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Studies in Contemporary Jewry: XII: Literary Strategies: Jewish Texts and Contexts$

Ezra Mendelsohn

Print publication date: 1997

Print ISBN-13: 9780195112030

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195112030.001.0001


The Perils of Translation: Isaac Bashevis Singer in English and Hebrew

(p.228) The Perils of Translation: Isaac Bashevis Singer in English and Hebrew
Studies in Contemporary Jewry: XII: Literary Strategies: Jewish Texts and Contexts

Ezra Mendelsohn

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reviews the literary texts of Isaac Bashevis Singer, one of Yiddish literature's greatest figures and the winner of a Nobel prize, who died in Miami, Florida, in 1991. It examines two of his novels which appeared in English translation—The Certificate and Meshuga. These novels also appeared in Hebrew based on the English version. The Certificate deals with a well-known incident from the life of the author: the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to arrange a fictitious wedding with a young woman who possessed a certificate for immigration in Palestine. The second novel called Meshuga was first serialized in the pages of the Forward as Lost Souls, where it appears in the text itself. The story deals with a group of Polish Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, most of them from Warsaw, who live in New York in the early 1950s on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Keywords:   Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish literature, Nobel prize, The Certificate, Meshuga, English translation, Hebrew translation, Forward, Holocaust, Manhattan

Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Certificate. Trans, by Leonard Wolf. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992. (Hebrew version: Hasertifikat, trans, by Ofrah Ofer. Tel-Aviv: Sifriyat Ma'ariv, 1993).

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Meshuga. Trans, by the author and Nili Wachtel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, one of Yiddish literature's greatest figures and the winner of the Nobel prize, died in Miami, Florida, in 1991. Since then two of his novels have appeared in English translation—The Certificate and Meshuga. Both of them appeared as well in a Hebrew translation based on the English version.1

The Certificate was translated into English in 1992. It is clearly autobiographical. Bashevis' family left Warsaw during the First World War, and in 1922 the young author succeeded in returning to the city. He was then eighteen years old, still garbed in traditional clothing and long sidecurls. Bashevis' last thirteen years in Warsaw—he emigrated to New York in 1935—are justly considered the crucial period in his artistic development. His first conspicuous success was the novel Satan in Goray, published in 1932.

It was to these years that Bashevis devoted the middle part of his famous autobiography, to which he gave the title A Young Man in Search of Love. Here he tells the story of his own self-doubts, of his path to literature and of his encounters with Jewish writers and with the Jewish Writers' Club, where he became a member in good standing. With a surprising degree of exhibitionism, Bashevis discusses his “search for love.” This was a stormy period in the life of the son of a pious rabbinical judge (dayan) who had only recently abandoned both his religious appearance and, after much hesitation, religious orthodoxy. Bashevis was consequently thrust into the whirlpool of modern, materialistic life in the big city.

It is hardly surprising that Bashevis repeatedly returned to this period in his life in autobiographical novels—at least five—published between 1956 and 1974, all of them serialized in the New York daily Forward. Despite the alterations in the names of the hero and his lovers, there appears in each of them the character of a young writer and the women whom he encounters. The background is always Warsaw between the two world wars, whose diverse population and Jewish quarters are described in great detail. An important portion of each novel is devoted to the Jewish Writers' Club and to its visitors, who despite their fictional names can be clearly identified. The self-doubts of the young writer, son of an Orthodox family, (p.229) constitutes a recurring leitmotif, with Bashevis offering his own “portrait of the artist as a young man.”

The Certificate appeared in installments in the Forward between January and May of 1967. It is not clear why this book was chosen to be Bashevis' first posthumously translated novel. In his afterword to the English translation, Leonard Wolf offers no clarification of this point, even though The Certificate raises in a particularly sharp manner the whole issue of how best to deal with Bashevis' considerable body of untranslated works.

Bashevis' output for the Forward alone consisted of material published four times a week, consistently, from the mid-1930s to the 1980s. Many novels “buried” in the Forward's pages have never been published in book form in Yiddish, much less translated. In addition, there are hundreds of stories, articles of literary criticism, articles of more general interest and memoirs that appeared in the Forward and in other publications in Yiddish, but that remain unknown and untranslated. Only a small portion of this literary production was even noted in bibliographies up to 1951.

