Barnett Zumoff sat and peered through thick-rimmed bifocals at his latest book, “Songs to a Moonstruck Lady: Women in Yiddish Poetry,” as he flipped through the pages, trying to find a favorite poem. He already had found and read aloud two favorite poems — he has, he confessed, a lot of favorites — but he felt compelled to find one more.
Published last month, “Songs to a Moonstruck Lady” (TSAR Publications) is a collection of Yiddish poems by and about women that Zumoff has selected and translated. President of the Forward Association, Zumoff has been translating Yiddish texts since 1983, when he picked up a bilingual anthology of Yiddish poetry, glanced at the English translation and decided that he could do better. He went on to publish eight books of translated poetry, essays and short stories, but “Songs to a Moonstruck Lady,” his ninth, is the first book for which he has received pay. “I’m starting to become a professional,” he said. He has another five books completed and awaiting publication.
Meanwhile, Zumoff, at 79, is still a practicing endocrinologist and a professor on the faculties of three medical schools. He also continues to write medical papers — “in English, of course.”
Zumoff found the poem he was looking for — “Last Night I Felt,” by Rokhl Korn — settled himself, and began to read in a gravelly baritone.
Roughly half the poems in the collection were written by women, the rest by men about women. They touch on subjects ranging from religion to romance to art to children to, inevitably, mothers. Zumoff said he chose to translate a collection about women because “I feel some part of me identifies with the feminine side of the world, of society, of nature and so on.”
Zumoff learned Yiddish as a boy from his father and grandparents, and then later at the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring school. He considers himself “almost” fluent.
However, Zumoff has found that translating poetry requires more than mere fluency. When he began translating, he was, in his words, “a slave to the meaning.” As time has passed and he has become more experienced, he has made more of an effort to evoke, if not imitate, the rhyme scheme of the poems, and his translations sometimes depart substantially from the original, literal meaning of the text.
Though the introduction to his new book includes Robert Frost’s warning that “Poetry is what is lost in translation,” Zumoff thinks one still can do pretty well with a good translation. Besides, he pointed out, few people who speak Yiddish (mostly Haredi Jews) read poetry, and few who read poetry know Yiddish. If it is not translated, he asserted, Yiddish poetry will be effectively dead. “What shall we do with it?” Zumoff asked rhetorically. “Let it molder on dusty shelves? Or try to translate?”
After he finished reading Korn’s poem aloud, Zumoff scanned the page, then reread, with relish, a favorite couplet: “for God bade me to do Creation/and I have failed him, who knows why.” He pondered, then added, “I must say, immodestly, it sounds better in English than in Yiddish.”
From ‘Songs to a Moonstruck Lady’
“Last Night I Felt”
By Rokhl Korn
Last night I felt a poem on my lips,
a juicy fruit with hard-edged ring.
It flew away at dawn’s first light —
left its aroma in my mind.
I hear the stammer of the things
that should have come to words in it,
but stand abandoned, hearts clamped shut,
beyond entreaty, oaths, or wit.
With every limb in frozen death,
with down-bowed head I cry,
for God bade me to do Creation
and I have failed Him, who knows why.
The light of day is fading now —
the paper withers in my barren hand.
God’s face He hides from me with clouds,
and in my house of shame I stand.
“A Shadow of Your Dress”
By Dovid Eynhorn
A shadow of your dress
has fallen upon me.
A slight silken rustle
makes my heart skip a beat.
I stand alone and listen —
my soul expires with joy,
and someone tells me secretly:
“She comes, she comes, she comes!”
I hear your tread now.
It seems to me your hand
touches my brow and strokes it,
and closes my eyes.
I hear your tender voice —
it sings, it kisses, it speaks.
And deep, deep within me
a silent prayer grows.
From “Songs to a Moonstruck Lady,” translated from the Yiddish by Barnett Zumoff.