poetry > spring 2016

Genesis 16 : 1 - 6

King James Version

Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.

And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.

And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.

And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.

And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee.

But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thine hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.

Genesis 16 : 1 - 6


Sarai, Abrams Weib, gebar ihm kein Kind. Sie hatte eine ägyptische Magd, die hieß Hagar.

Und sie sprach zu Abram: Siehe, der HERR hat mich verschlossen, daß ich nicht gebären kann. Gehe doch zu meiner Magd, ob ich vielleicht aus ihr mich aufbauen möge. Und Abram gehorchte der Stimme Sarais.

Da nahm Sarai, Abrams Weib, ihre ägyptische Magd, Hagar, und gab sie Abram, ihrem Mann, zum Weibe, nachdem sie zehn Jahre im Lande Kanaan gewohnt hatten.

Und er ging zu Hagar, die ward schwanger. Als sie nun sah, daß sie schwanger war, achtete sie ihre Frau gering gegen sich.

Da sprach Sarai zu Abram: Du tust unrecht an mir. Ich habe meine Magd dir in die Arme gegeben; nun sie aber sieht, daß sie schwanger geworden ist, muß ich gering sein in ihren Augen.

Der HERR sei Richter zwischen mir und dir.

Abram aber sprach zu Sarai: Siehe, deine Magd ist unter deiner Gewalt; tue mit ihr, wie dir's gefällt. Da sie nun Sarai wollte demütigen, floh sie von ihr.

Sarai and Abram

Translated from German by Michaela Kotziers

I was Sarai, wife of Abram.
He was Abram, husband of Sarai.

I said: Take Hagar.
Spill your seed unto her bowels and plant
you there a tree. Plant a tree that if not
thee and I and thy seed,
then at least thee and I can climb,
climb its branches lumbering towards
an opalescent sky.

I brought Hagar, my Egyptian maid.
Hagar I brought unto you.

I brought her to you in the night
and stood outside your tent,
numbering stars against
soft murmurs melting
like sand to glass beneath my tongue.

Hagar said she was pregnant,
with child by you,
by you and your child.
Her soft belly swelled
with youth and with seed
and with pride and with child.

I said: You abuse me.

I gave you Hagar, my Egyptian maid.
Hagar I gave to you,
and from her you drew
like a well.
She sees my lips are tied to my womb,
that you are tied to your seed
as I am to you,
but the knots are coming loose,
unraveling now numberless
like the dust the Lord said would be
our seed.

You said aber to me: Hagar is your maid,
your servant, your wish.
You said: Sarah, Hagar is beneath you.

I said: Do not call me Sarah
when our names are not yet changed,
when we are not yet old,
when my stomach aches in empty folds
by God’s judgment.

My being is moved for your son,
for our son whose name we know.

For your son I dream
but do not speak.

I said: Hagar must leave from you and me.

Translator's Note

My adaptation hones in on Sarai’s point of view—what it meant for a woman to be barren in biblical times and the maternal despair felt at this point in her story, before the angels have prophesied that she will bare Abram a son. I wanted to form our understanding of Abram through Sarai’s burdens, and dialogue seemed to be the most useful form to do so. My translation oscillates between an inner monologue and direct address from Sarai to Abram in order to produce a dissonance between what distresses Sarai and what she reveals to Abram. Moments of chiasmus (“I brought Hagar, my Egyptian maid. / Hagar I brought unto you”) imitate the repetition often found in biblical stories, and also reflect the repetitive thought process of sorting through memory. While biblical stories often withhold character motivations, this poem presents a case in which it is only through a careful recollection of events that Sarai finds a new understanding of her and Abram’s situation.

Words such as “bowels,” “skies,” “dust,” and “seed,” along with archaic pronouns evoke both the original passage and other Biblical stories. “Aber” was kept from the German original; there is no clean English translation for the word, and the intensification that it creates in the German seemed too important to omit from Abram’s line.

MICHAELA KOTZIERS is a junior studying English Literature and German at Penn. She began writing poetry in her first year of college and has since taken interest in translation, especially that of Old English poetry and with experiments in form.