At The Jewish Agency for Israel, where I work in Jerusalem, there’s an Office of Global Customer Experience (GCE), which is relatively new. Amir, the Director of GCE, is the creative sort, as one might expect, and he believes that any successful “customer experience” must begin with an organization’s employees, whom he also considers “customers”.
Given this conviction, Amir decided to send out a “customer experience” survey some months ago to all employees of The Jewish Agency, asking them about their experiences as employees – what working at The Agency is like; what their units are like; what working with their coworkers is like; etc.; etc. Of course, this was all done anonymously.
Upon receiving our completed surveys, Amir took the time to copy snippets from our responses into newly created rhyming poems of 100 words for every division of The Agency. Of course, the rhyme and form were simplistic, but the effort was quite touching because Amir actually took the time to do this for us, and every unit’s poem was composed entirely of phrases written by employees (our fellow coworkers), making it feel very personal.
Anyway, here’s the thing – these poems, obviously, were in Hebrew.
So, when the Director of Fundraising and Development (FRD), my boss, read Amir’s poem for our team aloud to us, and I grokked what Amir had done, I excitedly volunteered to translate the FRD poem into English. I mean, after all… I am a poet! 😇
I do a lot of translation from Hebrew to English at work because I receive stories and data from the field, which I have to include in reports to donors in North America; and I also did a lot of translation work at my previous job, so I’m quite comfortable with it.
Nevertheless, translating poetry is a very different experience than translating prose; I had never attempted anything like this before. Immediately, I realized that I would have to decide what approach to take in my translation – in other words, what I should prioritize.
I could have stuck to the the literal meaning of every word and created a poem in free verse, but I was very taken by Amir’s well-intentioned effort to create rhyming poems out of phrases that were ours. It felt to me that the truer approach would be to prioritize rhyme and intention over word-for-word translation.
Now, as it turned out later, Amir is hiring someone to translate all of the poems he wrote into English, as my director informed me; and, given this, she asked whether I really wanted to bother with creating a translation of my own. I did, of course, but it became important to me that my translation would suit Amir’s vision for these translations.
For example, did it matter whether my English translation contained 100 words? After all, Amir had called this the “100 Word” project… But Hebrew sentences are always shorter than English sentences. From experience, I know that if one submits an op-ed to a newsletter in English, the editor will request that it come to 800 words, whereas the Hebrew target is 600 words.
If sticking to 100 words was essential, that would have made my translation work much more challenging, and it would have made building a rhyme scheme while maintaining the text’s original meaning nearly impossible. Thankfully, as it turned out, Amir had no expectation that the English translations should come out to 100 words, which was a great relief.
Writing the poem
It took me some time to finish my project, but I am pleased with the approach I took.
First, I broke the Hebrew poem down into rhyming couplets (some of which, in the original Hebrew, were written in one line). Then, I translated each couplet literally (word-for-word) and inserted the translated couplets into the left column of a table I created in Microsoft Word, each couplet in its own row of the table.
I decided to stick with eight syllables per line for the sake of simplicity and consistency, and then the real work began.
Again, this was unlike anything I’d ever done before, and my greatest challenge was staying true to the intended meaning of the couplets, rather than concerning myself with the literal translation of every word. On the one hand, this was liberating, but I’m a perfectionist (to my detriment) and having endless possibilities before me made this a challenging project.
The funny thing is that the final result is not unlike something I might have written in seventh grade. For me, given the sundry forms of poetry I continue to explore daily, rhyming couplets of eight syllables per line feels schoolboyish.
Still, this poem of mine is actually much more than that. It is a translation of a Hebrew text, which itself was comprised of some twenty different people’s words put to rhyme; and I am quite pleased with the final result.
And, if I am not mistaken, both the original Hebrew poem and my English translation are to be framed and hung up somewhere in the hallway at work – so, that’s pretty cool!
The FRD poem
Our team, supportive and close-knit,
To surmount challenges commits.
Combined, our motley stories tell
Of one love for Am Yisrael.
To reach our goals, we start from 'Yes' –
Zealous in pursuit of success.
It's we who secure vital means,
Upon which every program leans.
We're The Agency's beating heart;
In every facet, we've a part.
With all divisions we share ties
And know them well, as you'd surmise.
To every donor we convey
Our message in a tailored way.
Unto themselves they're worlds entire;
Commitment shared both sides inspires.
And though numeric our goals be,
It's people whom we love and see.
Soulful, we weave connections tight,
United by our vision bright.
The original Hebrew text (FRD in 100 words)
לפני הכל אנחנו – ביחדנס של אנשים. חבורה מגובשת שעפה על אתגרים. כור היתוך ייחודי ופיצ'ר יעודי שעובד למען העם היהודי. 'כן' זו המילה המובילה בלקסיקון - תציבו יעדים ונרוץ למליון. מבחינתנו הכסף הוא אמצעי להגשמת מטרה. בלעדיו, גם תוכניות מעולות ישארו במגרה. אנחנו הלב, החמצן והדלק. בכל מה שקורה כאן יש לנו חלק. אין יחידה בסוכנות שאנחנו לא מכירים ויכולים לספר על כולן סיפורים. ובכל סיפור יש גרעין מיוחד, שיתאים בדיוק, לתורם (ה)אחד. והתורם הזה עבורנו, הוא עולם ומלואו. הוא יעשה הכל בשבילנו ואנחנו בשבילו. נכון, בסוף אנחנו מדברים במספרים, אבל כל הדרך לשם תלויה באנשים. אנשים עם נשמה, שמחוברים לרעיון, שיודעים לרקום קשרים ולהגשים חזון.