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Some Thoughts about Translating Yiddish Poetry into English

May 26, 2012

by Barnett Zumoff

[caption id="attachment_10319" align="alignright" width="205" caption="Yankev Glatshteyn (1896-1971)"][/caption]

"Reading poetry in translation," said the Yiddish-Hebrew poet Khayim Nakhman Bialik, "is like kissing a bride through her veil." Yankev Glatshteyn, in his early years, spoke more bluntly about translating his poetry into English: "Who needs it? Only the goyim need translation, and they won’t appreciate it anyway." In later years, however, Glatshteyn eagerly sought out people to translate his poetry, perhaps realizing that a new generation of "Jewish goyim" was growing up, Jews who through no fault of their own were simply not literate in Yiddish. Such Jews would then have two and only two choices regarding Yiddish poetry and other Yiddish literature: either they could read it in translation or they would have to forgo it entirely. The first of these is better, of course, for them and for Jews in general, and so translating Yiddish literature into the "land-shprakh" (English, in this case) has become "heylike arbet" (holy work).

I’m no Yiddish expert; the only thing I’m an expert on is medicine, my life’s basic work. Regarding translation, I am an amateur, though a very devoted one. It’s worth noting that the root of the word “amateur” is the same as the root of the verb "to love," and I am, indeed, a lover of Yiddish poetry and of the art of translation.

My translation work began about twenty-five years ago, at the Workmen’s Circle annual book fair, when I began thumbing a bilingual anthology of Yiddish poetry translated by Ruth Whitman. I found it interesting but with occasional lapses: The very first poem, for example, was one by Glatshteyn, called "Der Poet Lebt" (The Poet Lives), in which he affirms that he will continue to live and thrive despite the envy and animus of fellow poets. The first lines, "Der poet lebt. Di yidishe levaye-feygl shnapn," Whitman had translated as: "The poet lives. The Jewish coffin-birds snap." That brought me up short! There is no such expression as "coffin-birds" in English, and "shnapn" doesn’t mean "snap," though it sounds as if it should. I retranslated the lines as follows: "The poet lives. The Jewish vultures are sniffing around." "Vultures" conveys both the literal and figurative meanings Glatshteyn had in mind for "levaye-feygl" — (literally, birds that gather over a dead body, and figuratively, people who are eagerly waiting for someone to die).

I remarked, out loud but to no one in particular, "I can do better than that" (meaning her translations). Fortuitously, the late and very dear Moyshe Petrushka overheard me. "Is that so?" he asked. "Let’s see you do it." So I went to Yosl Mlotek, then educational director of the Workmen’s Circle and a dear and faithful friend. "Yosl," I said, "I'd like to try my hand at translating some Yiddish poetry. What do you suggest?"

He took me perfectly seriously and suggested that I try a volume by Avrom Sutzkever, the dean of living Yiddish poets. The book was called Fun Alte Un Yunge Ksav-Yadn ("From Old and Recent Manuscripts"). It took me almost a year, including most of a summer at Camp Kinder Ring, where I was the camp physician for many years. When I finished, Yosl and Khane Mlotek were kind enough to review the translation with me. We spent many hours talking and arguing about various words and expressions, and we finally arrived at an agreed-on text, which was later published under the title, Laughter Beneath the Forest.

I then went to Mlotek and said, "Okay, now what?" He suggested Glatshteyn's collected Holocaust poems, called "Kh'Tu Dermonen." So I set out to become a translator . . .

With Glatshteyn, the issue of whether to translate in rhyme comes up at the very outset. In his earliest poems, he evinced little interest in rhyme; in fact, he and his "In Zikh" (Introspectivist) colleagues (Leyeles, Minkoff, and others) were strong proponents of free verse. In later years, however, he wrote more poetry with rhyme. Despite the many editors who have a rather patronizing and supercilious attitude that sees rhymed translations as old-fashioned and déclassé, my approach is as follows: One should never make a rhymed translation where the original is unrhymed — that is being too clever by half and untrue to the original — and it is also an order of magnitude harder to do. On the other hand, where the original is rhymed, one should make every effort to provide a rhymed translation, for that is at once more faithful to the genius of the original and often far lovelier than an unrhymed version.

