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.

Saturday 3 December 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (10): Di gantse mishpokhe

When I started learning Yiddish, pretty much the first loshn-koydesh word I encountered was משפּחה (mishpokhe), which means “family”.  As you might expect, family is a pretty fundamental concept in Yiddish, and not just in the literal sense of your own blood relatives.  משפּחה has an additional meaning that is much broader and more inclusive, signifying a cultural and familial fellowship amongst Jews that transcends nationality, religious conviction, and pretty much any other means of categorising people.  

Yiddish used to be the key to this aspect of משפּחה since it was the language that all Ashkenazi held in common, but it is by no means essential.  In fact, long before I started to learn Yiddish I knew what משפּחה meant, even though I still find it difficult to put into words.  משפּחה was that unexpected connection when you realised that the person you were speaking to in the supermarket queue or at the bus stop was also Jewish, a rare experience for me when I was growing up, and so all the more wonderful when it did occur. It’s the sudden awareness of commonality, that our family histories may not intersect, but they are bound to be similar to one another.

For me, learning Yiddish has been a way of amplifying that connection, not because I encounter many other people who can speak it, but because it reveals those threads of the past that run through the fabric of the present.  It’s not just about continuity – being able to understand the language that my ancestors spoke – it’s also about being able to hear those ancestors in their own words.  Thanks to the generosity of my wider משפּחה, I can read my great, great-uncle’s first book in Yiddish, since it was preserved for di Gantze Mishpochah by the Elovitz family’s donation to the Yiddish Book Center.  However, although משפּחה has that more open, tribal meaning, learning Yiddish has illuminated elements of my own family in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.

One crucial person in this regard is a woman called Miriam Shumik.  She was my great, great-aunt, married to my mother’s crazy revolutionary great-uncle, Hersh-Mendel.  Actually, Hersh-Mendel was the reason that my grandfather’s family ended up in London: my great-grandfather got tired of the Warsaw police turning up on the doorstep in search of his brother.  Hersh-Mendel’s life was improbably adventurous and bleakly tragic, and his many unexpected exploits certainly deserve further discussion, but while I’ve known about him since I was a teenager, I knew absolutely nothing about Miriam.  This was at least partly because, unlike Hersh-Mendel, she didn’t survive the Nazi occupation.  Hersh-Mendel didn’t talk about Miriam and they had no children, so she was absent from the story of our family.  In fact, until recently I didn’t even know her name.  All we knew was that she and Hersh-Mendel had been betrayed by a neighbour in wartime Paris.  He escaped; she did not.  We didn’t even know what had happened to her.  Then I learnt Yiddish.  This meant that when my mum turned up a Yizkor book entry[1] for Miriam during one of her frequent family history Google searches, I was able to translate it.  Of all the gifts Yiddish has given me, this one remains the greatest.

Miriam’s eulogy was written by one of her childhood friends, a woman listed only as M. P.  We will never know who she was but because of this unknown member of my extended Jewish משפּחה, Miriam’s actual משפּחה can remember her.  It’s thanks to M. P. that we know Miriam was tall and clever, that she organised the first Communist cell in her home town, and that she had a way with words.  It’s also thanks to M. P. that we know Miriam was the eldest of four sisters, and that the family home was three bare rooms with three beds, three chairs and a table.  We know that Miriam was רױז צװישן געװײנלעכע בלומען (a rose amongst weeds), and that she loved to talk about books.  We know that Miriam had read the first volume of The Count of Monte Cristo and been captivated by it, but the library didn’t have the rest of the book.  We know that M. P. found the second volume and brought it to Miriam, causing her to dance for joy and immediately start reading it aloud.  And, of course, we now know that Miriam died in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, possibly in the uprising but equally possibly from the heart condition she developed after she was tortured whilst a political prisoner in the 1920s.

Miriam may not be my blood relative, but she is part of the משפּחה in both senses.  I can recognise in her my family’s obsession with reading books, talking about books and, of course, talking in general.  More importantly, perhaps, I can recognise that my admiration for her courage and her capacity to stand up for what she thought was right means something, whether we are related or not.  At least now I can remember her not just as my great, great-uncle’s wife but as a brave, principled woman who risked her own life trying to improve the lives of others.  Our משפּחה is the greater for her presence.  

[1] A Yizkor book is a record of a Jewish communities lost in the Holocaust, written by the survivors of that community.

Welton Redux

Attention: one of the Editors has gone rogue, and has had some work - a 'director's commentary' on his own review of Matthew Welton, an almost unbelievably self-indulgent gesture for which he will no doubt be punished at some future date by the Hubris Furies - published by Stride magazine, which you can read here.  Stride's new iteration - a-shoot-from-the-hip, no-questions-asked, was-I-really-driving-that-fast-officer-? blogzine that seems to be posting on an unprecedented daily basis - is well worth reading, as is their extensive archive.
That is all.  Please return to your lives in a calm and orderly fashion.  Normal service will soon be resumed.