Page 61 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 31

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LEFTWICH / ABOUT TRANSLATION FROM THE YIDDISH
merits of the pioneer.” What induced her, “a Christian English-
woman, the daughter of Lady Frank, the grandchild of the Duke
of Westminster, the daughter of a converted Jew," to interest
herself in Yiddish and Hebrew and to be a pioneer in the trans-
lation of both into English? “Despite the remarkable proficiency
she attained in Yiddish,” Dr. Shatzky comments, “she was now
and then baffled by Sholem Aleichem’s folk speech and idiomatic
curiosities.” She felt it herself. “To fully understand,” she said,
“we should need to know intimately the life of the Russian Jews
and to be familiar with the lore of the Talmud and the Kab-
balah, which colors their talk as the superstitions of Slav or
Celtic lands color the talk of their peasants.”
I would repeat here what I have said elsewhere about Helena
Frank’s translations, that quite apart from being the pioneer in
the field, her translations are still strikingly good. Take her open-
ing sentence in “Bontze Shweig,” which Ludwig Lewisohn re-
printed in his collection
Jewish Short Stories
in 1945. “Down
here, in this world, Bontze Shweig’s death made no impression at
all.” I t has not been bettered.
I t is when we come to “the lore of the Talmud,” which colors
the talk of Yiddish Jews, that we get into difficulties. I t is one
reason why so much of Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye,” which was
sadly popularized and vulgarized in “Fiddler on the Roof” seems
untranslatable. Tevye keeps quoting texts all the time, texts from
the Bible and from corrupt misreadings of the Talmud. Tevye is
a country dairyman, who knows more about his horse and his
milk and cheese delivery cart than about the House of Study.
His twisted interpretations of Scriptural and liturgical passages
to suit his argument are a feast of malaprops. Dr. Golomb, a Yid-
dish scholar of distinction, has given us a sort of glossary, straight-
ening out Tevye’s twisted texts; and he explains: “Where did he
get these texts? Saying his prayers, repeating Psalms, listening to
a preacher in the synagogue, or picked up from talk with another
Jew. The ordinary conversation of such Jews was for generations
saturated with these sayings, even if they had not studied, even
if they did not properly understand the true meaning of the
words. . . It is traditional, folk speech.” But if one doesn’t know
the sources, the original texts, one loses the point of the mala-
props. It is because Sholem Aleichem is so full of twisted texts
and slanted allusions that whole chunks of his work must be