Mobilization: Reporter John Marchese listens in as 96 people lay plans for the future of Yiddish translation

Edelshtein, the aggrieved poet, had a list.

He was fictional, of course—the desperate but proud character invented by Cynthia Ozick in her 1969 novella, Envy; or, Yiddish in America. But his problems and obsessions were solidly based in reality then and would become even more of a reality in recent decades.

Edelshtein’s envy focused on one Y. Ostrover, also fictional but bearing a strong resemblance to a certain future Nobel Prize winner. Ostrover happened to be the one Yiddish writer that the American publishing industry could see clear to translate and publish while scores of worthy writers sat untranslated. In a letter to the fictional Ostrover’s fictional publishers, Misters Kimmel and Segal, Edelshtein rattles off a roll call of the unlucky. The authors’ names Ozick chose were real, including Itzik Manger, Chaim Grade, Eliezer Greenberg, Mani Leib, Zisha Landau. As the letter went on and the names added up, Edelshtein punctuated with exclamations. “Avrom Goldfaden! A. Rosenblatt! Y. Y. Schwartz, Yoisef Rollnick!”

“They Have No Translators!” Edelshtein gasps at last.

Over two days last fall the Yiddish Book Center, along with the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature, brought together scores of scholars, teachers, translators, and students to discuss and dissect this enduring problem in the world of Yiddish. The two-day conference was titled “Translating Yiddish Literature: Mobilizing a New Generation.” The Center itself is symbolic of the situation. Of some eighteen thousand individual titles housed in Amherst, only a small fraction has been translated into English.

“We don’t really know what’s here,” said Aaron Lansky. “We all know the same two hundred books.” He likened the situation to Herman Melville’s classic tale of whaling being overlooked for decades. “We don’t know if there are Moby Dicks sitting on the shelves downstairs.”

In facing those vast shelves of untranslated works, many questions arise. With the last of the native speakers dwindling in number and advancing in age, who will take on the task of translating those works? How can consensus be reached on a canon, a feasible number of important books that deserve priority?

Other questions raised were more practical. Could a Wiki-fied world allow new forms of collaboration? Where would a new audience reside, and could it be reached more effectively and economically in electronic form rather than printed paper? And perhaps most practical of all: how could translators get paid?

In the late ’60s, Ozick would say (through Edelshtein) that “to speak of Yiddish was to preside over a funeral.” But to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of Yiddish’s death seem to have been exaggerated. Many of the authors Edelshtein named have been translated in the last decades. And the mere fact that nearly one hundred people would spend the greater part of a beautiful fall weekend worrying over Yiddish translation would seem to dispel the most pessimistic predictions. Still, the conference keynote speaker, Lawrence Rosenwald, professor of English at Wellesley and an active translator, opened his talk by painting an image of the Yiddish book section of Harvard’s Widener Library as being tomblike, dusty and deserted, with rows of undisturbed books giving mute testimony to “unattendedness and untranslatedness.”

It was a vivid representation of the fact that only 2 percent of Yiddish literature has been translated. Rosenwald has had hands-on experience with the 2 percent. Working on editorial advisory boards, including the Center’s New Yiddish Library, he has often read older translations of well-known Yiddish authors and found them wanting. Faced with that giant stack of untranslated work, he sees a dichotomy. “We need both high standards and abundant production,” he said. “But the two morals often push against each other; the desire for high standards chokes off energy, the desire for abundant production chokes off judgment.” The tug between speedy production and time-consuming accuracy was a theme that wound through the entire conference.

One solution Rosenwald proposes is to recruit an army of “competent hacks” (he doesn’t mean the word in a pejorative sense) to a website that would promote collaborative translation using the Wikipedia model. “What our new technologies offer us,” Rosenwald said, is the “possibility of making this arduous and necessary process collaborative. I am, for the moment, placing my hopes in it.”

The practical difficulty of doing any good translation—whether it be on a collaborative website or the back of an envelope—was the theme of a talk by Anita Norich, professor of English at the University of Michigan, and it was a question that would recur throughout the conference.

Beyond the problems of complicated lexical issues and limited published resources, Norich sees more elaborate cultural issues. “How can a Jewish language steeped in Jewish ritual and culture hope to be understood in non-Jewish languages?” Norich asked. “How can the multilingual world of Eastern European Jewry be rendered in the monolingual American context?”

