Archives for posts with tag: translation

Our first podcast of the new year features a chat with the bilingual poet/critic/translator Alexander Dickow. Text of the poems he read are at the end of this post.

To a Politician
Your cellophane disguise for a tongue
Furiously unbefits the even knavest
Of these podium fisted Catilines I hate
Whose dim broadcasts encrust
With craven abjectives and slick nouns,
Whose paramount pronouncements’
Weighty grovel fresh veneers each victim eye,
Who gape and crave at limp wealth,
Puppets of their own slanted lip
And their thin speech as cheap
As its callous stakes are ruthless:
Our brittle faith, our breath, the truth.


Measureless and vacant husks
Veneer along the pale gaps
Kissing the smooth-lit kernels
Far across the hesitation

Where cycles dip
Ebbing forth aromas
Of nectar vicinities
All gleamed among
Their dim stretchings

Remote surroundments
Hint around lucid cusps
And milk-blinkings swerve
Over grooved vastnesses
Whose lofty gazes
Empty to the brim resound

Finespun legions
Of distant stone pivot
Within strange rings
And innocent strains
Swivel endless and lilt
Like hearts wept upon
The rings of far-fetched motes
Tingling their ancient aubades


D’incommensurables écorces
Enduisent selon les faîtes espacés,
Et frémissant le semis d’éclairages,
Floue les ourlets tout loin.

Arômes qu’émane
Un jusant cousus d’oublis,
Luisez vos affleurements sourds
Et vos proches nectars.

Des avant-preuves perlent
En glissant partout les orées lucides
Où des clins de lait dérapent
Pendant des éloignements vastes
Dont les grands regards
Vides à ras bord résonnent.

Des légions respirées
En pierre lointaine pivotent
Dans des cerclages
Et des airs d’innocence
Louvoient des vibrements
Comme des coeurs pleurés
Dessus les anneaux d’improbables noyaux
Frissonnant d’antiques aubades.

Thanks Charles Rammelkamp for including three poems of mine in the latest issue of The Potomac — one original work, and two translations from Avrom Sutzkever’s Diary Poems. (And don’t forget to check out Carol Berkower‘s lovely verse in the same issue!)

Here’s one of those translations of Sutzkever’s Yiddish:


Explain it? Explain it how?
The sun didn’t turn colder,
but she won’t melt tears
and only childhood gets no older.

Youth, her brother, was trampled
like red grapes in the cellar.
The shadow’s hair turns silver
and only childhood gets no older.

Her snows and her violets
are not to be had for gold.
Her king grows old, as does his kingdom
and only childhood gets no older.

From Diary Poems by Avrom Sutzkever,
translated from the Yiddish

My translation from the Hebrew of Natan Alterman’s poem The Shadow is now posted at the Manhattanville Review, and also — below! (Check out the journal website for a little squib about my translation philosophy or lack thereof.)


The Shadow
Natan Alterman
From Hebrew: Zackary Sholem Berger

Once there was a man and his shadow.
One night the shadow stood up
took the man’s shoes and coat,
put them on. Passing by
it took the man’s hat from the hook,
trying as well to remove his head —
without success. It took his face off
and put that on too. If that weren’t enough
next morning he went out with his walking stick.
The man ran down the street after him
shrieking to his friends: What a terrible thing!
It’s a shadow! A clown! It’s not me! I’ll
write the authorities! He can’t get away with it! He wailed
bitterly, but little by little got used to it, fell silent, till at last
he forgot about the incident.

Here is a presentation about me and my poetry on Radio Sefarad, with a reading of one of my Yiddish poems paired with a Spanish translation. A pleasure to corrlogofinalespond with Varda Fiszbein about Yiddish poetry.

Aron Glantz-Leyeles does not make things easy for the translator or critic. A formalist, he was of a philosophical, lugubrious bent; spending most of his life in America, he was no troubadour, guerilla fighter, or escaped refusenik. Neither did he become the harrowing, post-war poet of Holocaust remembrance (like Jacob Glatstein), triangulating God’s absence with the calipers of Jewish history and the “goyim’s” nonchalance. His lyric conclusions are different, and more deliberate.Amerike-un-ikh2

More on the virtuoso of loneliness in a blogpost of mine (including some new translations of Leyeles’ verse) posted recently at In Geveb.

Maybe a law of gravitation was in force here too:

Suddenly I found myself attracted to a strange unknown city. This city wasn’t included in the itinerary of my voyage round the world by air. I didn’t even know its name, or whether such a clime was to be found on Earth at all.

It happened this way:Avrom-Sutzkever-2-420x250

When the airplane slid out of the slanted air onto the silky smooth runway, on its way to kick out some passengers to their connecting flight, glugging itself full of gas, or some other drinkable, en route to another nonstop across the sea — I nonchalantly grabbed my bag and in a daze followed the few passengers off the plane.

Read “A Smile at the End of the World,” this story by Avrom Sutzkever in my translation, thanks to the editors at B O D Y. The original is from his volume Green Aquarium. If you are a publisher who is interested in a fantastic volume of prose poems like this one, be in touch!

