WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every other month. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.
For November’s installment, Laura Esther Wolfson passed the baton to Ellen Cassedy, who translates from Yiddish.
What is your connection to the language you translate from?
Yiddish was the language that my Jewish forebears spoke in kitchens, marketplaces, and meeting halls on both sides of the Atlantic. When my mother died, I decided to study Yiddish as a memorial to her. My mother didn’t actually speak Yiddish, but she used to pepper her conversation with a Yiddish word here and there. Yiddish became my home within Jewish culture. For me, Yiddish is a holy tongue, and my work as a translator feels like sacred work.
There’s an expression in Yiddish—di goldene keyt—the golden chain, which refers to how Yiddish literature has been passed down through the ages, with one writer after another adding links to the chain as the years go by. Translation has always been a big part of that chain. In translating the work of such fine writers as Blume Lempel, Yenta Mash, and Esther Singer Kreitman (sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer), I feel privileged to add my link to the chain.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
Common wisdom is that Yiddish is less translatable than other languages. In my view, that’s bubkes. Yes, Yiddish-speaking immigrants struggled to communicate with their Americanized children and grandchildren. Yes, they often ran into difficulties—but only because they didn’t know English very well. The myth of untranslatability took hold, however, along with the notion that Yiddish as a language is fundamentally hilarious.
Much has been written about the difference between a shlemiel, a shmo, a shmendrik, and a shlimazl, but one of my favorite examples of a Yiddish translation challenge is the word yid (“Jew,” plural yidn), which is often used to mean simply “person.” The greeting Vos makht a yid? (literally, “How’s a Jew doing?”) means “How are you?”—but with a special warmth. To convey that warmth, depending on the context, I may add “my friend” or “pal” or slip the feeling of closeness into a nearby sentence.
Do you have any translating rituals?
1) Get my bearings by reading the whole text, without a dictionary.
2) Open Beinfeld and Bochner’s online Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, the Thesaurus function in Word, and Google Translate.
3) Start at the beginning. Proceed word by word, noting a zillion possible choices in the draft. (This feels like doing rows of needlepoint, which I also like.)
4) Let the manuscript sit, while having as little contact with Yiddish as possible. Maybe do a crossword puzzle.
5) Return to the manuscript. Fiddle, fix, make choices, polish.
6) Repeat 4).
7) Repeat 5).
8) Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
On bad days: The author is lying on a gurney. I’m wrestling her into a tight-fitting jacket and skirt.
On good days: The author and I are sailing into New York Harbor. Cheering crowds are waiting on the dock to welcome us.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.
My newly published translation is On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018). Mash takes us into the lives of uprooted people who find themselves forever “on the landing,” just arriving or just departing. She draws on her own life as she traces an arc from the small Jewish towns of Eastern Europe, to the snowy forests of Siberian exile, to Eastern Europe in the Soviet era, and to the not-always-happy experience of immigration to Israel.
I see Mash as a master chronicler of exile who adds her voice to those of other writers about immigration and resilience—Jhumpa Lahiri, André Aciman, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Her work is keenly relevant today, as displaced people seek refuge across the globe.
(Laura Esther Wolfson’s questions for you:) What is special about translating Yiddish literature, and about the books you have translated from Yiddish?
Yiddish was the language of millions of Jews in Eastern Europe before World War II, and it’s still spoken by Hasidic Jews in New York today. It’s a Germanic language with liberal helpings of Slavic words and syntax, written in the Hebrew alphabet and studded with Hebrew and Aramaic words of ancient origin. The juxtaposition of all these elements gives Yiddish its special flavor, its richness, its capacity for wit, irony, and lightning-fast changes of register.
English, too, is a language fused from several others. In both languages, you can lower your posterior into a seat, plunk your butt on a bench, or mix and match the registers, to rich effect.
Only a fraction of the millions of words written in Yiddish over the past 150 years have been translated. It’s exciting to me to bring the work of previously unknown, women Yiddish writers into the light of day—both because of their extraordinary literary gifts and because they tell us things about the human condition that can’t be learned any other way.
As we gain access to more and more of these buried treasures, I believe Yiddish literature will take its rightful place in the world as what has been called “a major literature in a minor language.”
For many writers, including the well-known Sholem Aleichem, writing in Yiddish was a conscious choice; they knew other languages. Yiddish served as a portable homeland, a way to remain true to a world that was no more, while they made their way into new times and new places.
That’s what translating Yiddish has meant to me, too.
Ellen Cassedy’s latest translation from Yiddish is On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018), for which she was awarded a PEN/Heim translation grant, the first ever given to a Yiddish project. She is the co-translator, with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (Dryad Press and Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). She was the English-language translator of Yiddisher Zoo, a poetry collection for children, published in Krakow, Poland (Czulent Jewish Association, 2016). Her translations appear in Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories (Warner Books, 2003) and in numerous journals. She is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska press, 2012).