Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (11): Translating and uncertainty

Leyb Kvitko's A tsig mit zivn tsigelekh

When you learn another language, you eventually get to the point where translating seems like a feasible idea.  In fact, translating has been central to my experience of Yiddish, because rather than do the sensible thing and work my way through one or more of the excellent Yiddish textbooks out there, for most of the last two years I’ve been learning by reading and translating (with varying success and with gradually increasing speed) a glorious selection of Yiddish literature.  This suits me perfectly, since knowing how to ask for more coffee or describe someone’s clothes is absolutely fine when you might need a language for holidays and polite travel chit-chat, but my love for Yiddish came from knowing that so much of its literature was out there to be discovered, as yet untranslated and completely unknown to me.

Having moved from I. L. Peretz and I. B. Singer short stories to Celia Dropkin’s poetry, my eternally patient reading partner and Yiddish mentor (take a bow, Stephen Ross) suggested that we read Sholem Aleichem’s novel Motl, peysi dem khazns (Motl, the Cantor’s Son).  Although on a completely different scale from our previous readings, what Motl has in common with those shorter texts is that it isn’t written in standard YIVO Yiddish.  The Yiddish of Sholem Aleichem is not the same as the Yiddish of Peretz, which in turn isn’t the same as the Yiddish of Singer or Dropkin.  Each author mixes in different degrees of loshn-koydesh and their work is shaped by the Yiddish that surrounded them in childhood.  These different Yiddishes vary in their spelling and their pronunciation, and are often scattered with untranslatable words that I can’t find in any of my five dictionaries.  But while these authors have all had their work translated into English by far more accomplished Yiddishists than me, there are plenty who have not.

Leyb Kvitko (1890-1952)
Leyb Kvitko (1890-1952) falls into the latter category.  Known primarily as a writer of extraordinarily popular children’s books, Kvitko also wrote poetry in Yiddish, becoming increasingly politically active until he was arrested and executed by Stalin’s regime.  And yet it’s one of Kvitko’s poems, “Shteyner eyntsike”, which has been the best illustration of the complexities involved in translating Yiddish, particularly since Kvitko’s particular version of Soviet Yiddish tests my translation abilities to a staggering degree.  It speaks volumes about the level of my Yiddish obsession that my first thought on reading Kvitko was, “I wonder how long it would take to translate one of these poems?”  The answer was hours and hours.  And hours.  But my volume of Kvitko’s poetry has voyaged from Moscow, where it was published in 1967, to Montreal and now it is here in Warwickshire sitting demurely on my desk.  A book that has travelled so far certainly deserves this attention, despite the considerable challenges that it presents to someone with limited Yiddish, and a newly heightened awareness of just how slippery translation can be.

The first challenge with this poem is the title.  Shteyner I know means “stones”, so that’s easy, but “eyntsike” can mean “rare”, “single”, “individual” and “only”, amongst other possibilities. Unluckily for me, almost all of these potential translations work in the context of the title, so from the outset the different possible versions of the poem start multiplying with abandon.

Leyb Kvitko, 1919
The second challenge was that there were several words that I couldn’t find in any of my dictionaries.  “Shteyner eyntsike” was written in 1917, so I assumed that my earlier, pre-standardised dictionaries would be my best bet.  Alas, Yiddish just isn’t that logical.  And if eyntsike gave me grief, it was nothing on stosnvayz.  Four of my dictionaries drew a blank, but the fifth noted that stos is, or was, a card game.  In the context of the line, could stosnvays refer to a pattern in which these stones are laid out, as part of a game?  Then there’s arbelekh, another word that I can’t find.  Arbl means sleeves, so could arbelekh mean “little sleeves”?  Or is it something to do with arb, meaning “inheritance”?  That word occurs in a line about a child’s smile, mit arbelekh farshart, so is that smile covered with little sleeves or is it being described as a “mischievous little inheritance”?  Either way, the grammar doesn’t work – there are plurals nestling up against singulars in a most indecisive way.

Then there’s the challenge presented by being the kind of lunatic who owns five Yiddish dictionaries, all of which want to argue amongst themselves about the best way to translate any given word.  This means that oysgebroyter could mean “curved” or “crooked”, but it could also mean “constructed”.  Since the stanza where it occurs follows imagery of building, that’s less troubling than it might have been, but should I translate troym as “dream” or “ideal”?

Finally, Kvitko plays a really unexpected trick.  Many of his poems contain loshn-koydesh words that have been spelled out phonetically.  This means that mayse-bilder foxed me but good, until I realised that mayse (מײַסע) was the same word as mayse (מעשׂה), or “story”.  Oy, did I feel dumb.

Leyb Kvitko, Dos ketsele

This was when I realised that the various different incarnations of this poem weren’t going to resolve themselves into a single, final, coherent translation, at least, not for me.  All these crooked dreams and constructed ideals were going to continue to co-exist, implacably stubborn, no matter how many times I checked and rechecked every word in every dictionary.  Whether the narrator turns into a climbing frame or simply builds one, the outcome is the same: this poem is alive again after years spent stilled and silent, waiting for another Yiddish reader to come along.  I certainly never thought that I would love this linguistic uncertainty so much, or that seeing these competing narratives springing up from a single line of verse would produce such joy from such utter incomprehension.  I expect that as my Yiddish improves, these chimerical moments where the language squirms and flexes and resists being fixed into a single meaning will become fewer and fewer.  I will miss them.

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