Norich’s analysis of the craft of translation can range quickly from the lofty—and opaque—pronouncements of Walter Benjamin to a word-by-word dissection of the English version of I. B. Singer’s Yentl to show how the difference in a pronoun can create stark changes in meaning. An encouraging trend that Norich sees and encourages in newer translations is a change from the tendency to scrub away some of the inherent “revolts and tensions” in Yiddish writing throughout the last century.

“The Yiddish writers are not worried about whether or not es past zikh far di goyim—about whether it’s appropriate for a non-Jewish audience. They do not behave like guests who want an invitation back, to be polite, to be on good behavior, to hope that their hosts will think well of them. That sensibility entered English translations late. But our translations now can certainly reflect it without fear of airing dirty linen or betraying the dead—or even risking being misunderstood. That, it seems to me, is the responsibility and the challenge for Yiddish translators today.”

In a question-and-answer session that followed Norich’s talk, a conference attendee asked whether translations, particularly of nonfiction works in Yiddish, would render the originals obsolete. “I’ve staked my professional life on the hope that teaching things in translation will bring people back to the Yiddish,” Norich said. “In literature it does do that; one of the ways of going back to the original is through the translation.

“There’s some unbelievable literary criticism from the Yiddish,” she added. “Will it supersede the Yiddish if it is translated? Perhaps, but I could live with that. I’d like people to be able to read it. But I don’t want to lose sight of the hope that translation brings you back to the original.”

The second day of the conference began with a look at the brave new world of electronic publishing and whether the opportunities for digital dissemination could prove to be a boon to the project of translating the Yiddish canon.

“What can electronic publishing do for all foreign literature?” asked panelist Susan Harris, editorial director of Words Without Borders, an online magazine for international literature. “Electronic communication facilitates the editorial back-and-forth that is the heart of publishing, particularly literature.” At the same time, she explained, electronic publishing streamlines the processes and timelines of print and introduces substantial cost savings.

“The most exciting thing is what the electronic element allows us to add,” Harris said. For instance, the prohibitive costs of bilingual print editions are alleviated online. And bonus supplemental material can be added easily, she said, “even little things like audio pronunciation of authors’ names.

“Electronic publishing,” Harris concluded, “allows us to present literature to so many more people and make it available around the world. That can only work for all our mutual good.”

Josh Lambert, the Yiddish Book Center’s academic director, looked at a book industry that he described as at a “weird moment.” Though there is much talk of the death of the book, Lambert said, books still arrive each year in profusion, hundreds of thousands of them. Even in “the small world of Jewish publishing,” he said, where he wrote a new books column for several years for the journal Tablet, it was impossible to keep up with the new titles. Everywhere he looks, Lambert said, he sees good news and bad news, a knife that is always double-edged. Social media can open new avenues for book promotion, yet it seems to lean toward the trivial—the “Like” button. And the promise of small-batch electronic publishing means that it’s almost a foregone conclusion that no individual book can be a best seller. But, Lambert concluded, “technology allows us to get small books out to the people who want them—cheaply and easily. And I think that’s an exciting thing.”

Faith Jones, former librarian at the New York Public Library, now at the University of British Columbia, discussed the slowness and lack of innovation in the book industry, which is now being forced to do something—anything—new. “We can’t wait for the digital publishing realm to settle,” she said.

Jones has some experience with the collective process of translation, having worked for years with a collaborative translation group whose members live in three different cities. She would be willing to explore a broader online collaborative effort of the type proposed by Larry Rosenwald at the beginning of the conference.

“Let people come in and fix my translation,” she said. “Using real names, being respectful. The real power of digital publishing, the real power of the electronic realm, is not the power to reach people. It is the power to involve people.

“But we have to be willing to take more risks,” she added. “Why don’t we develop a Yiddish translation app? We have to not be afraid to explore the geeky glory that is out there that could make so many things possible for us.”

