Writing in Tongues: Translating Yiddish in the 20th Century
By Anita Norich
University of Washington Press, 160 pages, $30
Translators are villains, lechers, traitors. Like the spinster who translates Yankel Ostrover’s stories in Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” they are vain. “Who has read James Joyce, Ostrover or I?” she seethes. “I didn’t go to Vassar for nothing.”
Translators are insecure, pathetic. Like the translator in David Fogel’s Hebrew novella “Facing the Sea,” they hide their deformities under obsequious shows of worldliness.
They live between loyalties, like the young soldier forced to interpret in “Saving Private Ryan.” His knowledge of another language cursed him with empathy, blinded him to the evil staring back.
To this we can add both the particular accusation levied against Yiddish translators and the moral burden thrust upon them. On the one hand, Anita Norich tells us in her excellent book, “Writing in Tongues: Translating Yiddish in the 20th Century,” translating Yiddish is an “act of collaboration in the destruction of a culture” (my emphasis). It implies that there will never again be an audience for these books in the original. On the other hand, translating Yiddish is also a kind of “resistance to history” (Norich’s emphasis). Translating Yiddish is a gesture aimed at preserving and maintaining what was supposed to have been killed.
It’s the truth of Norich’s war-stained language that makes it disquieting: Yiddish and its legacy are still haunted by the Holocaust. There is no normal translation of Yiddish novels and stories. Each translation is a claim on the Yiddish past. Each translation is a statement about what the centuries of Jewish life in Eastern Europe were and what that history means today, to us. “This was Yiddish,” translations shout, though almost no one hears. “No, it was this,” another adds to the echoes. One of the earliest meanings of the English word “translation” is the movement of sacred relics from one place to another. In a very real way — and one that I would never have stated in these terms before reading the third chapter of Norich’s book — we scholars and translators of Yiddish are choosing what graves to bring to an unmourning America.
“Writing in Tongues” is a book about translation. It begins with an introduction to translation theory, it includes a chapter that minutely compares nine English versions of the Jacob Glatstein (born Yankev Glatshteyn) poem “A gute nakht, velt” (Good Night, World), and it closes with a discussion of the different ways of translating a single, pivotal sentence in a story by I.L. Peretz. At no point is the discussion overly technical. First presented as part of the prestigious Stroum Lectures at the University of Washington, the chapter-lectures that make up “Writing in Tongues” are aimed at a general-but-educated audience. Norich writes clearly and simplifies abstruse ideas.
(Full disclosure: Norich is a family friend and her brother, Samuel Norich, is the publisher of the Forward.)