This week I will be giving a series of talks at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital, and even more important, learning how internists in that institution see their route to bridging patient-centered care and medicine’s evidence base. I hope to write about my visit daily, if not necessarily to post (that depends on internet connections and whether I can reach social media). Photos will come later.

It’s also an excuse to improve my execrable Mandarin. I know it is bad, despite the unfailing support and friendliness with which many Chinese greet my halting attempts at the language.

I love learning languages, though my success has been varied. I am old enough to remember what it was like to learn a language before Google Translate. An estimable tool, to be sure, one that facilitates looking up those fiendish arthropodian characters with 15 strokes.

Yet we all know Google Translate has problems. Sometimes, with all its fantastic power to make an educated, database-driven guess as to what the source text must mean, the translations stink. No human being fuent in that language would produce such a sentence.

Which is why Google Translate still needs supplementation by dictionaries. Of course, today’s dictionaries use much the same technology as GTrans: databases, search strategies. But they are curated, assembled by teams of lexicographers who are able to bridge the native expressions of one idiom with those of another.

I never shy away from analogizing, and you might have guessed where I am going with this.

Evidence-based medicine produces a number of studies. The best guidelines generate recommendations based on large datasets requiring considerable computational power, in order to model the interaction between various variables and the outcome of interest.

Yet we doctors and patients know that sometimes these guidelines, even those produced by the best science, come out with suggestions that bear faint resemblance to the options available to real human beings living complicated lives – the same way that the frictionless surface beloved of physicists is a crude approximation of sublunar life.

By now it is a cliché to say that the art of medicine is a language in itself. That’s not quite what I am saying here. Only patients are fluent in their own languages: idioms of body, society, family, daily life. Together, providers and patients can function as an expert lexicographic team, bridging the ever-improving, but still sometimes outlandish recommendations of Google Medicine, with the diverse speech of real human beings.

Dr. Google, meet Professor Wittgenstein.

Chaim Grade’s works are waiting. Is a new dictionary enough?

For as long as people have read and written Yiddish literature in the modern era, they have taken pains to translate it into other languages, as if they could not be sure that the language they were writing in would be read when they were finished. Sholem Aleichem translated himself in his own lifetime. His fiction has lived to be told and retold on the stage and between covers – but is rarely read now in Yiddish. Generations of readers in English, Russian, and Hebrew are surprised to hear that that their loved Tevye did not speak their language.

But for every writer who has translated themselves, or been translated, there are a dozen writers who have not. For example, Chaim Grade, one of the 20th century’s greatest Yiddish writers, produced a large amount of work, much of which – due to this opposition of his wife – has not been translated into English. Only with the disposition of his estate, which has now been bought by the YIVO and the National Library of Israel, will he finally be translated in a large scale. But how do make sure translation actually happens – and how do we make sure there are enough translators to take on the work of rendering these and thousands of important works into English?

Luckily, there appears to be an increasing interest in this craft of translation, and of Yiddish especially. Of course, this interest is hardly a mass-market phenomenon. While Yale University Press, together with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, started a series of New Yiddish Literature, meant to showcase high-quality literary translations, the series had to shutter because of low readership. The Book Center has also started an initiative to promote translations from Yiddish, with the first crop of half-a-dozen fellows chosen this year.

There isn’t any evidence that masses of young Jews are suddenly streaming to the Yiddish stacks of their local libraries. But If few people are reading Yiddish literature now as ever, what drives people to translate from Yiddish, and what is their motivation? Can we tap into whatever is driving such eminent translators of Lawrence Rosenwald, a professor of English at Wellesley College and the translator of an upcoming volume of stories by Lamed Shapiro, the prose portraitist of Jewish urban disillusionment? He was a literary translator from French, Italian, and German before he tried his hand at translating from Yiddish, for the same reason he had translated other texts before: “translating a text [is] the most powerful way of deepening that engagement [with it], dealing with the whole text and not just the parts you like.” He became a Yiddish translator by happenstance, when a fellow reader of Yiddish recommended a story to him that upended his expectations.

Like Rosenwald, translators are readers in both the source and the target language, points out Susan Harris, editor of the translation website Words without Borders and a doyenne of the community of literary translation. Rosenwald, an academic, is an example of a person with relatively stable employment who can devote time to translations. But where will other new Yiddish translators come from? They will have to be those who read Yiddish literature already: either graduate students, for whom a translated literary work is no route either to a PhD or respect (let alone tenure) in the world of academia, or Charedim, who might not command a literary knowledge of English.

The lack of new translators, says Harris, can be addressed from two directions: training, for example in universities and graduate programs, as well as summer workshops, and funding – again, either from academia or philanthropy. If, however, Jewish education is chronically underfunded, who can we expect to step up and support the translation of Yiddish literature, when Hebrew literature – to make a comparison – is not represented either on American bookshelves apart from a few well-worn names?

