In memory of Mireille Knoll
I’ve always envisioned literary translation as a form of creation—a creation by a third party who takes the baton passed by the author to move the text somewhere new, permitting it to unfold in the space of a new language. This creation draws upon the experience of the author and demands a certain self-distancing. A retreat. A sort of humility. It’s not the task of the translator to infiltrate the already-written text. The translator shouldn’t become an intruder. Her presence should be discreet. Her place belongs in the interstices. Into the text entrusted to her the translator breathes new life.
The Yiddish translator faces some additional issues. Because of the fate of the Yiddish language in the twenty-first century, the translator is constantly confronted with what Rachel Ertel calls “the Yiddish burden.” In a sense, I translate to give the dead a chance to speak, to make heard the voices of writers whose language was murdered in the twentieth century during the khurbn, the Holocaust, that great catastrophe over the course of which some five million Jews perished during the Second World War. With this extermination, “the tree of the Yiddish language was uprooted,” Ilex Beller tells us. My task consists of regathering these roots, planting them elsewhere in a land less arid, watching over their growth, and watering them with attention, grace, and love. In other words, I translate from Yiddish so that the “voiceless cries” of the death camps, which Henry Raczymow writes of, might be no longer frozen in time. In the anthology Voix yiddish de Montréal (2013), as well as in the special issue of Suite yiddish (2018), I included the works of some renowned Yiddish poets whose writing reflects the irreversible breach of the Holocaust: Chava Rosenfarb, Rachel Korn, Kadya Molodowsky, Melech Ravitch.
“Knowing that exile is henceforth without end,” as Fabrice Midal expresses it, brings us back to that necessity evoked by the poetry of Paul Celan: “We need shelter.” Translation, it seems, can help construct this shelter. I translate to give the world a text, to unfold a text in time, reconstructed in the language of the Other. In doing so, French, my mother tongue, becomes a foreign language. Sometimes the terms “write” and “translate” answer the same calling. Writing and translation both carry a trace, which itself becomes a signature, a passport permitting them to reach other countries, other readers. Translation teaches me both patience and rigor. In the process, I learn humility, hospitality, generosity. Translating helps me learn to be a better person.
I translate to give the dead a chance to speak.
I translate to restore the authenticity of a text, to make it more spontaneous, to view the fullness of its brilliance. To reestablish the orality of a singular voice. This is particularly important given that prior translations of Yiddish sought to eliminate linguistic nuance in the name of standardization or because nuance at the time was perceived as eccentric, even transgressive. With this perspective I cotranslated, along with Pierre Anctil, Mon univers: Autobiographie (My World, Montréal, Fides, 2017), the early autobiography of Marc Chagall, from the 1925 Yiddish version published in the literary magazine Di Tsukunft (The Future, New York, 1925). The French translation of this book, published in 1931, included several distortions from Chagall’s original autobiography: many references to the Eastern European culture of the shtetlekh (villages) and to Judaism were erased or transformed in order to produce a text that corresponded to French standards. Though this type of distortion was not unique to Chagall’s autobiography—until the 1990s, the tendency in France was to transform a foreign author into a French author through literary translation—we needed a new translation from the original in order to access Chagall’s exuberant style and his colorful language.
Others have said it before me: in a way, a translator’s work is like a tailor’s. This parallel between the two crafts seems to me even more pertinent when it comes to translating Yiddish for two reasons. First, to translate the mame-loshn (mother tongue) into French, reading Hebrew is required, which also demands reading right-to-left. In doing so, something echoes from my childhood: “The finishing touches of a finely-sewn garment are always on the underside,” my grandmother would say. The second reason, historically speaking, is that sewing plays an important role for the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe. Among the many odd jobs of these Yiddish speakers, that of the tailor holds a place of prominence. Speaking of which, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a very high number of Jewish immigrants worked in the great textile mills of American industrial cities such as Montreal and New York.
Translating from Yiddish is at once an act of resistance and combat, an act of hospitality and generosity. Translating Yiddish is, itself, a form of homage.
Voix yiddish de Montréal, anthology edited by Chantal Ringuet, Revue Moebius, no. 139.
Marc Chagall, Mon univers: Autobiographie, translated from the Yiddish by Chantal Ringuet and Pierre Anctil, Montréal, Fides, 2017.
Suite yiddish, Special Issue on Literature in Translation (coedited with Pierre Anctil), Les écrits, Revue de l’Académie des lettres du Québec, forthcoming in the numéro 153 (2018).