Fall 2009 Issue

The last reader

This English professor’s ‘minor act of rescue’ may have saved a 19th century Yiddish novella from oblivion

By Paige Stein

When reading one of the classics – “Hamlet,” “Madame Bovary,” “Great Expectations” - it’s easy to imagine the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers who have read this work before you. It’s also easy to imagine future generations, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, one day reading the same tale of tragic love or lost youth or self-destruction. But what if while reading a novel, you asked yourself the legitimate question: “Will anyone ever read this story again? Is it remotely possible that I could be its last reader?”

Several years ago, while reading a novella titled “The Women Shopkeepers or Golde-Mine, the Abandoned Wife of Brod” by the 19th century Yiddish writer Ayzik-Meir Dik, Dr. Lillian Schanfield, did, in fact, ask herself that very question.

“All at once there seemed to be a huge difference between this volume and all the others shelved together in my library as ‘world literature.’ ” Schanfield says. “Clearly, if no English, French or any other language translation existed of works by Ibsen, Tolstoy or Flaubert … those works are still reader-accessible in their original languages. Given the history of Yiddish, of Yiddish speakers, and even more importantly, readers of Yiddish Literature, it struck me that the act of rendering this work into a living language did, indeed, constitute a minor act of rescue.”

Although her academic work focuses primarily on British literature, Schanfield has long had an interest in Yiddish literature, meeting weekly with friend and colleague, Paul Azaroff, to read various Yiddish works. In fact, the duo originally began translating Dik’s work as a lark but took it on as a formal project after Schanfield presented a paper at a conference on Yiddish poetry and was approached by a publisher about translating and publishing a longer piece.

Yiddish, which is not a dialect of German but an independent language, most likely began to take shape by the 10th century as Jews from France and Italy migrated to the German Rhine Valley. They developed a language that included elements of Hebrew, Jewish-French, Jewish-Italian, and various German dialects. It then spread to Central and Eastern Europe and eventually to other continents. By the 18th century, Yiddish was used almost universally among the Jews of Eastern Europe. In fact, on the eve of World War II, there were approximately 11 to 13 million Yiddish speakers in the world.

Today, it is spoken by approximately 4 million Jews worldwide and is classified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a “seriously endangered” language, which by definition means that the youngest speakers have reached or passed middle age. The next stage, “moribund,” means that only a few elderly speakers are left.

When it comes to the fate of Yiddish literature, Schanfield says the prospects are even bleaker. “Yiddish today is spoken daily by some ultra-Orthodox Jews, but they seldom read imaginative literature from outside their own circle, and in fact discussion of a secular Jewish-writer [like Ayzik-Meir Dik] is probably discouraged.”

In fact, it was Dik’s place in history as arguably the first professional Yiddish author that particularly interested Schanfield and Azaroff. “He had a contract with one of the great Jewish publishing houses of Eastern Europe, the Romm press, to provide a new story every week,” says Schanfield, who was also intrigued by the impact Dik had on his 19th and early 20th century successors. “Dik was an important bridge to late 19th century and early 20th century Jewish writers,” she says. “When I teach my class on Shakespeare, I always bring up the question, ‘If (Christopher) Marlowe had not come before, would Shakespeare have been able to write what he did?’ ”

Also of special interest to Schanfield was Dik’s primarily female audience: “At that time in the 19th century, Yiddish would have been primarily read by women, because the rabbinical authorities would have objected to men reading literature. Women would have bought his stories at the market when they were shopping for food for the Sabbath (the Jewish day of rest, which begins on Friday at sundown and ends on Saturday at sundown) and could read them throughout the week.”

In order to make “The Abandoned Wife of Brod,” which Schanfield describes as a “real potboiler, full of adultery, premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births” more palatable to the rabbinical authorities, Dik’s original work included, among other devices, an epilogue titled, “The writer bids farewell to his lady reader.” It is filled with advice on how to be a good Jewish wife and mother. However, this epilogue was left out of the 1954 anthology of Dik’s work by Shumel Niger, an influential 20th century critic of Yiddish literature. It wasn’t until Schanfield read the original 1865 novella written in daytshmerish - a formal Germanized version of written Yiddish - that she realized the epilogue even existed.

“In my opinion, the epilogue was terribly important to frame the entire story. It was an attempt [by Dik] to ingratiate his work with the rabbinical authorities and make it appear more didactic than it actually was,” Schanfield says. “For example, in the book, one of the characters runs away with a man whom she’s not married to, even allowing her parents to believe her dead, and she’s not punished for her actions; in fact, she’s rewarded. So Dik was trying to have it both ways - write an exciting story and appear moralistic at the same time.”

In order to accomplish their dual mission of rescuing Dik with translation into a living language and of providing linguists and students of Yiddish a sense of the original work, Schanfield and Azaroff used different typefaces to conflate the original daytshmerish with Niger’s version written in modern, standardized Yiddish.

“I would type the original 19th century daytshmerish in one font and then type Niger’s 20th century translation in a different font so the reader could see what was left out in his abridged translation,” explains Azaroff, who teaches adult education courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Florence Melton Adult Mini-School’s Dade County site.

Since Yiddish takes up more space than English, the book’s format - which faces a Yiddish page next to its English counterpart - matches up the two languages at 20-line intervals. It also includes extensive footnotes on both the Yiddish and English pages. While the Yiddish footnotes contain information for students and linguists interested in the Yiddish language and the process of translation, the English footnotes are geared more toward those interested in Jewish history and culture. “In the English footnotes we explained things like the havdala candle (the ceremonial braided candle lit at the close of the Sabbath to distinguish between it and the ensuing weekdays), but any Yiddish reader would already know that.”

Translating Yiddish, Azaroff adds, also has its own particular problems: “Because it’s a religious-based language, most of the idioms relate to prayer, and unless you’re part of the culture, there is no way to really translate them into English.”

Such realities may have made the four-year project painstaking and fraught with challenges, but the work was far from humorless. “We would alternately read a paragraph, transcribe it and then go over the transcription together,” Schanfield says. “The first translation was very literal; we had a lot of laughs with Yiddish metaphors and phrases that just didn’t work [when literally translated] into English, like ‘Don’t talk birds into your breast.’ ”

Although it may not have been something that she originally set out to do, translating Yiddish literature came easily to a native speaker such as Schanfield. As the child of Eastern European immigrants to Canada, Schanfield did not begin speaking English regularly until she began attending school. “We went to English-speaking schools, and in Quebec had to learn French as well,” Schanfield says.

A Brooklyn native, Azaroff also grew up in a Yiddish speaking household. “I like to say I was born in Brooklyn, Poland,” he says. “I grew up in a heavily immigrant, very Slavic neighborhood where the culture was very intense. When I visited Poland as an adult I felt so at home, whereas I’ve been to places in the United States where I didn’t feel so at home.”

While proud of their achievement, Schanfield says there was also a sorrowful undertone that accompanied their task, one that stemmed from the unanswerable question of what the state of Yiddish literature would be today if so many of its writers, readers and scholars had not died in the Holocaust. “There was a body of [Yiddish] literature that was beginning to contend with other European literature of that period,” Schanfield notes. “World War II brought production to a halt. Today, there are still people who write Yiddish poetry and fiction, but it’s tragic that there are so few.”

And without Yiddish readers, translation into a viable language such as English remains a major vehicle for the literature’s survival. “To be a translator is to have a responsibility as mediator between two texts. But to be a translator of Yiddish literature is to have a sacred duty of care,” Schanfield says.