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Does Translating Yiddish Preserve History Or Betray It?

Navigating Two Worlds: Anita Norich is the author of ‘Writing in Tongues: Translating Yiddish in the 20th Century.’ Image by Courtesy of Anita Norich

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.)

Yet there are times when “Writing in Tongues” isn’t about translation at all. Norich considers not only translation from Yiddish to another language, but also the movement from the book or short story to the stage and screen. Though there are multiple English translations of Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman,” the second chapter instead concentrates on the movies it inspired: the Yiddish “Tevye” (1939), the Hebrew “Tevye and His Seven Daughters” (1968), the American “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971), and the Russian “Get Thee Out” (1991). The chapter on Isaac Bashevis Singer, the high point of the book, includes a strong reading of Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl.”

“Translation,” then, is really a figure for the transformation of audience. “Translation” is a way to describe the movement from an internal Jewish world, one where readers could be expected to understand allusions to folklore and religious law, and where writers could freely use anti-Christian imagery, to a world where no knowledge can be assumed, and where marks of Jewish and Christian difference are erased.

Almost always, the world where nothing can be assumed is America. In chapter after chapter, we watch American translators and filmmakers simplify and lighten Yiddish texts. Obscenity and sexual violence are muted. Ambiguous endings are made happier. Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye” doesn’t really have an ending. No part of Tevye’s future is clear. “Fiddler on the Roof” ends with Tevye and company on the road to the New World.

Barbra, too, brought Yentl to America — an ending Singer found absurd. “What would Yentl have done in America? Worked in a sweatshop 12 hours a day?” Singer wrote in The New York Times. Norich explains that Singer was trying to assert “the protagonist’s desire to learn above all else.” Singer was also urging us to remember that many Yiddish-speaking immigrants never found their happy ending.

The centrality of America makes “Writing in Tongues” a sequel-of-sorts to Norich’s earlier book, 2007’s “Discovering Exile: Yiddish and Jewish American Culture during the Holocaust.” There, Norich compared American Yiddish writing during the ’30s and ’40s to “English-language Jewish culture in America.” She told the story of a broken conversation: Yiddish writers responded to American Jewish debates; the other side ignored them. Yiddish writers wrote openly about the terror facing Jews in Europe; the English press claimed not to know the depths. The most successful Yiddish prose writer of his era, Sholem Asch, still wrote in Yiddish but directed his work at a global audience. Yiddish speakers saw his christological trilogy as a betrayal. “English-language Jewish America” wanted to consign Yiddish to the past. Yiddish instead lived in a shadow present.

“Writing in Tongues” is the story of the people trying to respond, and of how those responses change over the decades. We see Glatshteyn’s later translators come to embrace ambiguity and Jewish difference. Writes Norich: “As American Jews have gained in security and as American culture has become more ethnically diverse, there has been a clearer echo of defiance, of the tensions and the grappling with Jewish thought that we have seen in Yiddish texts.” This is Norich’s claim about the Yiddish past: that it was far more sophisticated, complex, aggressive and aesthetically radical than Americans understand. This is her hopeful claim about the American present: Perhaps we’re ready to listen.

Still, at times I wished there were more. At every step Norich takes one path and rarely circles back. Why not look at the different English versions of Tevye? Why not delve into the socio-linguistic features that make Yiddish unique? Norich vacillates between believing these are overstated and believing they are essential. Most urgently, why not introduce the unwritten next chapter — the one on the uncertainty of Yiddish translation in the 21st century?

Norich’s epilogue inadvertently points to the central challenge of Yiddish translation in the 21st century: the ever increasing prominence of non-native translators, people like me, “Esperantists” who learned Yiddish from grammar books, linguistic studies, dictionaries and from existing translations. On the different translations of a sentence in Peretz, Norich writes:

“The reflexive, ‘hot zikh tselakht’ may be more emphatic than hot gelakht (laughed), but it is neither ‘A bitter laugh,’… nor quite ‘breaking or bursting out in laughter.’”

Yet Mordkhe Schaechter’s monumental intermediate and advanced textbook, “Yiddish II,” says that verbs formed with tse… zikh mean “to start the action suddenly and (often) intensively” (my translation). His first example is “ikh vel zikh tselakhn: I will burst out laughing” (Schaechter’s self-translation).

It’s not right to say that Norich is wrong and Schaechter is right, or the reverse. There is no next sentence to offer clues, and translation is a major, misunderstood art. The issue, rather, is that we risk losing the native feel for usage, the ability to say instinctively that it is “not quite” bursting into laughter. A sensibility and instinct is fading.

“Writing in Tongues” opens with childhood panic. A 4-year-old Anita Norich, the Yiddish-speaking child of refugees, is with her family visiting friends with children of Norich’s age. She’s told that all she has to do is say “hello,” and everything else will fall into place. “Hi!” one of the girls answers back — and Norich runs off in tears, embarrassed by her language.

It’s an allegory for usage, fluency, “getting it right,” and for life lived between worlds. By the end, we realize how much translation depends on keeping that fear alive.

Eitan Kensky teaches Yiddish and Jewish Studies at Harvard University. He is also a 2014 National Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow.

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