My mother and I used to fight about translation. These were not genteel disagreements but passionate, intemperate shouting matches. She would say: “That’s not what I meant! You twisted my words. Why can’t you just translate what I wrote?” I would say: “Because it’s not English; you can’t say that in English!” Or, “It’s too sentimental, too much mush, too many adjectives.” She would say: “What a cold language English is!”
My mother was the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb; she died in January 2011, at the age of 87. I tell you about our quarrels not to suggest that my mother and I had a quarrelsome relationship. On the contrary, we seldom fought about anything non-literary. Nor do I tell you this because I want to demonstrate that she and I were a team, a translating team, although that is exactly what we were. I tell you this because I want to emphasize just how important writing was to my mother’s life and how much emotion, passion and energy she devoted to it.
The first thing journalists and reviewers usually say when they refer to my mother is that she was a Holocaust survivor, as if this one event defined her for all time. Well, she was a Holocaust survivor, but it was not the essence of her life. When asked what she did, she always replied, “I am a writer.” And she bristled if anyone implied that because she did not leave her house and go to work every day, she had no job. Writing was her job; more than that, writing was her life. She was never more miserable than when she had a writer’s block and never happier than when she had a great idea for a story. When she was elderly and could not write much anymore, she would shake her head and say with regret, “I was happiest when I was writing.”
But writing is a lonely business, and it was especially lonely for someone writing in Yiddish. When her great work, “The Tree of Life,” was first published in Yiddish in 1972, she received letters from readers from all over the world and glowing reviews in the Yiddish press, which acclaimed it as one of the superior literary depictions of the Holocaust. But she could not convince an English-language publisher to take a chance on the novel until 2000.
In the wider world — that is, the English-speaking world — she was unknown, merely another obscure housewife who thought she could write. As she put it in her essay “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer”:
If writing is a lonely profession, then the Yiddish writer’s loneliness has an added dimension. Her readership has perished. Her language has gone up with the smoke of the crematoria. She creates in a vacuum, almost without a readership, out of fidelity to a vanished language; as if to prove that Nazism did not extinguish its last breath, that it is still alive.
She felt, she said, “like an anachronism, wandering across a page of history.”