Help Us Publish Never-Before-Translated Works of Yiddish Literature

A letter from Aaron Lansky to Yiddish Book Center Members

Sholem-aleykhem. I’m writing to ask you to join us in an exciting initiative to bring affordable translations of Yiddish books to English readers around the world.

I think you’ll agree it’s astounding, at this late date, that barely 2 percent of Yiddish titles have been translated into English.  For the better part of a decade we worked hard to co-publish one new translation a year—an accomplishment we were rather proud of until a student pointed out that with so many Yiddish books as yet untranslated, it would take us another 39,000 years to complete the task.

That’s when we realized that the only way to translate vastly more books was to mobilize vastly more translators.  In the six years since, we’ve effectively revolutionized the field by training sixty Yiddish Translation Fellows, all of whom are now at work on novels, short story collections, memoirs, plays, and other literary works that have never been available to English readers before.

The titles our fellows have chosen are very different from what’s been translated before.  Previous projects relied on scholars to choose and commission books to be translated—a reasonable approach, except that selections tended to be drawn from a de facto canon of several hundred titles.  Modern Yiddish literature, on the other hand, spans a hundred and fifty years and comprises forty thousand titles—a fact not lost on our fellows, who, unencumbered by convention, are delving deeply into our online holdings and unearthing gems most of us did not know existed.

Not long ago, Steven [Spielberg] asked to see me. “I tell stories for a living,” he explained, “and I can’t stop thinking about all those Yiddish books on your shelves, all those unread stories. For someone like me they’re irresistible.”

Take, for example, Oedipus in Brooklyn, a collection of short stories by Blume Lempel, a Galician-born writer who came to writing late in her life and wrote quietly at her home on Long Island into the 1990s.  Her stories are surprisingly modern, with references to Zen Buddhism and lunar landings and themes that explore the real lives of contemporary women. One story is set in a clinic where a young woman has gone for an abortion; in another, a widow ventures ambivalently back into the dating pool. Ellen Cassedy, who, together with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, translated the stories, describes the effect as “Grace Paley mixed with Gabriel García Márquez.”

Ellen has since translated a collection of stories by another little-known woman writer named Yenta Mash, whose subjects include her childhood in Bessarabia, her exile to Siberia, her return to Soviet Moldavia, and her emigration to Israel.  In a story called “The Resting Place” Mash describes a group of Jewish women on their way to Siberia.  As Ellen and another translation fellow, Jessica Kirzane, write,

The women and girls have spent weeks crammed together in stinking boxcars. . . . Now they are confined to a slow-moving barge on the Ob River, embarked on a nauseating and seemingly endless journey to a Siberian labor camp.  Mash does not hold back in describing the women’s privations, but as she does she explores how we make meaning out of traumatic and brutal experiences.  When Shprintse, one of the deportees, recounts her dreams to the other women, the act of storytelling lifts the women’s spirits: “Everyone is all ears, listening with pleasure and begging for more.” 

The more we read such stories, the more we too will be begging for more of this forgotten literature—which our fellows are working assiduously to deliver.

In Scotland, Heather Valencia translated Seeds in the Desert by Mendl Man, a collection of forty “daring and exciting” stories that begin in Israel and work backward to wartime Europe.

Daniel Kennedy translated Warsaw Stories by Hirsh Dovid Nomberg, a leading figure in the city’s Yiddish literary circles. With a sharp eye for the foibles and frailties of the new, modern European Jew, Nomberg portrays both the tragic and the absurd aspects of their lives.

Zackary Sholem Berger, a physician and professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School, has undertaken a masterful translation of prose poems by Avrom Sutzkever, the partisan-poet who spent his childhood in Siberia, came of age in pre-War Vilna, bore witness to the city’s destruction, fought in the forests, testified at Nuremberg, emigrated to the new State of Israel, and became the most influential Yiddish editor of the post-War world.

Michael Casper and Madeleine Cohen are working on The Strong and the Weak by Alter Kacyzne, an epic novel detailing the struggles of ordinary Jewish workers in Warsaw.  Best known for his evocative photographs of Jewish life, Kacyzne’s keen eye is clearly evident in the novel’s rich descriptions of daily life.

Mikhl Yashinsky (in conjunction with our partners at Reboot) is translating stories about the famous Yiddish-speaking detective Max Spitzkopf.  Author Jonas Kreppel churned out dozens of these stories; printed as inexpensive pamphlets they were adored by many, including the young Isaac Bashevis Singer, who recalled saving his pennies to buy the latest installments.   

Jessica Kirzane, an alumna of our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program with a doctorate in Yiddish from Columbia, translated Miryem Karlipove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, or The Struggle Against Free Love, set in anarchist circles in early twentieth-century America. 

