text "back" into his first language, under particularly fraught historical circumstances. He was born in 1930 in Radautz, in the region of Bukovina, a former province of the Austro- Hungarian Empire (today it is in northeastern Romania) and raised in a German-speaking environment. When he arrived in mandatory Palestine in 1946, a teenager who had survived the Holocaust, Pagis quickly replaced his first language—which had become the language of the perpetrators—with Hebrew. In this adopted language, Pagis became a poet and a literary scholar of acute linguistic sensitivity. But the archive reveals that Pagis did not leave the German language entirely behind him. For example, as the editors of his collected poems note, Pagis turned to German in annotating and organizing the drafts of the prose poems posthumously collected and published under the title "Father." In those drafts, the German language seems to represent some kind of superego that hovers above the poems, marking them as zu süss (too sweet) and planning their arrangement in a future publication. In other cases, Pagis's German seems to constitute a subtext or a linguistic unconscious that lurks beneath the Hebrew text. Anne Birkenhauer, one of Pagis's German translators, has argued that her translations bring such subtexts to light, revealing alliterations and wordplays that constitute a kind of German shadow to the Hebrew poem. An opposite example is the poem "Draft of a Reparations Agreement," which responds to the German term Wiedergutmachung (literally: making good again) by ironically promising that "Everything will be returned to its place / [. . .] The scream back into the throat. / The gold teeth back to the gums. / The terror." As Birkenhauer notes, Pagis's wry comment on the German terminology remains implicit in the Hebrew version of the poem and becomes explicit only when it is translated into German.

The draft of Pagis's self-translation presented here suggests a third possibility for thinking about the relationship between the two languages in his writing, with implications for translation theory and for the understanding of the historical relationship between his two languages, German and Hebrew. The German version of "In the Laboratory" does not exist before the Hebrew one, nor is it a correction or annotation of it. In fact, it is not a known entity, but rather a series of crossroads that offer multiple possibilities, questions rather than answers. The document gives us a glimpse of translation as a process rather than a product, highlighting the contingent nature of this pursuit. Contingency is an apt keyword also for thinking about this document in relation to German Jewish history and the history of linguistic and cultural contact between German and Hebrew. In the suspended translation process, the different possibilities that attend it left open, the reader finds a space between German and Hebrew that is not governed by the teleology of the history of the survivor, as it is often told in the Israeli context. In that conventional narrative, German had to be abandoned in the wake of the Nazi destruction, and Hebrew was its inevitable inheritor. Pagis's incomplete translation, with its divergent possibilities, opens a space of multiple contingent paths rather than one inevitable one. In other words, a consideration of this draft of a translation entails also a consideration of the nature of history and of the unfolding of human lives within it.

"In the Laboratory" describes a curious and morbid experiment:

The data in the glass beaker: a dozen scorpions
of various species—a swarming, compromising
society of egalitarians. Trampling and trampled upon.
Now the experiment: an inquisitive creator blows
the poison gas inside
and immediately
each one is alone in the world

The poem does not explain the nature of the laboratory in which this experiment takes place, nor does it describe the response of the "inquisitive creator" who works in it or what this person ultimately learns. Instead, the stakes of the experiment are hinted at through the biblical and rabbinic language Pagis employs. The scorpions are a minyan, and the curious observer who poisons them is described as a divine intervener, casting the experiment as an encounter between God and the community who prays to him. We do not learn of the results of the experiment, and the only response to it registered in the poem, apart from the death throes of the scorpions themselves, comes from an unexpected direction:

Far away, in the dust, the sinister angels
are startled.
It's only an experiment. An experiment. Not a judgment
of poison for poison.

In Hebrew, the "sinister angles" are described with a pun not as mala'akhei ha-sharet (the traditional designation for the ministering angels) but rather as mala'akhei ha-karet (the angels of destruction). The poem ends with a reassurance: this is just an experiment not an application of biblical retributive justice in the form of "poison for poison."

The poem does not follow a regular scheme of meter or rhyme, but sound and rhythm play a crucial role in its composition. Both of these elements are combined to draw attention to the immediate consequences of the infusion of gas into the vial. First, Pagis inserts a break: the only short line of the poem, consisting of the single, trisyllabic Hebrew word for "and immediately." This change of pace is followed by a series of fricative het sounds in the line that describes the isolation into which the scorpions fall in this tense moment. Before we attend to the weight of this moment, first a comment about the translation.

One detail of Pagis's German translation confirms Birkenhauer's argument that his poems are sometimes more explicit in his first language than in the language in which they were written. Whereas Hebrew provides him with a neutral expression for the substance injected into the vial—'ed rather than gaz—which would also have been a possibility—in German he uses the term Giftgas, emphasizing the analogy between the experiment in the poem and the gassing of Jews by Nazis. In this light, the theological and moral language invoked in the poem powerfully raises some questions that are confronted in other poems by Pagis as well: if there is a divine intervener, how could such horror take place? How can one reconcile between the genocidal violence of the Nazis and the fact that they were seemingly rational, scientifically minded people? And, short of an impossible retributive retaliation to genocide, what is a viable moral response?

But if this translation decision seems to clarify or explicate an element of the poem, other parts of the draft emphasize the indeterminate relationship between the text and its translation. The draft, which is titled in both Hebrew and German, consists of several layers in pencil and in blue, green, and black pens, suggesting several phases of revision and correction. Pagis considers various lexical alternatives, such as the Latinate "experiment" as a replacement for the Germanic word Versuch, or the different options for "immediately": sofort, sogleich, and im nu. But of course, in these cases as in others, the decisions that the poet-translator is weighing also have prosodic implications. This seems to be an important motivation behind his dilemma between two slightly different options for describing the "inquisitive creator" behind the experiment: "eine neugierige Vorsehung" and "eine Vorsehung, neugierig." The most substantial effect of the reordering is arguably the loss of one syllable. Another example is Pagis's consideration of "ist ein jeder allein" as an alternative for the lengthier "ist jeder Einzelne allein" in the line that describes the fateful moment in which the group of scorpions is broken down to isolated individuals, a choice between six and eight syllables.

It may be that Pagis was looking for the best equivalent for the rhythmic patterns that govern his Hebrew poem, seeking to replicate the break and its aftermath. But in his translation-experiment, one might also read an answer, or a complement, to the vision of the poem. Instead of asking what must inevitably happen in this one fateful moment of the experiment, the draft of the translation asks what are the multiple, contingent forms in which the moment might be described, highlighting the nature of translation itself as an open-ended experiment. The confined space of the vial is thus opened up to a freedom of alternatives afforded by self-translation.