Let me give an example of a poem by Anna Margolin, "Ikh Bin Geven a Mol a Yingling" for which Richard Fein has provided an unrhymed translation and I have provided a rhymed translation.

In Yiddish (rhymed):

Ikh bin geven a mol a yingling,

gehert in porticos sokratn.

Es hot mayn buzemfraynd, mayn libling

gehat dem shenstn tors in atn.

Geven tsezar, un a hele velt

geboyt fun marmor. Ikh der letster,

un far a vayb mir oysderveylt

mayn shtoltse shvester.

In royznkrants baym vayn biz shpet,

gehert in hoykhmutikn fridn

vegn shvakhling fun nazaret

un vilde mayses vegn yidn.

Unrhymed translation:

When I was a young man

I heard Socrates in the arcades.

My bosom friend, my lover,

had the most gorgeous chest in Athens.

Then there was Caesar — what a shining

world of marble he made. I was the last one left

and my proud sister

was chosen to be my wife.

Crowned with roses, drinking into the night,

flushed and cozy, I heard

about that milksop from Nazareth

and wild stories about the Jews.

Rhymed translation:

I was once a youth

heard Socrates in the square.

My dear friend, my lover

had the most beautiful body there.

There were Caesars, who built

a bright marble world for our life.

I was the last, and my proud sister

was chosen to be my wife.

In my crown of roses, tippling into the night,

in peace and high spirits I heard the news

about the weakling from Nazareth

and wild stories about the Jews.

Richard Fein’s translation has a commendable colloquial vigor, but I think it is fair to say that the rhymed translation is more graceful and poetic — and more faithful, in tone, to Margolin’s era.

It might also be of interest here to look at a brief, two-stanza poem of Yankev Glatshteyn’s from his volume of Holocaust poetry, where I translated the first stanza unrhymed and the second in rhyme:


Durkhn crematorie-koymen

kroyzt aroyf a yid tzum atik yomim,

un vi nor der roykh farshvindt,

knoylt aroyf zayn vayb un kind.

Un oybn in di himlishe hoykhn,

veynen, benken, heylike roykhn.

Got, dort vu du bist do,

dortn zaynen mir ale oykh nishto.


Through the chimney of the crematorium

a Jew wafts upward to eternity,

and as soon as his smoke disappears

his wife and child curl upward too.

And up above, in the heavenly pale,

holy ghosts keen and wail.

O God, up where your glories resound,

not even there can we be found.

Though the unrhymed translation is powerful and moving, the rhymed part, I venture, sounds somehow "more poetic" and evokes the rhymed original.

There are also different schools of thought about accuracy and faithfulness in the translation of Yiddish poetry (and all poetry). The great poet and writer Cynthia Ozick believes that one should essentially create a new poem, only loosely based on the original. I believe that the original poet should be allowed to speak as he or she chose — that the translator should be as accurate as possible and should not inject his or her own poetic persona into the translation.

Let me cite some passages from Glatshteyn to illustrate some challenges of Yiddish translation.

1. There is a problem with the very title of the Holocaust volume, "Kh’tu Dermonen." "Dermonen" has many meanings: to mention, to remind, to remember or recall (properly with "zikh"). The construction, "Kh'tu Dermonen," an emphatic progressive present tense form, is awkward Yiddish, not really part of the very best literary language. I translated it loosely as "I Keep Recalling", which is not completely accurate but conveys the sense well.

2. There is a line in Glatshteyn's introduction that lends itself to a translation that is, I believe, both very accurate and evocatively poetic. He writes, "Kh'hob ongehoybn shraybn di khurbn-lider mit di ershte shpirungen fun yidish veter in yidishe beyner," which I translated as, "I started to write the Holocaust poems when the twinges in my Jewish bones first alerted me to the coming stormy weather for the Jews." I like to think that Glatshteyn would have smiled with approval at that translation.

