Lost in Translation: On the Americanization of Sholem Aleichem’s Kasrilevke


In Isidore Goldstick’s 1948 translation of Sholem Aleichem’s Inside Kasrilevke there is a lot of American slang.  Instead of being resentful, I found it to be rather fun imagining the driver of a tram in Kasrilevke speaking to his conductor Yossel in the following manner about tobacco or rather “tabacky”:

Let’s have some tabacky, Yossel,’ the conductor was addressed by the driver, the fellow with the whip and tattered coat.

‘It won’t kill you to smoke some tumblings, Reb Kasriel,’ the conductor cut him short. ‘Good tobacco is liable to give you a headache.’

‘Never mind your wisecracks; better hand over that tabacky,’ Kasriel the driver insisted.

This dialogue over the “tabacky” is something of a caricature and, to be sure, it Americanizes the schlemiel.   And this raises a lot of interesting questions about how the schlemiel translates, in text and on stage, into an American idiom.

But while I find this question intriguing, a critic like Cynthia Ozick finds the translation from one language to another to be devastating.  In a review essay on the Hillel Halkin translation of Tevye The Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, Cynthia Ozick, while praising Halkin’s feat, notes that Halkin’s translation sounds to American and not Yiddish.  Ozick points out that Halkin has a “facile and supple ear” which can “transmute Sholem Aleichem’s easy idiomatic language into familiar slang.”

But, for Ozick, that’s the problem. Its too familiar. What “Halkin lacks, I am afraid is for what is apropos. American street talk is preposterous in the mouths of people in a forest outside Yehupetz on the way to Boiberik – and the more skillfully and lavishly these relaxed Americanisms are deployed, the more preposterous they seem.”

To illustrate, Ozick cites several examples.  I’ll take note of a few:

‘He looks at me like the dumb bunny that he is,” ‘I blew in this morning,’ ‘It drives me up the wall, ‘holy suffering catfish!’

To show the abyss between one translation and the other and to point out what has been lost from one culture to another, Ozick cites a line of Aleichem and Halkin’s translation.

The line in Yiddish is:  “Vu zitst er, der tane dayner, vos iz zayn gesheft un vos far a droshe hot er dedarshnt?”

She translates it literally as, “Where does he sit, that tane of yours, how does he get his living, and what kind of droshe has he preached.”  Ozick leaves the words “tane” and “droshe” in explain what has been lost.  The word “tane” refers to the “tannaim” “classical scholastics…whose hermeneutics appear in the Mishna, a collection of sixty-three tractates of the law and ethics that constitute the foundation of the Talmud.” And the word “droshe” refers to a “commentary, often formidably allusive, prepared by a serious student of homiletics.”

Compare this to Halkin’s translation:  “And just where does he live, this Mr. Important of yours?  What’s his act and what makes him such a big deal?”

Between the two translations, we can clearly see that what has been lost are the main idioms of a culture that was familiar with the Talmud and with rabbinic commentary.  While Ozick is right to point this loss out, she offers no solution.  She simply diagnoses the problem.

To be sure, the fact of the matter is that the majority of American Jews don’t know what a “tane” or a “droshe” are.  These words and the culture that knew what they meant have been destroyed by the Holocaust.  What remains, it seems, is the gesture.  And, I might add, this gesture is often comical.

If the schlemiel comes through these kinds of translation, what we have, it seems, is a Mark Twain-kind-of-Jew who has a name like Yossel but speaks like he’s from Appalachia.

Growing up in upstate New York, I am familiar with euphemisms like “tabacky.”  And reading this expression in a Sholem Aleichem collection did bring a smile to my face.  It is familiar.  On the other hand, Ozick’s reading of such kinds of translations, however, are more like an act of mourning and a wake-up call to what has been lost in translation.

Taken together, I found that I had a new understanding of why the order of laughter and tears is so important for Irving Howe.  But, and here’s the rub, he was closer to that loss than I am.  Where do I figure in this literary reflection if I am much farther from the loss than they were?

How do I, a lover of the Yiddish and the American schlemiel, relate to what was lost in translation?

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