"Translation was once not an implicit eulogy for Yiddish literature but an expression of its vitality, its hunger for the new."
Near the end of her 1969 short story “Envy, or Yiddish in America,” Cynthia Ozick put a plea in the mouth of her embittered protagonist that captured the desperation of an artist afraid of becoming invisible to the world. “Breathe in me! Animate me!” the Yiddish poet Edelshtein insists to a young translator he hopes will rescue him from obscurity. When the translator demurs, he summons the sad-sack cri de coeur of a writer certain that language, not talent, is his true limitation: “Translate me!”
Thanks in part to Ozick’s iconic character, the role of translation as it relates to Yiddish is often thought of as a one-way street. Translation is a passage out of the ghetto of a language in decline. For a literature composed in a murdered tongue, translation is the only hope that a writer’s words will live.
Yet though translators are essential for helping otherwise inaccessible texts find an audience, it’s worth remembering that translation was once not an implicit eulogy for Yiddish literature but an expression of its vitality, its hunger for the new.
Many Yiddish writers and readers were world devourers. Eager to claim all manner of stories as their own, they read Shakespeare, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky in the same alef-beys they learned as children. Long before Ozick dreamed up her fictional Yiddish writer fixated on transforming his words into English, actual Yiddish writers were equally obsessed with translation—not out of Yiddish, but into it.
Foremost among them was Yehoash. Though a poet of stature equal to any of his peers, the writer, born Yehoash-Shloyme (Solomon) Blumgarten, made his major contribution to the literature as a translator.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Blumgarten published both a translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” and a dictionary of Hebrew and Aramaic words used in Yiddish. These works together—each epic in scope yet obsessive in detail—made Blumgarten ideally suited to take up the challenge of creating a new Yiddish Bible, which had been proposed in 1908 by no less a figure than I. L. Peretz. “If Yiddish is to become a real language for us,” Peretz declared, “then all the old cultural treasures of our great past must become a part of it.” In this spirit, he called for “the translation into Yiddish of all our cultural treasures from our free, golden past, primarily the translation into Yiddish of the Bible.”
Following success with his “Hiawatha,” Yehoash moved on to materials he knew well from his time teaching Hebrew, translating the books of Isaiah, Job, the Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes in two volumes published in 1910. Yet the newly celebrated translator was disappointed with these works, apparently because his efforts did not measure up to the “double devotion” he felt to the texts themselves and the poetic possibilities of Yiddish. Seeking inspiration from the lands where the language of scripture was born, he decided to move with his family from New York to Palestine in 1913.
More than two thousand well-wishers attended an event at Carnegie Hall to see him off. Yehoash’s bon voyage celebration featured a chorus of sixty children from the Jewish National Radical School singing songs he had written, and flattering speeches were given in his honor. As a New York Times report on the event noted, he told his admirers that he intended to “identify himself with the ‘Jewish Renaissance’ in the ancient land of the Jewish people.”
Yet this wasn’t as simple as he had hoped. Soon after arriving, he discovered that despite his reputation as a linguist, he could barely communicate. The language he had mastered in his youth had moved on, becoming something new and unrecognizable. Moreover, the Hebrew-speaking pioneers he met were suspicious of his motives, even going so far as to accuse him of planning to start a Yiddish-language newspaper—anathema at the time.
While Blumgarten departed New York in hopes of learning from a timeless biblical landscape, what he ultimately discovered during his travels across the Jewish globe—from Lithuania to New York to Eretz Yisroel—was that no language, not even a sacred language, could ever remain unchanged. Language is endlessly dynamic. Translation, then, cannot be merely a process of replacing one language with another. It is an art nearly mystical in its ability to blend times and cultures.
“A Tanakh [Bible] in Yiddish must be faithful to the original,” he later wrote. “Not falsifying, not modifying, not paraphrasing, not interpreting with intentions, no matter what these intentions might be, only carrying over the Hebrew text faithfully and accurately.” Yet that wasn’t all. “A Tanakh in Yiddish,” he continued, “needs not begin today or tomorrow. It needs to embrace the old-fashioned juices of the old books. The full idiosyncratic riches of the old translations, ethical treatises, storybooks, proverbs, folk wisdom, etc. must be exploited.”
For Yehoash, a translation should serve as a map showing how languages and stories functioned through the centuries and in relation to each other: where they came together, how they split apart, what might come next in their interaction. Far from a one-way street, translation was for him an act of transcendence allowing understanding across all barriers of human experience.
Why read Yehoash now? While epitaphs for Yiddish both sardonic and sentimental have been written for decades, his work reminds us that our current concerns about language and loss are part of an imaginative landscape still in the making. As a man whose own life crossed borders of language and homelands, he reminds us that the map of Jewish literature is still being drawn.
Peter Manseau is a former intern and staff member at the Yiddish Book Center. He is an acclaimed author whose books include Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, winner of the National Jewish Book Award.