Yiddish Translations of American Literature in Your American Literature Class, Part II: Longfellow and Eliot

This post is the second by Jessica Kirzane about teaching Yiddish translations of American literature in American literature classes. Kirzane is an Assistant Instructional Professor in Yiddish at the University of Chicago. You can find part one here.

In the last post, I shared with the PALS community some general thoughts about teaching American literature through the lens of Yiddish translations of these texts.  Here, before I share a few more texts to add to your arsenal, I want to also give a bit of additional background about specific considerations about literature translated into Yiddish.

When teaching each of these texts, it might be helpful to keep in mind the particular history and context of translation in the world of modern Yiddish literature.  Translation was at the heart of the development of modern Yiddish literature in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Yiddish translations of works of philosophy, history, and social sciences were central to the ways that proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskole, attempted to educate the East European Jewish population toward modern Western thought.  Translations were among the most popular publications in Yiddish and many authors also worked as translators. Yiddish publishing houses and newspapers issued Yiddish translations from Russian, German, Polish, English and French, offering readers a taste of Defoe, Gogol, Kipling, Moliere, Twain, Dickens, and Zola (to name just a few).

Alongside these translations came a wealth of polemical literature about the meaning and value of translating into Yiddish.  Was it a depletion of resources that should be used in creating and promoting born-Yiddish literature?  Would it stave off linguistic assimilation into surrounding languages by offering opportunities for young people to access world literature and knowledge in their native tongue?

One of the most pervasive questions was: Is Yiddish even capable of expressing the ideas contained in great works of world literature?  Authors writing in Yiddish, a language believed by many of its own speakers to be an inferior jargon, could use translation as a way of proving the expansiveness and literary quality of the language itself by demonstrating that it had the linguistic nuance to convey the ideas of world literature.1  That is to say, if a great work of world literature could be translated into Yiddish, that was proof that a born-Yiddish work of literature with the range of expression and artistry of the translated work was possible and something to aspire to, and it proved that Yiddish was a modern language that could hold its own alongside the European languages that were popularly considered to be languages of education, reason, and modernity.

This is all to say that translating a text into Yiddish could say something about (a) the importance and popularity of the original and also (b) the attitude of the translator toward the Yiddish language and what s/he believes translating the text into Yiddish could do for Yiddish itself.

In teaching these texts, you might ask your students to consider how translating a text into a different language both expands the audience of the text and also reshapes the text itself.  Where does American literature end and world literature begin (and what is the role of American Yiddish literature as part of American literature or world literature)?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha”

Image: cover of Yiddish poet Solomon Bloomgarten (better known as Yehoash)’s 1910 translation of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” (you can read the translation in full here)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” relates the fictional take of an Ojibwe warrior named Hiawatha and his tragic love for a Dakota woman, Minnehaha.  Although the poem was popularly read at the time of its publication, Alan Trachtenberg has demonstrated that the poem gained new popularity at the turn of the twentieth century as large waves of immigrants from Europe were assimilated into American national culture at the same time as contemporary Native Americans were being forced off their land and their children forcibly sent to boarding schools for indoctrination and assimilation.

Yiddish poet Solomon Bloomgarten (better known as Yehoash)’s 1910 translation of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” was one of many of the poet’s translation efforts, which also, most famously, included a full Yiddish translation of the Hebrew Bible.  Yehoash rendered hundreds of works of world literature into Yiddish including Lafcadio Hearn’s Chinese and Japanese Legends, Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat and Byron’s “Hebrew Melodies.”  His translation of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” may be seen as part of his efforts to domesticate the exotic through Yiddish translation and to push the boundaries of the Yiddish language by using it as a mode of expression for non-Jewish subject matter.

Through his translation, Yehoash elicits sympathy with an imagined other, as filtered through Longfellow’s portrayal, while also demonstrating the capaciousness of Yiddish as a language that could perform the most “American” of cultural tasks: gazing upon and interpreting Native American culture.  It also brings a popular artifact of contemporaneous American literature closer to the immigrant readership, giving them access to American literary traditions in the intimacy of their own tongue.2

Teaching Suggestions:

  • Listening Exercise
    • Listen to the above recording of the first stanza of the prologue to Yehoash’s translation of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” while looking at the English version.  Based on what you heard, to what extent is Yehoash faithful to the sound and meter of the poem?
  • The Worth of Translations
    • Invite your students to read Yiddish essayist and activist Chaim Zhitlowsky’s introduction to Yehoash’s translation of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” “On the Worth of Translations,” [translated into English at this link by Joshua Price].  The essay offers a justification for the importance of translation for the enrichment of Yiddish language and literature.  Ask your students what they can learn from this introduction about the worth of translating “The Song of Hiawatha” in particular from this introduction.  What does the text signify for Zhitowsky – is it particularly “good” or “beautiful” literature and therefore worthy of translation?  Does it stretch Yiddish because the subject matter is particularly distant from that of Yiddish speaker’s lives?  How does it shape their understanding of the Yiddish text to think that readers might be interested in the poetry because of how it is rendered in Yiddish, rather than because of the content of Longfellow’s poem itself?
  • Fanny Brice “I’m an Indian”
    • Compare the attitude toward Longfellow’s poem and his portrayal of Native Americans in what you know of Yehoash’s translation to comic Fanny Brice’s Vaudeville performance “I’m an Indian,” which begins with a reference to Longfellow’s poem.  Before you do this, you’ll want to make sure to give students some background about racial masquerade in this period.3  Ask your students to think about when and how, as cultural artifacts move across languages, there are opportunities for aspiration, appropriation, and parody.