Was it a wise decision to select The Certificate to be Bashevis' first posthumously translated novel? The story deals with a well-known incident from the life of the author: the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to arrange a fictitious wedding with a young woman who possessed a certificate for immigration to Palestine. The whole affair is related in detail (with the characters bearing different names) in the middle sections of both Love and Exile and Shosha. Although Bashevis' well-known opposition to Communism and to literary modernism comes across with particular force in The Certificate, it is doubtful if any new material exists here for those readers familiar with his work, even if only in translation. The only innovation in this novel derives from the figure of the poet Ziskind Eychel, in whom it is not difficult to detect a wicked caricature of the expressionist poet Peretz Markish. In the novel Ziskind is the friend of the young novelist's elder brother; in reality, Markish was the friend of I.J. Singer, Bashevis' elder brother.

Had the translation into English been free of inexcusable blunders, we might have come into possession of a highly readable novel that does no damage to the author's memory. As noted, Bashevis collaborated in the translation of his work into English, undoubtedly in part because he did not trust the Yiddish-language skills of at least some of his translators. Moreover, he also tended not only to shorten his texts but to alter them, sometimes quite dramatically. Thus his demand, in the last years of his life, to have his novels translated from the English, rather than from the original Yiddish version. In the case of The Certificate, however, the English version was prepared posthumously. Why, then, give in to the publisher's demand that any other translations be done from the English and not from Yiddish?

Despite its stylistic fluency, The Certificate has serious flaws. It is clear that, the translator's knowledge of Yiddish is limited. He even has difficulty distinguishing among similar-looking Hebrew letters: the name of the hero of the novel is David Bendiner, but in the English version he appears under the name Bendiger, and so he appears in Hebrew as well. Various first names and names of streets in Warsaw are rendered inaccurately. The translator could understand neither the quotations in the book nor the Hebraisms and Slavisms. Sometimes he skips whole sentences, sometimes (p.230) he misunderstands them. He translates, for example, the Russian expression “lyubov ne kartoshka” as “love has a way of growing” (in fact it means “love is not a potato”—that is, it is no simple matter). The translator also does not understand German components in Yiddish. Thus the word “farhern,” which in this context means “to examine” becomes “he once listened to me recite.” In another instance the Yiddish text describes Polish officers who were in the habit of “tsunoyfklapn di knaflen,” that is, clicking their heels. But in the English text, the Polish officers are “continually buttoning their buttons”?! Naturally, the Hebrew translator, knowing only this text, repeats most of these errors in her Hebrew version.

Two other examples of mistranslation will suffice. On p. 56 of the English version we read: “I had read Tolstoy, Forster, Hogdehn.” Who could this Hogdehn be? Only in the Yiddish original is it possible to discover that what the author meant was Gandhi. And if this could happen to Gandhi, it is hardly surprising that the appelation “Kidushei Hari” (p. 13) is revealed, in the Yiddish original, to be “Khidushei haRiM,” the acronym of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, the founder of the hasidic dynasty of Gur. In both cases, no dictionary or lexicon can come to the aid of perplexed readers who have no access to the Yiddish text.

The title given to Meshuga when it was first serialized in the pages of the Forward in 1981–1982 was Lost Souls. Such a title fits the novel's substance and charactermore than its present name, which according to the translator was suggested byBashevis himself during the process of translation. The phrase “lost souls” appearsin the text itself (p. 178), where it is explained as referring to a group of Jews duringthe Holocaust who were transferred by the Germans from camp to camp until theyarrived in Riga and, eventually, in the Stutthof concentration camp. The novel'sheroine, Miriam Zelkind, was in this camp. And indeed, many such lost soulspopulate Bashevis' novel. The story itself, however, deals not with the period of theSecond World War but with a group of Polish Jewish survivors, most of them fromWarsaw, who live in New York in the early 1950s on Manhattan's Upper West Sidein the area between 70th and 80th streets, between Central Park and Broadway. Their livelihood is based upon speculation in Wall Street, which they carry out through one of their members, an agent to a bold businessman.

