Saul Tchernichovsky: The Hawk (From Hebrew)

If you speak Hebrew and are wondering why this poem's title isn't translated as "The Eagle," see the notes following the text.

The Hawk
By Saul Tchernichovsky
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Hebrew

Black the hawk above your mountains!1 Black the mounting hawk on high!
Light and slow it seems one moment merely floating in the sky...
Floating, sailing skyblue seas, alert to songs of sheer delight
In the heart of all the heavens- circling mute through searing light. 

Black the hawk above your mountains! Black the mounting hawk on high! 
Sleek the body, dark the feathers, broad the wings and bright the eye,
Soaring like a bowshot arrow, rounding out its careful gyre
Tracking trails of prey below between the crags and through the briar. 

Black the hawk above your mountains! Black the mounting hawk 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 through the haze.

Black the hawk above your mountains! Black the mounting hawk on high! 
Light and slow it seems one moment merely floating in the sky....
Land! A hawk's above your mountains. A condensing shadow glides
From the giant's wing caressing mighty heaven's mountainsides2.

Notes on the text:

1These are the stony hills of the Judea.

2- The Hebrew phrase is identical to one in Psalm 36:6 Your righteousness is like the almighty mountains, and your justice a tremendous gulf. O Lord, you sustain man and beast. (translation mine, because all the existing translations flatten out this rather evocative phrase into "great mountains" or some such infelicitous cliché.)

Note on the title:

The titular bird of this poem, which I finally translated (after much thought) as "Hawk" is a particular brainbuster. עיט áyit, technically, means "Eagle" in modern Hebrew. However, the Hebrew עיט áyit is in many ways a much more ominous bird than the English counterpart it translates into. עיט áyit in modern Israeli speech is, I understand, commonly confused with vulture. The two native Hebrew-speakers I have queried confirmed my impression that the words עיט áyit "eagle" and נשר nésher (ostensibly "vulture" according to schoolmarms and the dictionaries written by them) are rather interchangeable in the modern language, with the choice depending more on symbolism than ornithology- where the עיט áyit "eagle" is an ominous bird of prey and the and נשר nésher a symbol of hope and persistence. This kind of taxonomic conflation and connotative distinction is a common occurrence in the lexicon of many languages, since humans have usually categorized fauna in experiential rather than taxonomic terms- especially with birds, which tend to figure prominently in mythology, religion, divination and poetic symbolism. (This is true of English too. Compare the connotations and symbolism of dove vs. pigeon or even crow vs. raven.)

In Hebrew, the ominous עיט áyit paired against the propitious נשר nésher appears to have its semantic origins in the Hebrew Bible. By way of illustration, here are some Biblical uses of עיט áyit. The English word or expression used to translate the bird in question is in bold:

יֵעָזְבוּ יַחְדָּו לְעֵיט הָרִים וּלְבֶהֱמַת הָאָרֶץ וְקָץ עָלָיו הָעַיִט וְכָל-בֶּהֱמַת הָאָרֶץ עָלָיו תֶּחֱרָף
They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains, and to the beasts of the earth: and the fowls shall summer upon them, and the beasts shall winter upon them. (Isaiah 18:6)

וַיֵּרֶד הָעַיִט עַל-הַפְּגָרִים וַיַּשֵּׁב אֹתָם אַבְרָם
And when the fowl came down upon the carcasses, Abraham drove them away (Genesis 15:11)

עַל-הָרֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תִּפּוֹל אַתָּה וְכָל-אֲגַפֶּיךָ וְעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר אִתָּךְ לְעֵיט צִפּוֹר כָּל-כָּנָף וְחַיַּת הַשָּׁדֶה נְתַתִּיךָ לְאָכְלָה
Thou shalt fall upon the mountains of Israel, thou, and all thy bands, and the people that is with thee: I will give thee unto the ravenous birds of every sort and to the beasts of the field to be devoured. (Ezekiel 39:4)
And here are some typical uses of נשר nésher:
וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים
Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself (Exodus 19:4)

כְּנֶשֶׁר יָעִיר קִנּוֹ עַל-גּוֹזָלָיו יְרַחֵף, יִפְרֹשׂ כְּנָפָיו יִקָּחֵהוּ יִשָּׂאֵהוּ עַל-אֶבְרָתוֹ יְהוָה בָּדָד יַנְחֶנּוּ וְאֵין עִמֹּו אֵל נֵכָר
As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings, so the Lord alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him. (Deuteronomy 32:11-12)
In the end I decided to render the bird's name as "hawk". The other possibility "raptor" (a naturalist's term for any bird of pray) had most of what I needed, but its off-key tone, as well as the accrued associations with dinosaurs thanks to Jurassic Park, made it unusable.

The Original:

שאול טשרניחובסקי

עַיִט! עַיִט עַל הָרַיִךְ, עַיִט עַל הָרַיִך עָף!
אַט וָקַל – נִדְמֶה כְּאִלּוּ רֶגַע – אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא צָף,
צָף-מַפְלִיג בְּיָם שֶׁל תְּכֵלֶת, עֵר לְרֶנֶן-גִּיל בְּלֵב
הַשָּׁמַיִם – הָרָקִיעַ, חַג אִלֵּם בְּאוֹר צוֹרֵב.

עַיִט! עַיִט עַל הָרַיִךְ, עַיִט עַל הָרַיִךְ עָף!

יְשַׁר-גֵּו וְכֶבֶד אֵבֶר, שְׁחוֹר-נוֹצָה וּרְחַב-כָּנָף;
טָס מָתוּחַ (חֵץ מִקֶּשֶׁת), עַיִט עָג עוּגִיּוֹת חוּגָיו;
תָּר עִקְּבוֹת טַרְפּוֹ מִמַּעַל בָּאֲפָר וּבַחֲגָו.

עַיִט! עַיִט עַל הָרַיִךְ, עַיִט עַל הָרַיִךְ עָף!

טָס גּוֹלֵשׁ-גּוֹלֵשׁ וּבְמַגַּע פֶּלֶא אֵבֶר לֹא נָקָף.
רֶגַע-קַל – קָפָא, מִשְׁנֵהוּ – נִיד-לֹא-נִיד בְּאֶבְרוֹתָיו,
רֶטֶט כָּל-שֶׁהוּא לְפֶתַע – וְעוֹלֶה לִקְרַאת הָעָב.

עַיִט! עַיִט עַל הָרַיִךְ, עַיִט עַל הָרַיִךְ עָף!

אַט וָקַל, – נִדְמֶה כְּאִלּוּ – רֶגַע אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא צָף...
אֶרֶץ, עַיִט עַל הָרַיִךְ, – עַל פָּנַיִךְ חַשְׁרַת צֵל,
מֵאֶבְרוֹת עֲנָק חוֹלֶפֶת, מְלַטֶּפֶת הַרְרֵי-אֵל...

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