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  • Encomia and Corrigenda:On Barbara Harshav's Translation of Temol Shilshom
  • Avraham Holtz
S. Y. Agnon. Only Yesterday. Translated by Barbara Harshav. Introduction and glossary by Benjamin Harshav. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000, xxxi + 652 pp.

I join the reviewers of Only Yesterday in congratulating Barbara Harshav on having undertaken this daunting assignment and in lauding Princeton University Press for having published an English translation of this complex novel.1 All of the reviewers were clearly infatuated with Balak, the heady, mischievous-and, by now, densely deciphered-dog who, according to many, upstages the protagonist Isaac Kumer as he meanders between Jaffa and Jerusalem at the time of the Second Aliyah (1908-11). The adventures of Kumer and Balak, separately and together, constitute the plot of Agnon's novel.2 Balak, on whose back Kumer had playfully painted the words "Crazy Dog," is bewildered by the constant suffering he endures and is determined to learn the truth about his existential condition. Along the way, Balak contracts rabies and avenges himself by biting, and thereby fatally infecting, Isaac during the week of sheva'berakhot after his marriage to Shifra, a pious young woman from Jerusalem's Hungarian quarter, whom Isaac had met shortly after he had been jilted by Sonya Zweiring, Jaffa's restless and frolicsome coquette.

Any further comments about the exploits of the central and marginal characters would require forays into the history of the composition of this novel, into how and why the hitherto independent Isaac narrative and the dog fable were brilliantly merged, into the ongoing saga of the multivalenced interpretations of this work, into an assessment of its constant references to verifiable contemporary events, and into the poetics of the substantial quotations whose sources are rarely [End Page 320] indicated. This essay will address none of these challenging issues. Rather, it intends to examine Only Yesterday as an English rendition of Temol shilshom.

Only Yesterday demonstrates Barbara Harshav's linguistic skills in presenting a felicitous, yet faithful, English translation that conveys the novel's shifts in tone, mood, and diction. I cite the Hebrew for the benefit of those readers who are able to observe the translator's achievements in transmitting Agnon's verbal prowess. For each category, only the more salient examples are given, but, happily, there are many more that can be quoted in each category.

Accurate and Commanding Verbal Renditions

While adhering closely to the literal meaning(s) of the original Hebrew, the English formulations are gracefully and poetically reconfigured so that they flow naturally:

(5) (16) (21) (29) (36) (207)

chomping on their beard


and threaded his way through the crowd




By the time the imagination spun    its imaginings


Tells a little and slurs over a lot


a pinch of joy


Parallel Expressions

Harshav, aware that a word-for-word rendering of Hebrew idiomatic expressions would distort the intent, wisely chooses English phrases, proverbs, or adages that convey the original's sense, image, and impact. The following examples illustrate the application of this technique:

(54) (93) (351)

But every rose has a thorn


Mutations and Permutations


because they get hush-money

(485) [End Page 321]

The translator gracefully and unobtrusively transmits the original's subtle alliterations, as in:


a smell of soaked grass wafts there


Harshav enhances the range of the original words by supplementing them with entirely appropriate adjectives, adverbs, and the like, or by transposing the syntactical functions, such as in:


Her dress is handsome and light, wraps her body and taps on her limbs. . . . [N]ot every girl brings her dress to life like Sonya, for the dress gambols on her, as if it too were alive.


Harshav often succeeds in retaining the precise number of the original words and thereby embeds the original cadence in the translation. For example:


Stop your yesyessing


Agnon, in consequence of his fidelity to traditional sources, frequently strings phrases and words together with a vav ("and"). The translator, by avoiding the repetitive "and," maintains the original meaning, while invigorating the English text, which results in a more readable narrative.3


Shpaltleder entered with a loud...


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