The novel's protagonist is a forty-eight-year-old Yiddish writer who had arrived in New York from Poland in the mid-1930s. He is a permanent employee of the Forward, supplying the paper with serialized novels and articles on a wide range of topics. In addition, he serves as an adviser to readers with a variety of problems. This writer is the axis around which the other characters revolve. Most of them are avid readers of his serialized novels; Miriam Zelkind, a twenty-seven-year-old woman, is even writing a doctoral dissertation on his works. The love that develops between the two forms the novel's central theme.

The writer's name is Aaron Graydinger, the name of the hero of Bashevis' novel Shosha. And as in Shosha, Bashevis takes care to provide Graydinger with much of his own biographical data. In Meshuga, however, the Shosha episode in the author's life is essentially nonexistent. Shosha is mentioned only once, and then only in passing (p. 176), as Aaron's childhood playmate on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw.

Meshuga is filled with memories of Aaron Graydinger's past that are identical (p.231) with those of Bashevis. His maternal grandfather, the rabbi of Bilgoraj, is mentioned, as are his father, his brother—the author I.J. Singer—his younger brother Moshe, and his sister Hinda. His mother is mentioned a number of times, and the author goes so far as to note her burial place in Dzhambul, Kazakhstan (pp. 155–156). Even the name Didi, a nickname used for Bashevis' son Isaac Zamir during his childhood in Warsaw, appears in Meshuga as the name of a baby in New York. Bashevis uses Aaron Graydinger's dreams to return him to Bashevis' own past, his family in Warsaw and in Bilgoraj.

Another Bashevis novel directly related to Meshuga is Enemies: A Love Story, known also in its cinematic version. The affinity between the two novels is revealednot only in the similar characters of Holocaust survivors living in New York, but inthe nearly identical fates of their central female characters. The burden of the pastweighs heavy on Miriam Zelkind in Meshuga, as it does on Masha in Enemies. They both served in the cruel role of Kapos in German concentration camps, and thetwo of them even had Nazi lovers.

Meshuga, however, could not have been written after Shosha, and certainly notafter Enemies, as one might assume from its publication date of 1981–1982. Although Enemies first appeared in the Forward in 1966, there is no doubt that Meshuga is an earlier and less assured version. Shosha was also serialized in the Forward, in 1974, under the title Neshome expeditsiyes (Travels of the Soul). Nevertheless, it is also difficult to accept this work as an earlier version of Meshuga; it is far more plausible to assume that Meshuga was written prior to the other twonovels, despite its later publication.

The period in which Meshuga was written can be discerned from the text itself. For instance, one of the characters, Aaron Graydinger's reader, attempts to understand the characters in one of his novels:

I want to know what happened next. But then again, in your novel, how could a man such as Caiman—prosperous, wise, a clever merchant—allow himself to be so deceived by that Clara? Couldn't he see that she wanted his money, not himself? (p. 81).

These characters are in fact from Bashevis' novel Der hoyf (The Manor), which was serialized in the Forward in 1952–1955.

It thus seems clear that Meshuga was written in the 1950s, concurrently with The Manor. It is probable that it was completed in 1955, following Bashevis' first visitto Israel in the fall of that year, as is indicated by the section in Meshuga (pp. 187–212) that takes place in Tel-Aviv. I have not been able to find any mention of anevent in the Bashevis/Graydinger biography that would compel one to date thecompletion of the novel later than 1955.

It follows, therefore, that Bashevis must have removed the manuscript of Lost Souls, which had been written in 1955, from his personal archive and given it to the Forward in 1981 to be serialized. And indeed, at a number of points in the novel, Aaron Graydinger mentions “suitcases packed with manuscripts” (p. 127) that havenot been published and that have moved with the author from apartment to apartment. Moreover, over the years the real-life author frequently chose to have the Forward print previously published stories and novels, such as his first novel, Satan in Goray.

