Obituary: Robert Friend

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Robert Friend, poet and translator: born New York 25 November 1913; died Jerusalem 14 January 1998.

Robert Friend was an outstanding translator of modern Hebrew poets.

His active Hebrew was serviceable but not brilliant, but his passive Hebrew was good enough to work in tandem with brilliant Hebrew scholars like Shimon Sandbank (whose own translation of Chaucer has become a surprise bestseller in Israel) on translations of books by the two major women poets of Israel and the Yishuv (pre-state Palestine), Leah Goldberg and Ra'hel, as well as books by Natan Alterman, Gabriel Preil and the Nobel prizewinner S.J. Agnon.

There were many translations of other poets published in periodicals, and from Yiddish and other languages as well as Hebrew. It is notable that this proud gay poet's major work as a translator was of women. Love poets, and often unhappy (to put it mildly), they spoke to the very depths of Robert Friend. It may be that even the most gendered poetry is finally androgynous.

Like many distinguished poetry translators in a golden age of translation (Michael Hamburger, Jonathan Griffin, Keith Bosley and Dan Weissbort are English examples), Friend endured the relative neglect of his own poetry. His first book, Shadow on the Sun, was published as long ago as 1941. This was followed by six books from small presses, including that of the legendary Tambimuttu in London, and two from the Menard Press, most recently a "new and selected poems", The Next Room (1995).

Modern Israel, for reasons that everyone knows, houses Jewish immigrants from many lands. While Claude Vigee was and is the only significant poet writing there in French, Friend was the doyen but only one of many fine English-language (known as Anglo-Saxon even if they are Lithuanian Jews from South Africa) poets in Jerusalem, including Shirley Kaufman, Dennis Silk and Gabriel Levin.

Robert Friend was born into a family of poor Jewish immigrants in a Brownsville slum in New York shortly before the First World War. His mother, abandoned by her husband, often could not feed the children. After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1934 during the great depression, he sought work abroad.

He spent seven years in Puerto Rico and Panama where he worked as a payroll typist, as an inspector of fire-extinguishers (a skill which came in useful later when ferreting out weaknesses in his friends' unpublished poems and translations), as a censor during the Second World War (a skill ditto), and principally as an English teacher. The typing and the deep knowledge and love of English and American literature also came in more than useful in the years of his maturity, when the poems and poetry translations began to flower.

Friend settled in Israel in 1950 and taught English and American literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for more than 30 years. He was an authority on the work of E.M. Forster, though his thesis on Forster was never published. But his heart and mind were planted in poetry, in particular the poets whose formal skills in traditional metre and rhyme had such an influence on him. Frost and Auden were his masters.

He was a very generous, affectionate and supportive friend, though he had a stubborn, even mildly authoritarian streak, and could be very touchy. But not only his friends and lovers and Aunt Yetta loved him. Cats did too, as the many foreign and local visitors to his basement flat on Jabotinsky Street (which had once housed a Naafi canteen and Martin Buber's library) could not fail to realise. Children too: I remember him in London, entertaining my own children when they were young, with stories and games and gestures. He was a born educator, a natural teacher.

Essentially a cultural Zionist in the tradition of Ahad Ha'am, he had no time at all for the territorialists and fundamentalists on the Right whose obsessions threaten to undo the work of Rabin and Peres, work which was made possible by the earlier arguments and commitment of the liberal left - to which he belonged. He put his ideals into practice by loving men across the border line. Few Israelis, even Sabras, had his understanding of the Palestinians.

The best comment on his poetry was by the friend who saw him as a father and his poetry as "the mother ground I started from" - the distinguished and far better-known New York poet Edward Field:

In Robert Friend's work I respond to a teaching that is beyond the individual poem but is implicit in all of it as a devotion, not just to craft, but to self-examination. His refusal to trust easily - feelings, language, or ideas - is almost religious, and is the basis of the humour in many of his poems. Since there is no question of denying the erotic, the poems celebrate it, all the while exploring the bitter, exacting price. But the poetics are so playful and musical that we are charmed from any possible dismay, to recognise that these poems are truly about ourselves.

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