When the Second Verse Is Same as the First in Hebrew

Homophonic Poetry Tradition Goes Back to Leon de Modena

Heroic Subjects: Italian rabbi Leon de Modena wrote of his teacher Moses della Rocca in a homophonic elegy.
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Heroic Subjects: Italian rabbi Leon de Modena wrote of his teacher Moses della Rocca in a homophonic elegy.

By Philologos

Published July 07, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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And here, its nine lines shorter than de Modena’s, is the Katz brothers’ effort. A prayerful acknowledgment of human impotence and the solace of divine power, it reads in Hebrew: Kol b’seder! / Harus, ashem, na’ul, / Avel masr’iaḥ . / Eyn mayim sim me’od. / Aha, kol b’seder! / Hu noten ba’torah, / Hu mekim olam. / On li mi-ey? Rak imo lun. / Halleluya!

A literal translation of this would be: “Everything is all right! / Destroyed, guilty, locked in, / Misdeeds reek. / Turn a most watery eye! / Aha, everything is all right! / He gives in the Torah, / He establishes the world. / Whence will my strength come? Lodge only with Him./ Hallelujah!”

And in its homophonic English version: “Copasetic! Harassed, ashamed, nailed,/ Evil must reek. / Eye in moistening mode, / Aha — copasetic! / Who, nothin’ but Torah, / Who, make ’em, all o’ ’em, / Only my Rock, Him alone. / Hallelujah!”

It’s a game try, for which the Katzes deserve full credit, but does it work? Not quite. The Hebrew, though forced in some places and not entirely grammatical or coherent in others, at least has a consistency of tone; the English, on the other hand, achieves its homophony by combining artificial literary constructions (e.g., “Eye in moistening mode”) with street speech (“Who, nothin’ but Torah, / Who, make ’em, all o’ ’em) in an unconvincing mixture that isn’t helped by the archaic slang word “copasetic.” (Which indeed may derive from Hebrew kol b’seder — I wrote a column about it years ago.)

But we can’t all be Leon de Modena. Not even the distinguished American Jewish poet Louis Zukofsky and his wife Celia, who did a series of homophonic translations of the Latin poems of Catullus, managed to come close to the brilliance of “Mark This Lament!” In fact, the Katz brothers are more successful than the Zukofskys often were, as when the latter took a line like Catullus’s Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle quam mihi, “My woman [the poet’s girlfriend Lesbia] says there’s no one she would rather marry than me,” and turned it into, “Newly say dickered my love air my own would marry me all whom but me.” There’s nothing copasetic about that.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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