These are just a forshpays, a preview of coming attractions.  We continue to train ten to twelve additional fellows a year, most, mirtseshem, with long lifetimes of translating ahead of them.  Because no one alive has actually read all of Yiddish literature, no one can say exactly what lies in store, but based on what we’ve seen so far we have good reason for optimism.  One of the major underwriters of our translation fellows has been Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation.  Not long ago, Steven asked to see me.  “I tell stories for a living,” he explained, “and I can’t stop thinking about all those Yiddish books on your shelves, all those unread stories.  For someone like me they’re irresistible.”

They’re going to be irresistible for a lot of us, and I’m enormously grateful to you for helping us to train and mobilize so many talented new translators.  But we’re not done yet.  With sixty well-trained translators hard at work—and many more to follow—we look forward to a steady stream of compelling titles.  But first, we have to find an effective way to publish them and get them into the hands of new readers.

That’s trickier than it sounds.  According to our bibliographer, David Mazower, in the 1930s and ’40s English translations of novels by his great-grandfather, Sholem Asch, sold 600,000 copies each.  Today, only 3 percent of all books published in the United States are translations, and only 1 percent are translations of literature.  Which means that unless someone unearths the Yiddish equivalent of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (translated from Swedish), the chances of a Yiddish translator landing a contract with a major publisher are slim. Translations published with academic presses are often too expensive for students and general readers. 

Our solution, therefore, is to create our own Yiddish Book Center publishing house dedicated specifically to Yiddish literature in translation.  Our goal is to publish worthwhile Yiddish translations, whether they’re likely to be blockbusters or not; to sell paperback and e-book editions at an affordable price; and to do everything in our power to bring these new translations to the widest possible audience.  

Fortunately, both technology and chutzpah are on our side. In the old days, publishers had to print hundreds if not thousands of copies of a given title and store them in warehouses until they were sold.  Today, it’s possible to print short-run editions on demand.  That means that each time someone places an order, an outside vendor will use an electronic master to print a brand new, high-quality paperback copy on the spot and ship it directly.  The absence of inventory, warehouses, and middlemen will go a long way toward keeping retail prices in check.

It’s astounding that barely 2 percent of Yiddish titles have been translated into English.... Our solution is to create our own Yiddish Book Center publishing house dedicated specifically to Yiddish literature in translation.

The second part of our mission—inspiring readers—is something the Yiddish Book Center already knows how to do.  The Yiddish originals you helped us make available online have been downloaded three million times.  Just imagine how many potential readers we can expect for the same titles in English! 

We’ll start with readers like you and expand to include audiences of all ages.  Enrollment in our Great Jewish Books Book Club is growing fast, and new translations, published by the Center, ought to make ideal selections.  We also expect a big demand among students as the titles are adopted in high school and college courses.  S’farshteyt zikh, it goes without saying, that we’ll use all the formidable tools at our disposal—the website you helped us develop, our online resource guides, podcasts, Pakn Treger, and our increasingly popular social media feeds—to reach other potential readers. 

I should hasten to add that our commitment to translation doesn’t mean for a second that we’re abandoning our passion for Yiddish itself.  Aderabe, to the contrary, translations will inevitably inspire some readers to learn Yiddish on their own, and when they do we’ll be ready, with our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, YiddishSchool, our new Yiddish textbook, and our free online library.  But for readers who can’t (yet) read Yiddish in the original, our affordable new translations will open the door to a mighty literature they’ve rarely encountered before.

Our amazing staff members are ready to hit the ground running.  Spearheading the project will be Madeleine Cohen, a former student in our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program with a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley, who came to the Center after teaching Yiddish at Harvard.  Our communications director, Lisa Newman, has decades of experience in book and magazine publishing.  The head of our Yiddish Language Institute, Asya Shulman, has an incomparable command of Yiddish language.  And our academic director, Josh Lambert, is widely respected as a critic and scholar of modern Jewish literature.    

The only other person we need now is you.

The estimated start-up cost of this project is $200,000.  Four exciting titles are already in the queue, and many more are on the way.  Publishing will begin the second funding is in hand.  In the event we exceed that goal, we’ll use the additional funds to publish additional translations in Pakn Treger and online; produce the annual digital Translation Edition of Pakn Treger; train and mentor our Translation Fellows, and launch other initiatives to bring previously untranslated Yiddish works to new readers.

You’ve already helped us train and mobilize a new generation of Yiddish translators.  Won’t you help us now to publish and distribute their remarkable work by making your generous, tax-deductible contribution today, while it’s still on your mind?

Mit a hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),

Aaron Lansky

P.S.  For a tax-deductible gift of $20,000, you can “adopt” and underwrite the publication of a forthcoming Yiddish title.  Just phone us at 413-256-4900 x 117 and we’ll let you know what’s available.  But if that’s beyond your reach (as it will be for most of us), we still need your help.  A gift of $360, $100, $36, or whatever you can afford will allow us to publish surprising, never-before-translated works of Yiddish literature and bring them to new audiences everywhere.  Please, won’t you make your tax-deductible contribution today?  A sheynem dank—my personal thanks!