(p.232) Meshuga, then, is a book that preceded Bashevis' two better-known novels. There is no doubt that Enemies, written later, presents a more complex and mature picture of the problems of Holocaust survivors in New York.2 It is possible that the change in the novel's title is meant to divert the reader's attention from the “lost souls” in the book and toward Aaron Graydinger. In fact, Bashevis' double in this novel is its most interesting character. We have here a remarkable presentation of a New York Yiddish writer who expresses unconventional views regarding Yiddish and Yiddish literature. We witness the extreme mental pressure to which the writer is subjected as a result of his need to provide the weekly portion of his serialized novel, which is being written as it appears in press. We see the writer's anxiety that he may not have time to remove a grave error from the novel after it has been typeset. We learn, moreover, of his objection to the editor's intervention while the novel is being printed in the Forward.

The real-life Bashevis was aware of the criticism directed against him by Yiddish critics. In the words of his fictional double:

There was no end to the complaints lodged against me. I was too pessimistic, too superstitious, too skeptical of humanity's progress, not devoted enough to socialism, Zionism, Americanism, the struggle against antiSemitism, the activities of the Yiddishists, the problems of women's rights. Some critics complained that a Jewish state had sprung up before my eyes while I busied myself with the cobwebs of folklore. They accused me of dragging the reader back to the dark Middle Ages. Nu, and why such interest in sex? Sex is not in the tradition of Yiddish literature (p. 114).

All of these complaints, of course, were forgotten when Bashevis was awarded the Nobel prize.

As stated on the front page of the English translation, Bashevis took part in the translation of the book—at its end, Nili Wachtel writes of his involvement. It is difficult to determine precisely what the collaboration between the author and the translator meant in practice. A comparison of the Yiddish text with the English translation clearly reveals the usual work of editing that an author performs when transforming his work from a serialized to a completed novel. He seems to have been involved primarily in abbreviating the text considerably, with mimimal interest in editing what remained. The reasons for omission are not always clear, and it is not always certain that the text was thereby improved. Bashevis' editorial work on his own novels in preparation for English publication has not yet been closely investigated. It is therefore difficult to determine whether Bashevis and his English publisher were correct in their determination to make the English version the authoritative text.

The fact that the author was not involved in the actual process of translation is borne out by a number of grave errors and corruptions in the final text that Bashevis would surely have noticed. I will indicate a number of them:

  • • p. 5: “Rasha” instead of “Rashba”

  • • p. 14: “Lessing or Natan the Wise” instead of “Nathan the Wise by Lessing”

  • • p. 24: “Gemara Berachot, Chapter Ha-Rokh” instead of “Haroeh”

  • • p. 36: “Shmalouvik” instead of “Shmaltsovnik”

  • (p.233) • p. 94: “Tagelekh” instead of “tsigele” (see the Forward of Aug. 31, 1981—in context, there is an intentional connection between the kid [“tsigele” in the song] and the donkey sent by Judah to Tamar in the biblical account of Gen. 38)

  • • p. 115: “Volks-Zeitung”—what is referred to in the text is not a Germanlanguage newspaper but rather the well-known Bundist Yiddish paper Folkstsaytung

  • • pp. 116, 191: “Izevice” instead of “Izbice”

  • • p. 172: “Ruva-Ruska” instead of “Rawa-Ruska”

It is unlikely that Bashevis would have skipped over such errors without correction, and it is a pity that this very readable translation is marred by errors that could easily have been eliminated.

An examination of the two books discussed here leaves one with the impression that Bashevis' English-language publisher does not treat with sufficient respect those works that have been published after their author's death. This is not merely a case of random selection of Bashevis Singer's rich posthumous legacy, but outright editorial negligence that could have been prevented had the translations been subjected to an appropriate inspection prior to publication.


The Hebrew University



(1.) The reviews of Hasertificat and Meshuga that appear here are based on articles by Chone Shmeruk published in the Ha'aretz literary supplement of 16 June 1993 (p. 3) and 12 April 1995 (p. 6), reprinted here courtesy of the newspaper.

(2.) It is worth taking note, in this context, of Dorothy Seidman Bilik's book Immigrant Survivors: Post-Holocaust Consciousness in Recent Jewish American Fiction (Middletown: 1981). The chapter devoted to Enemies is worthy of special attention.