One bright spot should however be noted. The shelves are chockablock with new volumes, armaments in the only arsenal that really matters to the translator: her dictionaries. There have been new dictionaries from Yiddish and French and Yiddish to Russian, and a dictionary of the loshn-koydesh (Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic) – derived words in Yiddish.

Most of these dictionaries are thanks to, either originally or derivatively, the work of Yitzkhok Niborski, whose Yiddish-French dictionary, published by the Medem Library in 2002, achieved a high-water mark in post-war Yiddish lexicography. While the beloved Uriel Weinreich Yiddish-English English-Yiddish dictionary was designed for students, Niborski’s goal was to provide a more complete list of those words to be found in Yiddish literature.

So the newest tool for translators, academics, and those few casual readers of Yiddish literature, the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary edited by Solon Beinfeld and Harry Bochner and published in 2012 by Indiana University Press, is certainly to be welcomed and has already been hailed as a work of high quality and immediate usefulness. Unlike Weinreich’s Dictionary, it is not blinkered by prescriptivism, nor hindered by a misplaced delicacy and a desire to “whitewash” the dirty parts of Yiddish. (I can’t be the only one who looks up the four-letter words in any new dictionary he opens, and this one does not systematically exclude them as did Weinreich.)

if we think of Yiddish literature as a closed canon to be mined, its treasures brought up above ground and appreciated in the bright light of English, this dictionary is the ideal tool. However, if we understand any translation as one point in the continuum between one language and another, readers in Yiddish and English whose discoveries enrich each other’s communities, then this dictionary, for all its rigor, clarity, erudition, and usefulness, might fall short.

The reason is that a number of contemporary Yiddish words of wide provenance are simply missing. There is no internet, no diner [fundraising dinner], no bulshit. There is no vebzaytl. The absence of these words is not necessarily a fatal flaw – this is not an all-encompassing Grand Yiddish Dictionary, a project which has been abandoned too many times to count – but it does indicate the priorities of the compilers. And it indicates that today’s translators of Yiddish literature might lack a vital link to today’s Yiddish-language speech community.

Why is this important? Because the third supporting element to attract a wider audience to Yiddish literature, besides translators and dictionaries, is readers – in both English and Yiddish.

Without readers and writers in the original language, it is difficult to maintain a critical mass of appreciative ears and eyes which take the original to translation and then, ideally, back again to the source language to seek new sources of flavor and interest to the outside reader.Harris says, “Without readers of, and translators from, the original language, little or nothing is translated, which means there’s nothing to lure readers or students, or to motivate them to learn the language; and that perpetuates the invisibility. “

How do we attract readers to a language and a literature they do not know, either because they don’t know people write secular literature in Yiddish or because they don’t know Yiddish itself? How is their attention to be attracted in a world of infinite amusements and literary output? What is the “pitch” to entice potential readers of Yiddish? Is it a literature of global importance waited to be sprung upon an unknowing world, or a wholly owned subsidiary of Jewish culture, only of interest to Judeophiles and their friends?

Perhaps, hiding in the Yiddish stacks of some university library, the next psychologically acute novel or eye-opening poetic epic is waiting to be discovered, if only we could get enough readers of Yiddish to open up those books, and open up the channels between English and Yiddish, so that translations could flow through them and irrigate the surrounding fields of Jewish thought and literature.

Herring Barrels
Dvoyre Fogel (1934)

Round like the world, like the city
five hooped barrels of herring
in the grocer’s

Five round wooden barrels
of fat gray salted herring.


And on faraway glassy seas
narrow ships loaded with fish
— fish gray and velvety like an autumn sky —
ships cool, blue, the faraway
of resigned steely landscapes

And on hot seas
of blue cobalt and ultramarine
ships loaded with oranges
meaty bananas and humid dates

Ships from brass landscapes
where the sun is a great metal ingot
where on streets elastic like gold foil
everything is for the first time and urgent.
Fantastic and out of nothing
like old world-weary bananas. Like oranges.
Like people who’ve gambled away their constellations.



My translation from the Yiddish (original here). Originally published in Eleven Eleven.

This blog is bilingual. Yiddish is the language on the other side of the blogwall (if this web page smells of garlic, that’s the reason). Sure I have a love for languages in general; there’s a close link between my fascination with what people speak and my research into how people talk to their doctors. More details on that score in my book of a similar title.

But there might be an even closer link between translation and medicine. The philosopher W.V.O. Quine pointed out that there is no one perfect mapping of my words in English, say, into a set of words in Japanese that mean exactly the same thing. Translation, in his words, is indeterminate.

Something similar happens in the doctor-patient conversation. It is very rare (or impossible?) for the two members of that pair to say the same words in the same way to refer to the same health issue.

The way out of this conundrum is probably the same one that working translators take. Just as there is no perfect translation, only different attempts at it, there is no perfect conversation, much less between a doctor and a patient.

The translator tries to produce a work of art which elicits a sought-after effect. Similarly, doctor and patient should seek to improve communication not to get the techniques perfect, but to achieve healthy aims.