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June 01, 1984 - Image 71

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-06-01

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72 Friday, June 1, 1984


The joys of translating Yid

Ann Arbor translator Aliza Shevrin is making
the treasures of Yiddish literature available to
the non-Yiddish reading public

Special to The Jewish News

Behind every well-known Yid-
dish writer in America is an unsung
hero: the translator. •
'Without the.translator as go-
between, few Americans could make
the acquaintance of Yiddish literary
masters such as Sholom Aleichem,
whose stories became Fiddler on the
Roof; or Isaac Bashevis Singer, a
Nobel prize-winner whose works
were almost certainly judged in
Engligh translation.
Indeed, Yiddish literature is in-
accessible even to many Jews. Writer
Bel Kaufman (Up. the Down Stair-
case) is Sholom Aleichem's grand-
daughter and controls his literary es-
tate. But she cannot read a word of
Yiddish in which his books were orig-
inally written.
Enter the Yiddish translator.
• Qualifications: fine writer; bilingual;
a real feeling for the Yiddish lan-
guage. In addition, the translator
must be willing to subjugate literary
personality to the author's and to see
the author get credit for the work —
as he or she will, if the translation is
But to Aliza Shevrin, tranlat-
ing is anything but self-effacing
work. "It's like a performance. Iper-
form Sholom Aleichem," she says
sweeping by a woodcut of the author
that ,adorns her dining room wall.
Shevrin is responsible for the
English-language edition of In the
Storm, Sholom Aleichem's 1907
novel of social, political and personal
upheaval. It was just released by
Putnam's along with the paperback
of Marienbad, the humorous, 1911
Sholom Aleichem novel-of-Jewish-
manners she translated in 1982. Al-
- though In the Storm has its share of
classic Aleichem characters -- gos-
sipy neighbors and adoring but dis-
approving fathers — it is set not in
the shtetl but in Kiev, and its subject
is dead serious: the turbulent events .
of the granting and retraction of the
Czar's 1905 constitution and the sub-
sequent pogroms that sent millions
— including Aleichem himself -- to
. new lives across the sea.
A warm, lively 52-year-old social
worker who lives in Ann Arbor,
•Shevrin has found that books in a
dying language require her service


Susan Isaacs Nisbett is an
Ann Arbor free-lance

Translator Aliza Shevrin stands beside the S. Chafetz woodcut of Sholom Aleichem that adorns her dining room wall, •

more urgently than people. A rabbi's
daughter who grew up speaking Yid-
dish as. her first language in Brook-
lyn, she has refused to say Kaddish
for the language she and other first-
generation Jewish-Americans failed
to pass on to their children. In trans-
lations, she finds expiation.' "I feel
guilty because I haven't taught my
four kids," she admits. "I feel a great
responsibility to take, great Yiddish
works and make them available."
Shevrin's "performances" — I.L.
Peretz and I.B. Singer in additon to
Sholom Aleichem — have brought
her a translator's measure of fame
and fortune: the pleasure of seeing
the Singer novel she translated,
Enemies, A Love Story, proposed for a

0,111) •15! ∎ m

National Book Award; a nomination
for the Janus Korczak Award for

'Holiday Tales of Sholom Aleichem

(Scribner's, 1979); a Rockefeller
Foundation Fellowship to continue
preserving Yiddish works in English;
favorable reviews of Marienbad and
In the Storm that mention her name
proniinently alongside the author's;
and a commitment from Putnam's to
publish her next Sholom Aleichem
translation, Yosele the Nightingale.
Making "survivors" of Yiddish
novels and stories is no easy task.
Few languages are as rich in idioma-
tic expressions and regional variants
as Yiddish, a linguistic blotter that
soaks up the languages of its host
countries like matzoh balls in chic-
ken soup.
It one thing to identify foreign
elements in Yiddish — the obsolete
Russian military terms that
punctuate In the. Storm, for example.
To translate them — and maintain
the language's multi-lingual flavor
-- is quite another. "It'S like taking
English that mixes French, English
and a slang, and translating it into
Japanese," nays Shevrin.

Marienbad posed special trans-
lation challenges above and beyond
the usual translator's teinptation to,
as Shevrin puts it, "say it better than
the author."
• She notes that there is neither
narrative nor description to link the
series of 36 letters, 14 love notes and
64 telegrams which constitute the
book. "So everything has to come
from the characters' speech," she
sums up. "Welike writing a play. You
have to ask: 'What are the characters'
trademarks, their signatures?' Once
you get the signature, the posture,
the accent -- it flows; you don't even
have to think."
Like all crusaders for
endangered species, Shev- rin seeks to
convince a listener that the time to
translate Yiddish literature is now
Living dictionaries, she explains, are
far more useful to her than printed
references: "Most of my sources are
my father, my mother and their con-
temporaries — and maybe a few
scholars. Yiddish will be a learned
language after this generation, and

Continued on Page 48

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