Hebrew poet, one of the greats
1. He was born in the Crimea in August 1875 and had a basic Jewish education. This was followed by a relatively secular education. He studied German, French, English, Greek and Latin. He attended secondary school in Odessa from 1890-92, when he had his first poem published.
2. Because he could not gain acceptance to a Russian university, in 1899 he went to Heidelburg, where he studied medicine. He finished his degree in Lausanne in 1906.
3. He practiced medicine and served in the First World War as a Russian army doctor. After the Bolshevik revolution, he continued to practice medicine and to write, but he earned only a scant livelihood.
4. He left Russia in the early 1920s and wandered here and there, settling in Berlin, where he did his translations. In less than a decade, he was to translate Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and also Sophocles, Horace, Shakespeare, Moliere, Pushkin, Goethe, Heine, Shelley, the Gilgamesh cycle, and the Icelandic eddas – all into Hebrew. To this day, Tel Aviv gives a prize in his name for exemplary translation.
5. Between 1925 and 1932, he was one of the editors of the newspaper HaTekufa. He spent part of 1929-30 in America. Then, in 1931, he was commissioned to edit a Book of Medical and Scientific Terms – in Latin, English and Hebrew. This commission enabled him to make aliyah to Palestine.
6. He became the physician for the Herzliya High School and later for Tel Aviv’s municipal schools. He was active, too, in writers’ organizations and the Committee on the Hebrew Language, serving as editor of the Hebrew terminology manual for medicine and the natural sciences.
7. Throughout all this, he continued to write poetry. He was twice awarded the Bialik Prize for literature, in 1940 and ’42.
8. His poetry was influenced by Jewish cultural heritage and by ancient Greek culture. He is especially known for his sonnets. He introduced into Hebrew the “crown of sonnets,” a grouping of 15 individual sonnets in which the last poem is made up of the first lines of the other 14.
9. Collections of his poetry have been translated into English, French, Russian, Spanish and Yiddish, and individual poems have made their way into Arabic, Czech, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, French, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Yiddish. In addition, many of his poems have been set to music by Hebrew composers.
10. Tchernichovsky died in October 1943. In 2011, he was chosen to be one of the four great Israeli poets whose portrait would grace Israel’s currency.
Want to see the difficulty of translation? Here are two versions of a quatrain from one of Tchernichovsky’s sonnets. The first, edited by Stanley Burnshaw, is closer to direct translation from the Hebrew. The second, by A. Z. Foreman, seeks to convey more closely the spirit of the words. Which do you prefer?
Eagle! Eagle over your mountains, an eagle is flying over your mountains!
Soaring, gliding – gliding, and with wondrous touch did not move a wing.
For an instant – it froze, then – the barest movement in its wings
The slightest tremble suddenly – and it rises toward the cloud.
Hawk! A hawk atop your hills! A hawk atop your hills on high:
Gliding wide with wondrous touch, with wings locked back against the sky,
Frozen for a moment, then a single pinion barely sways.
Now the slightest palpitation, and it surges toward the haze.
Find Tchernichovsky Street in Tel Aviv parallel to King George Street, west of it, running between Allenby and Dizengoff.