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  • The Implications of a New Bergelson Translation
  • Lawrence Rosenwald
Joseph Sherman , ed., and trans. David Bergelson, Descent/Opgang. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1999. li + 240 pp. (translation); xliv + 235 pp. (text).

Joseph Sherman's translation of David Bergelson's Opgang is a remarkable achievement. If we took it seriously enough to figure out its implications, it might affect both our ideas about translating Yiddish literature and our sense of Yiddish literary history.

First, though, we need to describe precisely what Professor Sherman has accomplished. We often think of translation as requiring rare gifts. We see that in the text in the source language, form is indissoluble from meaning; how, then, can the original meaning be re-created in a different form? We believe that the text in the source language works in ways unlike the ways of texts in the target language; how, then, can the original meaning be re-created in a different language? The translator's task is finding practical answers to these questions. And when the translator succeeds, we wonder and admire.

Consider the beginning of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern's Gey ikh azoy as translated by John Hollander:

gey ikh azoy un trakht fun broyttref ikh on fun heler hoyta lamed-vovnik; kukt er mikh onun fregt mikh, tsi vil ikh a hun tsi a hon. [End Page 237] Trakht ikh: di hun git dem mentshn an ey,der hon ober vekt fun shlof mit a krey.

I walk along, absorbed in thoughts of bread,When, from out of the blue, just up ahead,One of the Just gives me a stare, and thenAsks if I wish a rooster, or a hen.Let's see: the hen lays eggs for Mankind's sake,The rooster's crowing startles him awake.1

Numerous changes of form and meaning have been made, e.g., a five-beat line has been substituted for a four-beat one; git dem mentshn an ey ("gives man an egg") becomes the loftier and more teleological "lays eggs for Mankind's sake"; trakht ikh ("I think") becomes the more communal "let's see," and the repetition of trakht in the original has nothing to correspond to it in the translation. But somehow, dazzlingly, Halpern's exact but unfussy and colloquial rhymes are matched by Hollander's; the story and argument are intact; and the tone, too, is there, plainspoken and ironic and philosophically rich. And we think, what a magician Hollander is!

That is not what is happening in Sherman's translation, because that kind of wizardry is not what Bergelson's evocative prose requires. What it requires is rather what Franz Rosenzweig called "the muse of precision":2 a meticulous attention to the meanings of particular words; a willingness to believe that Bergelson put in everything that mattered, left out everything that didn't, and arranged everything in the best order possible; a fine ear for an idiomatic and supple English sentence, and at the same time a willingness to stretch English idiom to its limits and beyond. Or, more briefly: fidelity, diligence, humility, literacy, nerve.

Here is the haunting beginning of Bergelson's story, in Yiddish and in Sherman's translation:

Shpet nokh halbn tog hot men mekaber geven Meylekhn oyfn kleynshtetldikn rakitner besoylem. [End Page 238]

Ale zaynen avekgegangen aroyf barg mit der bokhersher levaye, un in shtot, vos ligt, vi in a nest, oysgebet tsvishn grine baarbete berg, iz demolt akegn a por sho geven azoy shtil, glaykh in ir iz mer keyner nisht geblibn.

A poshete goyishe fur iz demolt ongelofn barg-arop mit tseyogte ferd un hot aylndik durkhgeshvindlt tsvishn di tsvey shures topoln, vos in onheyb berizhinetser veg; ire reder hobn geshvind geyogt iber der hiltserner greblye, vos in eyn ek shtot, un zeyer treysldike klaperay hot opgehilkht biz der hiltserner greblye, vos in tsveytn ek.

Dort, in ot dem tsveytn niderikn ek, hot a vaserl shtil gemurmlt arum a shteyn; a goye hot gevashn gret, an eplboym iz geshtanen un geblit, un gor nisht—keynem hot nisht geart, vos der himl iz tsu shvues tsu gantse teg farvolknt.

Plutsem hobn zikh derhert gleklekh klingen. Iber der shtot hot zikh geshvind...


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