It was a less geeky and more traditional image invoked by Justin Cammy to foster a new generation of translators. Cammy, associate professor of Jewish Studies at Smith College and a published translator, proposed “reframing” the famous photograph of the Strashun Library in Vilna of religious and secular scholars studying together. How about “a new picture for the twenty-first century?” he asked. With the aid of fellowships or grants, “translators who wanted to come together in a place like this”—the Yiddish Book Center—“with dictionaries spread before them on the table [could] spend all day translating various works, so that by the end of the year you would have not only a collaborative family of translators who would be able to work together and comment and critique and ask questions, but [also] have perhaps four or five or six new works of Yiddish literature out there.”

Rebecca Margolis, who has been teaching Yiddish for fifteen years, currently at the University of Ottawa, would also bring people together, but for immersion courses in Yiddish. “I’m a snob when it comes to teaching,” she said. “I think that Yiddish should be taught intensively. The best way to produce competent Yiddish speakers/translators/researchers is to have people do this sort of immersion program. In my heart of hearts I believe that if you like Yiddish literature, you should go out and learn Yiddish.”

Margolis recalled her own days as a student of the language, where she did everything in Yiddish, from writing papers to going out for a beer with colleagues. “For me, the whole language approach is key to creating good translators. You need to be able to speak Yiddish, produce Yiddish, translate into Yiddish in order to be able to translate out of Yiddish.” Her wish list to help the next generations of Yiddish translators has three main items: better instructional materials, more advanced language courses, and more money.

Margolis introduced a theme that was picked up by Barbara Harshav, former president of the American Literary Translators Association—that translation is inherently a lonely business. Harshav emphasized the importance of finding a group of like-minded people to work on translations, something she has done herself. But, she warned, sociability cannot supersede study in the development of a good translator.

“You have to be very old to be a translator,” Harshav said. “It’s not just being old, it’s learning a lot and reading a lot. As I tell all my students: just read. Read everything. Read all the time, and when you’re not reading, eavesdrop. When I was a kid I was told it was rude to eavesdrop. When I became a translator I realized it was a professional thing—I have to eavesdrop. I’m constantly listening to how people use the language. That has stood me in good stead.”

Solon Beinfeld, retired professor of Jewish Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, promised that the future for translators looks brighter than ever, partly because of a decade-long project he has led to produce the most complete Yiddish-English dictionary available (itself an adaptation of a highly praised Yiddish-French dictionary) is nearing completion.

Of course, advising anyone to get old may be astute, but it’s ultimately unnecessary. Before the conference ended, the participants formed small groups to discuss and develop lists of practical steps to move forward. The suggestions ranged widely, but several specifics were repeated among the working groups: the importance of fostering collaboration; the need for fellowships for intensive study; and, always, more money.

“We didn’t end up with all the answers that we had hoped,” Aaron Lansky said in a summation that closed the conference. “We ended up with a lot of questions. That’s probably as it needs to be.

“There are a number of priorities now that we see coming out of this,” Lansky added. The first is structuring an ambitious website to post translations-in-progress and allow people to suggest changes. Incorporated into that site would be advanced lexical resources. Next, Lansky said, “we have to figure out, how does one compensate translation? All the technology in the world doesn’t obviate the very basic problem that it takes a lot of work to translate a book. No matter how you slice it, it’s a year’s work to translate a novel. People have to live.

“How do we reach young people?” Lansky asked. “How do we inspire them? How do we train them so that they can take on this work? How do we cultivate readers? That’s still absolutely critical.”

In the months following the conference a steering committee was formed to narrow down a list of initiatives. Three main project ideas emerged, all dependent on acquiring grant money. One is a new website that would have a registry of Yiddish works already translated and a forum for suggestions for new translations. The website would contain lexical resources, and translators could post works-in-progress on the site for collaborative review and assistance. The second project is a formal program of fellowships sponsored by the Yiddish Book Center which would grant stipends to fledgling translators and team them with more established mentors. The fellows would also compete for additional merit prizes and publication in an annual issue of Pakn Treger devoted to new translations. The third initiative would be to transform the ten-year-old New Yiddish Library project into an electronic publishing mode with an editorial board that would accept submissions rather than assign commissions.

“This has to be a consortial endeavor,” Lansky said. “It’s a project for a people to repatriate itself with its own literature. And for a very wide audience. We have a lot of work ahead of us.

“If this were easy,” Lansky repeated throughout the conference, “then everybody would be doing it.”

John Marchese is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Worth, and Philadelphia.

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