Tug-of-War: Sholem Asch and His Translators

Sholem Asch, circa 1906, on a visit to London, before his work was widely translated into English

Sholem Asch was the first Yiddish writer to reach a mass audience in translation. But as his great-grandson David Mazower explains, the relationship between author and translator wasn’t always an easy one.

Sholem Asch grew up in the Polish shtetl of Kutno in the 1880s, in what he termed “a strictly religious Jewish atmosphere.” His world was the traditional one of kheyder, shul, and yeshiva (religious elementary school, synagogue, and talmudic academy). But secular heresies penetrated the firewall of Polish Hasidic orthodoxy as surely as Western culture seeps into today’s Iran or China. By his late teens Asch was reading widely in German, Russian, and Polish, discovering the forbidden fruit not just of literature but also of science and philosophy. His early passions were for Shakespeare and Goethe, Gorky, Dickens, and Balzac.

In 1899 Asch moved to Warsaw and joined the circle of young disciples who met weekly at the home of I. L. Peretz, their literary mentor. Asch’s stories soon appeared in print, but his literary horizons were always broader than the world of Yiddish or Hebrew letters. Asch believed passionately that Yiddish literature deserved a place at European culture’s top table. It would earn that status once two things happened: the classics of world literature were translated into Yiddish, and the new wave of Yiddish writing reached the widest possible audience through translation.

Even today it seems an ambitious program. In the 1900s, with Yiddish derided as a “jargon” and translation largely the pursuit of amateurs, only a khutspedik upstart like Asch would dare to get so ahead of himself.

In the absence of professional translators Asch pressed friends and family into service. His first translator was his own father-in-law, Menachem Mendel Szpiro. A lapsed Hasid with a passion for languages, Szpiro would stay up late into the night studying Spanish and Esperanto by candlelight. In the early 1900s he translated some of Asch’s stories for publication in Hebrew and Polish. Szpiro’s friendship with prominent Warsaw Zionist and journalist Nahum Sokolow led directly to another coup for the young author. Sokolow’s student son, Florian, produced the Polish translations of Asch’s early plays that premiered at the imposing National Theatre in Kraków, creating a sensation in the world of Yiddish letters.

A year or two later Asch’s plays and stories began to find new audiences in Russian and German. In the early twentieth century those were the key European markets for emerging Yiddish writers, the two big prizes in terms of status and potential earnings. Asch traveled regularly to both Russia and Germany and his persistence brought results. Maxim Gorky published Asch’s stories in his Russian-language publishing house, and the celebrated director Max Reinhardt staged the sexually provocative God of Vengeance in German in Berlin, one of the earliest productions of the play.

English-language critics and publishers were slower to respond to the new Yiddish literature than their continental counterparts. Asch only began to be widely translated in English after he moved to New York, in 1914, and just as with Bashevis Singer a generation later, relations with his English translators were rarely smooth.

In part this was due to Asch’s character. An emotional man with a capacity for grand gestures, he could also be prickly, egotistical, and capricious.

But personalities aside, there were bigger issues of cultural politics that made the relationship between Yiddish writer and English-language translator especially sensitive. As Bashevis also found, such collaborations involved more than the usual lopsided marriage of convenience between author and translator. In the 1920s and 30s the center of gravity in the Jewish world shifted westward. The high-status realm of English letters became the promised land to which the translator held the key. His or her skill could make all the difference to the Yiddish writer’s reputation, fame, and fortune in the English-speaking world. The Yiddish writer knew this and frequently resented the power that it placed in a translator’s hands.

Asch was quick to react to any sign that his translator had moved from a supporting role to center stage. This was the case with Isaac Goldberg, his first serious translator into English. Goldberg produced an “authorized” English translation of God of Vengeance. But then he blotted his copybook. When “Mottke the Vagabond,” his version of Asch’s Motke ganef, was published, in 1917, the title page claimed it was “translated and edited by Isaac Goldberg, Ph.D.” Asch took offense at the word “edited” and soon ended the relationship with Goldberg.

Compared to most of his contemporaries, Asch was fortunate in his translators. Willa and Edwin Muir, who translated Salvation and Three Cities, were noted authors in their own right and were celebrated as the translators of Kafka’s works into English. Asch admired their skill. But the Muirs didn’t know mameloshn (Yiddish) and worked at one remove from Asch’s originals, translating from German versions rather than directly from Yiddish.

Maurice Samuel, a Romanian-born novelist and personal friend of Asch, was probably the most skillful of his translators. Samuel was a perceptive critic and a fine stylist who once described their collaboration as “a tug of war.” He didn’t shrink from suggesting improvements to Asch’s manuscripts, admitting, “Sometimes I got my way, sometimes not.” His translations of two of Asch’s Christological novels, The Nazarene and The Apostle, were best sellers, but he refused to translate Mary, describing it as “sloppily constructed” and going off “into a kind of Mariolatry that I couldn’t stand.”

In addition to ideological disputes, financial arrangements were another cause of friction between Asch, his publisher, and his translators. Samuel had occasional disagreements over translation fees but remained on good terms with Asch. It was a different story with A. H. Gross, the translator of East River. When the film rights to the novel were sold, Gross demanded additional payments for “editorial work” in a manner that Asch believed amounted to blackmail.

Asch’s success in translation caused considerable envy among his peers. And it’s undeniable that the mass-market editions of his later novels, published by Putnam’s, brought him both a huge readership and significant financial rewards. But at what cost? More sophisticated critics often sounded a note of regret that translations designed for the widest possible English readership smoothed out some of the idiosyncrasies of Asch’s Yiddish.

Judd Teller, an American Jewish journalist and leading Yiddish poet, found Asch in English translation to be a pale imitation of the original. Reviewing the translation of Asch’s novel The Prophet, Teller observed:

"Asch’s style, which always seems baroque and a bit too precious in translation, is a wondrous thing to behold in the original. Out of mutilated syntax, whorled phraseology, and entangled jargon emerges an art primordial and overwhelming in its effect. This rarely comes through [in] the translation."

If Teller is right, perhaps Asch was not so fortunate after all. It’s an intriguing thought. Did the demands of mid-century mass-market translation bleach out what the Forward’s Abe Cahan once called Asch’s “rich, ravishing style”? And if so, do English readers really know the real Sholem Asch?

David Mazower, great-grandson of Sholem Asch, is a news program editor with BBC World Service radio in London.