3. In the first and most widely known poem in the volume, "A Gute Nakht, Velt" ("Good Night, World"), there are several tricky expressions. One is in the first paragraph: "Kheyrem, velt, oyf dayne treyfene kulturn." "Kheyrem" is a word soaked in Jewish tradition and difficult to translate. The line had been awkwardly rendered by others as "I bar your unclean cultures," "A ban on your unclean cultures," "Go to Hell with your polluted cultures," and "I cast out all your unclean cultures." I translated "kheyrem" as "anathema" (both words mean "excommunication"), which conveys the sense of a thunderous curse delivered as an expletive. The line, then, translates as: "Anathema, world, upon your unclean cultures."

4. In the poem "Vegener" ("Wagons"), Glatshteyn uses the phrase "unter tsetsundener kelt," which has been weakly translated by others as "in the heady cool," "fanned by cool air," "under the flames of coolness," and "beneath the kindled coolness." I chose a more direct, and I think more accurate, translation: "In the burning cold," an oxymoronic but idiomatic image that is highly evocative.

5. In the poem "Oyfn Yatkeklotz" ("On the Butcher Block"), a Jew is telling of his torment by Christian persecutors. Towards the end, he describes their hypocritical “compassion” for him: "Zey hobn mir getraybert di odern mit farteydikakhts." The Harshavs translated the phrase as "They purged my veins with justification," which is literally correct (although "they" did no such thing) but does not convey Glatshteyn's meaning very clearly. "Traybern di odern" means "to make kosher by removing forbidden veins and fat," from the hindquarters of cattle (actually what needs to be removed is the sciatic nerve and its branches), so I used the slangy, figurative English meaning of "kosher" and translated the line "They made me 'kosher' with their defenses of me."

6. In the poem "Got Iz A Troyeriker Maharal" ("God Is An Unhappy Maharal"), Glatshteyn has the lines "Er zitst baym kval fun zayn vunder un varft arayn shvere shteyner." ("He sits at the wellspring of His wonders and throws in heavy rocks.") "Kval" can mean either "source" or "spring," the former an abstract meaning, the latter concrete. The Yiddish obviously means "the source of his wonders," but one cannot throw stones (shteyner) into an abstraction. I chose to translate "kval" as "wellspring," which means "source" but has a concrete connotation of a body of water, into which one could indeed throw stones.

7. The poem "Vidershtand In Geto" (Uprising in the Ghetto) describes the Jews in the forest: "Zey hobn undz arumgetsundn, ober mir hobn gevandlt in fayer." This was translated by the Harshavs as "They encircled us with fire, but we were transformed in the flame." I believe this is incorrect: "We were transformed" would properly be "mir zaynen farvandlt gevorn," not "mir hobn gevandlt," and though one might perhaps take enough linguistic license to use the latter for the former, I don’t think that's what Glatshteyn meant. In another poem in the Holocaust volume, he clearly uses the verb "vandlen" (which is not in Weinreich’s or Harkavy’s dictionary), to mean "to wander," and I think that’s what he means here. So I translated the line as "They encircled us with fire, but we wandered around in the fire." This refers to an ancient midrash in which Abraham is described as having been thrown into the fire by Nimrod, but a miracle occurred and Abraham wandered around in a rose garden in place of the fire.

8. In the poem,"Kh'vel Zikh Ayngloybern" (I'll Find My Faith), there is a line, "unter a himl fun eybikn untergang," which Ruth Whitman translated as "under a sky eternally sinking." This appeared incorrect to me: Although the usual Yiddish word for "sunset" is "zunen-fargang," Glatshteyn has
used the less common expression "zunen-unter-gang" elsewhere, and in this poem he clearly means, "under a sky of eternal sunset," which is how I translated the line.

I hope I have conveyed some sense of the intellectual challenges and pleasures of the process of translating the poetry of great poetic masters. It's a humbling process, as one soon realizes what makes poets great — it's the greatness of their poetry. That sounds redundant and platitudinous, but it really isn't. Only when one tries to render both the sense and the beauty of a poet’s original language into another language does one appreciate the difference between great poetry and mediocre poetry.

The greater the original, the more difficult it is to capture its greatness in translation. We translators must nevertheless fight the good fight and do the best we can.