T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

In the 1930s (the exact year is not known), Chicago-born Jewish writers Isaac Rosenfeld and Saul Bellow, then students and aspiring writers, created a Yiddish parody of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which they titled “Der shir hashirim fun Mendl Pumshtok.”4 Though they never published it, the poem was passed on enthusiastically and has been circulated as part of the apocrypha of American Jewish literature for decades.  Rosenfeld was known to have recited it for his friends as a running gag throughout his life.5

The parody deflates Prufrock’s tragic existential alienation by cloaking it in Yiddish equivalents that took on a particularly pedestrian valence given the ways that Yiddish had been coded as a language of lowbrow immigrant culture in early twentieth-century America.6

The famed T. S. Eliot, whose poetry was required reading in the literature curriculum that Rosenfeld and Bellow absorbed in their Chicago public schools, has long been critiqued as an antisemite whose very poetry was animated by his antipathy toward Jews.7 Rosenfeld and Bellow’s parody therefore stands as a rebuke to the canonical poet, steeping his poetry in the language of a community he disdained:

Nu-zhe, kum-zhe, ikh un du,
Ven der ovnt shteyt unter dem himl
Vi a leymener goylm af Tisha b’Av.

Lomir geyn zikh
Durkh geselakh vos dreyen zikh
Vi di bord fun dem rov.

Oyf der vant fun dem koshern restorant
Hengt a shmutsiker betgevant
Un vantsn tantsn karahod. Es geht a geroykh
Fun gefiltefish un nase zokn.

Oy, Bashe freg nisht keyn kasha, A dayge dir!
Lomir oyfefenin di tir.

In tsimer vu di vayber zenen
Ret men fun Marx un Lenin.

Ikh ver alt...ikh ver alt...
Es vert mir in pupik kalt.

Zol ikh oyskemen di hor,
meg ikh oyfesn a floym?

Ikh vel onton vayse hoyzn
un shpatsirn bay dem yam.

Ikh vel hern di yam-moydn zingen khad gadyo
Ikh vel zey entfern, Borukh-habo.

English: 
Well then, come, you and I
When the evening stands under the sky
Like a clay golem on Tisha B'av.
Let us go, 
Through streets that curve
Like the rabbi's beard.
 
On the wall of the kosher restaurant
A filthy bedspread hangs
And bedbugs are folkdancing. There is the odor
Of gefilte fish and wet socks.
 
Oy, Bashe, don't ask, what do you care!
Let us open the door.

In the room where the women are
They are talking of Marx and Lenin.
 
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
And my belly-button is getting cold.

Shall I comb my hair?
May I eat a plum?

I will put on my white pants
And promenade near the sea.

I will hear the mermaids singing Chad Gadya,
I shall answer them: “Welcome.”8

Teaching Suggestions:

  • Parody
    • This is a creative adaptation by writers who were at home in both American and Yiddish cultures and playing with the interchange between the languages. As Michael Boyden explains, the translation was purposefully parodic: “The point… was not to make mainstream literary culture available to the immigrant but rather to reflect on the boundary between major and minor languages, high and low culture, and to invert their values into a kind of mock-heroic gesture.”9 Ask your students to identify moments in the poem that they feel fit Boyden’s description and explain why they think particular turns of phrase reflect a parodic or mock-heroic sensibility. You might ask your students to create a similar poem deflating a famous work of literature by rewriting it in their own words and with their own cultural points of reference.
  • Inversion
    • To some degree, this text not only parodies but also completely inverts the original.  Rather than being ignored by the mermaids, the speaker welcomes them, and rather than feeling isolated within a social setting, the narrator appears to be speaking directly to a woman, perhaps a lover.  Ask your students to speculate about why the authors would make the choice to upend the romantic situation of the speaker.
  • Canon and Contamination
    • Use this poem as a starting point to ask your students to consider how and why certain works of literature become canonical, and how the beliefs of the authors, such as racism or antisemitism should be taken into account as these poems enter the curricula and are taught in classes (such as their own).

1 See Shandler, Jeffrey. “On the Frontiers of Ashkenaz: Translating into Yiddish, then and Now.” Judaism 54, no. 1 (Winter, 2005): 3-12.

2 Those wishing to read more about this text should turn to: Alan Trachtenberg, Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) and Rachel Rubinstein, Members of the Tribe: Native America in the Jewish Imagination (Wayne State University Press, 2010).

3 See Lott, Eric, and Greil Marcus. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford University Press, 2013 and Antelyes, Peter. “‘Haim Afen Range’: The Jewish Indian and the Redface Western.” MELUS, vol. 34, no. 3, 2009, pp. 15–42.

4 You can read about the friendship of these authors here: Zipperstein, Steven J. “Isaac Rosenfeld, Saul Bellow, Friendship and Fate.” New England Review (1990-), vol. 30, no. 1, 2009, pp. 10–20.

5 Zipperstein, 236.

6 See Boyden, Michael, “Postvernacular Prufrock: Isaac Rosenfeld and Saul Bellow’s Yiddish ‘Translation’ of T. S. Eliot’s Modernism,” Journal of World Literature 3 (2018) 174-195 for an extended analysis of the translation as an instance of postvernacular language use.  See also Norich, Anita. Writing in Tongues: Translating Yiddish in the Twentienth Century.  Seattle, WA: University of Washington Pressm 2013, p. 47.

7 Julius, Anthony.  T.S. Eliot Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. (Cambridge UP, 1996).

8 Yiddish 7.1 (1987), pp. 54-55, as quoted in Boyden.

9 Boyden, 178.

Bio:

Jessica Kirzane is an Assistant Instructional Professor in Yiddish at the University of Chicago and the editor-in-chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.  She is the translator of Miriam Karpiove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love (Syracuse University Press, 2020).

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