Weekly Reader The Work of Translation is Essential
February 13, 2022
Here at the Yiddish Book Center, we think that everyone can benefit from learning Yiddish. Not only does it open up a whole world of literature, culture, and history, but there’s also nothing quite like the richness of experiencing contemporary Jewish life in mame-loshn. That said, we know that for most people learning a second (or third, or fourth) language is no simple task, and that without translations, most Yiddish literature would have precious little readership. That’s why we support translators through our translation fellowship, publish an increasing number of translations ourselves via White Goat Press, and celebrate good translations of Yiddish books wherever they appear. As much as the work of translation is essential, however, it often goes unacknowledged and unappreciated. Here are a few pieces that help to rectify that.
Four Theses on Translation
What do you do when there’s a great Yiddish book you want to recommend, but there’s no decent translation? That question prompted translator Larry Rosenwald to think about what makes a good Yiddish translation, and how future translations can ensure that you never need to think twice about a recommendation.
Why Read Yehoash
The Yiddish poet Yehoash is best known for his translation of the Tanakh, which is great if you can only read Yiddish. But if you can read the Bible in the original, or any other language, why should you read it in Yiddish? Maybe because, just like the King James Bible is acknowledged as a masterpiece of English literature, Yehoash’s translation has a poetry all its own.
Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories are masterpieces of modern prose, seemingly in any language. In English, Peter Constantine’s translation is so good you forget it’s there, even while marveling at Babel’s (and Constantine’s!) literary invention. This year, Red Cavalry is the first selection in the Yiddish Book Center’s Great Jewish Books Club, and we invited Constantine on The Shmooze podcast to talk about the yidishkayt in Babel’s work, his artful writing, and the stories that thread together to create this work. Also, if you imagined that Babel must have been translated into Yiddish, you’re right—but it’s a collection of Babel’s stories, translated by Gitl Meisel and published in Vilna in 1927 (link below).
Experiments in Poetry
Celia Dropkin was one of the most experimental and innovative of New York’s Yiddish poets, participating in modernist circles while challenging conventions with her emotional and sometimes disturbing subject matter. Dropkin’s poetry was translated and collected in the 2014 volume The Acrobat, with contributions from three different translators. In this episode of The Shmooze, translator Faith Jones talks about Dropkin’s life and work and reads from some of her pieces.
A Daughter and Translator
It’s not unheard of for an author and their translator to have a less-than-amicable relationship. The author is the author, after all, but maybe the translator knows best about the translation? For Goldie Morgentaler, daughter of Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb, translating her mother could sometimes lead to arguments over the best possible English version of her writing. But the work also gave her a greater appreciation of her mother, and strengthened their relationship.