With the death of Chana Bloch on May 19 at her home in Berkeley, we’ve lost an extraordinary translator, poet, teacher, and friend. Chana was the author of six books of poems, six books of translation from ancient and modern Hebrew poetry, and a critical study of George Herbert. She was professor emerita of English literature and creative writing at Mills College in Oakland, where she taught for over thirty years and directed the creative writing program. A memorial gathering for Chana will be held at Mills College on the afternoon of Sunday, October 8.
Chana Bloch was a particularly fine translator of poetry because she was a poet—and one might well say the reverse: that she was a particularly fine poet because she was a translator. When, as a young student in a workshop led by Robert Lowell, she submitted a few translations from Yiddish of the poet Abraham Sutzkever, she received from Lowell what she often recalled as the most helpful piece of writing advice she ever received: “You can learn to write from your own translations.” She later heard from W.S. Merwin that Ezra Pound had told him roughly the same thing in his student days, that translation was “a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of the possibilities of his own language.”
And learn, and sharpen, she did. With her longtime friend Chana Kronfeld, Chana produced masterful, musical, many-layered translations from Hebrew of the poet Yehuda Amichai, including his great final book, Open Closed Open, as well as Hovering at a Low Altitude by Dahlia Ravikovitch. Recalling the collaboration of the famous “two Chanas” in “Learning from Translation,” a talk she gave at UC Berkeley in 2013, she said, “Chana is a native speaker of Hebrew and I of English, so our debates on language and its context gave a real sense of meaning to current theories about translation as a negotiation between cultures. Our method was dialogue: in the way that Talmudic scholars study a text together by raising alternative possibilities, we debated every word and every turn of phrase. We often had the feeling that Hebrew and English language and culture were talking to each other over the divide, and that together we were enacting a border crossing.”
Along with Ariel Bloch, Chana was also the translator who at last quickened the biblical Song of Songs—long allegorized in the Jewish and Christian traditions as an account of God’s love for his people—fully back to life as the song of erotic and spiritual passion between two young lovers that it had always been. In that same UC talk, she recalled many of the challenges and exhilarations of the task. One troubling phrase, for example:
“I am sick of love,” is the King James translation of cholat ahava ani. In the King’s English of the seventeenth century, that would have meant “stricken by passion”; in colloquial English today, “I am sick of love” means “leave me alone, I’ve had enough.” Many translations try to salvage this phrase by putting a patch on it, but “I am sick with love” sounds to me like bad English; another possibility, “I am faint with love,” is much too Victorian. I can still remember the day when, after months of wrestling with this verse, the word “fever” occurred to me: “I am in the fever of love.” I was so high that I went out the door and ran four miles.
Chana and I regularly shared the podium as readers of our poems and translations, and for the past eight years, we were in a poetry group that met faithfully each month in members’ homes in Berkeley. It’s been among the greatest pleasures in my life as a writer to witness the poems Chana was bringing to life, and to wrestle lovingly over words together. And I’ve learned immeasurably from the way she faced the end of life, as a friend and as a poet, with her amazing clarity of mind, humor, and grit. She fervently believed that writing poems and attending with care to the poems her friends were writing were what kept her alive in her final two years. Poems, that is, and grandchildren. Two gifts that Chana dearly hoped to live to see are both due this fall: a new grandchild, and the book of her truly revelatory last poems, coming from Autumn House Press in September, The Moon is Almost Full.
Here’s Chana now, as if still with us, reading two of those poems: “Memento Mori” and the deliciously titled “Dying for Dummies.” A Jewish girl from the Bronx, speaking to the end with her sharp, unfailing, unsparing wit.
Chana Bloch was a longtime supporter of Two Lines and the Center for the Art of Translation. You can listen to audio from the Center for the Art of Translation’s 2010 event with Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld discussing Hebrew poet Dahlia Ravikovitch. She and Chana Kronfeld published translations of Yehuda Amichai in Two Lines 7 and Two Lines 20, and the “two Chanas” published translations of Dahlia Ravikovitch in Two Lines 13.