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  • Dickinson in Yiddish
  • Marvin Zuckerman (bio)

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[End Page 67]

S'iz faran a gevisn likht onbeyg, There's a certain Slant of light,
Vinter farnakht— Winter Afternoons—
Vos badrikt, vi dos gevikht That oppresses, like the Heft
Fun turn nigunim— Of Cathedral Tunes—
Himlisher vey git es undz— Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
Mir kenen gefinen keyn shnar, We can find no scar,
Nor an inerlikhn andershkeyt, But internal difference,
Vu di bataytn zenen— Where the Meanings, are—
Keyne kenen es nit lernen—keyne— None may teach it—Any—
S'iz der tseykhn fun yiesh— 'Tis the Seal Despair—
A keyserishn onshikenish An imperial affliction
Undz durkh di luft geshikt— Sent us of the Air—
Ven es kumt, hert zikh di landshaft tsu— When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shotns—haltn zikh ayn dem otm— Shadows—hold their breath—
Ven es fargeyt, iz es vi der vaytenish When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
Afn ponim funem malekh-hamoves— On the look of Death—

By 1929, at least four of Emily Dickinson's poems had been translated into Yiddish (Asen). Two translated poems of Emily Dickinson's (in transliterated Yiddish): "I never saw a moor" and "If I can stop one heart from breaking," are also to be found in Gut Yontif, Gut Yohr (Jaffe). A further search may discover more translations.

I have reviewed Emily Dickinson's poem P258 line by line, stopping when I have come to a word, phrase, or metaphor that caused me some difficulty, examining this difficulty—what caused it, why it was difficult, hoping thus to arrive at some generalizations about the peculiar difficulties in translating not only this particular poem, but also about translating any poem from English (or perhaps any western language) into Yiddish (a Germanic—and therefore "western" language—with Slavic and Hebraic / Aramaic admixtures, but the language of a non-Christian, only recently "Europeanized" people).

Cathedral Tunes

The first difficulty for me came with the phrase "Cathedral Tunes—." Such a phrase is redolent with associations for Dickinson's western, Christian readers. Its associations for Jewish readers (assuming that Yiddish readers are Jewish, although that is, increasingly, not necessarily so) with their roots in eastern Europe, are quite different ones. [End Page 68]

Cathedrals for east European Jews were, I think, mysterious, vaguely dangerous places. It is where their tormentors went to worship in their strange, pagan (from a Jewish point of view) way, and to listen to priests, more often than not, hostile to Jews—and from which they exited, too often, inflamed and bent on pogromizing their Jewish neighbors. A cathedral looms, then, as something rather pagan and hostile. It does not for Jews call up feelings associated with peace, beauty, worship, and virtue. Cathedrals also, for Jews, represent the awesome dark power of their too often hostile Christian environment. Consider, for example, the first stanza of a popular poem by the very well known and gifted Yiddish poet, Avrom Reisin (1876-1953):

Hert shoyn oyf, ir kirkhn gloknHert shoyn oyf, genug geshroknHobm ayre vilde teyner,Unzer orem folk.

Stop, enough, you church bellsStop, enough have your wild tonesFrightened our poor people.

On the other hand, it seems clear from the context of Dickinson's poem that the phrase "Cathedral Tunes—" in P258 is not meant to evoke pleasant associations. On the contrary, the cathedral tunes are a metaphor for that "certain Slant of light" that does not give us peace, beauty, harmony but rather "oppresses" and gives us "Heavenly Hurt," is "the Seal [of] Despair—," an "affliction," and even associated, finally, with "Death."

One could argue that this juxtaposition of pleasant and unpleasant associations for "Cathedral Tunes—" is what lies at the heart of the poem, that it is what makes it fine, original, a good poem. The idea that cathedral tunes oppress, give us heavenly hurt, etc., is original—it is not what one would normally associate with "Cathedral Tunes—."

And in that case, one might argue that the Yiddish reader will bring to the phrase "Cathedral Tunes—" just the right (negative) associations. And that is true—but he or she will lack the immediate, usual...


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