“The Ballad of Old Harlequin”

Itzik Manger, translated by Lawrence Rosenwald, published on July 18, 2019.

I came to translate Manger’s poem by way of the late Sacvan Bercovitch, Canadian literary and cultural critic, and my teacher and friend.  Saki asked me about the poem—it was his sister’s favorite poem, he said, which she encountered as a child, when Manger was a family friend. But he couldn’t locate a copy of it. Could I? Efrat Gal-Ed found it for me. I sent it to Saki, and he proposed that we work together on translating it. I said yes.  He’d send me his versions, I’d send him mine, each borrowing words from the other.  Later, with his illness getting the better of him, he stopped sending versions of his own but continued to comment, encouragingly and helpfully, on mine. It is for these reasons that I dedicate this translation to him.

—Lawrence Rosenwald

Itzik Manger (1901, Czernowitz–1969, Israel) was a prominent Yiddish poet, essayist, and playwright whose poetry was strongly influenced by German romantic poetry and modernist writing styles. Though today he is often associated with his reimaginings of biblical stories, it was the ballad that was Manger's signature mode.

***

The Ballad of Old Harlequin

Melancholy old Harlequin
stands at the window. The rain

veils the city, but he sees beyond:
a summer-sunlit lane

where Columbine reaches out to him,
running with fluttering hair.

Harlequin thinks, But she’s been dead
for years. I remember where

I lowered her into the coffin.
There on the wintry hill

I laid her body in the earth.
The snow in the wintry chill

went swirling, swirling all around
and covered up her grave.

Harlequin groans. But further on
Columbine gives a wave

to him, on a summer-sunlit lane,
her brightly colored gown

fluttering. She speaks. The rain
veils her words, pelting down

on them. He says, It’s blind man’s bluff,
but brighter, purer, more true

than the years that have past, the coffin, the snow
brighter, clearer in view

than all that has come and gone with tears,
brighter, purer, more true.

Harlequin beams, his view expands:
a lane beneath a blue

sky, and Columbine’s arms outstretched
to him, her fluttering hair.

He leans to the window, ready to cross
the rain and find her there.

***

Lawrence Rosenwald is the Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of American Literature and Professor of English at Wellesley College. He is a multilingual translator, as well as a musical theater perfomer and passionate nonviolence advocate. 

Read the original Yiddish poem in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.

Read more about Itzik Manger, including additional translations of his work and an interview.