A Schlemiel or Two in the Cartoon Lagoon – Part II


Like the German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin and like Sigmund Freud, I’m one of those people who loves searching through the trash for treasures.  For both Benjamin and Freud, the trash that they searched through is the trash of history and the past.  Their work in philosophy, literary criticism, and psychology was to look through the past so as to find things that would transform how we look at ourselves and the world we live in. While Freud was interested in the trash people bury in the their personal histories (and, at times, with a nation: as in his book Moses and Monotheism),  Benjamin was also interested in the material that is buried in cultural history.  To be sure, these things, upon discovery and re-interpretation, can teach us about who we are; after all, who “we” are as North Americans, or as people who have grown up on media, cartoons, films, TV, etc is who we were.  Therefore, the more we know about or reflect on who we were, the more we can understand who we are or rather who we might be.   Strangely enough, however, this requires us to look, as Benjamin understood it, through things that we may consider retro-trash.  This trash, for him, wasn’t trash so much as a treasure: it helped him to tap into a collective sort of historical self-awareness.

That said, I think we can learn something from cartoons.  Like many people, I have grown up with cartoons.   I lived in Upstate New York, but I would often see cartoons – after school – by way of my favorite channel (which hailed from New York City): 11 Alive.  I also saw cartoons on the weekend.  But, in addition to cartoons, I also watched the Three Stooges after school.  To be sure, I really loved watching these episodes more than any comedy show on the boob-tube.  Unlike many, I actually liked reruns of their performances.

So, when I saw the latter half of the Cartoon Lagoon Episode entitled “Game Over!” (which I blogged on last week), I was surprised on a few different levels.

First of all, as I noted in my blog entry, the crew (which consists of Captain Cornelius, Wet Willy Jones, and Axel Rod Magee) runs into a cartoon that is floating around the cartoon lagoon.  (To be sure, this is a major part of the plot of every show.)  When they run into the cartoon, they go down into a screening room to watch the cartoon and comment on it.  The cartoon they view, to my surprise, was a cartoon of the Three Stooges entitled “Dentist the Menace.”  What I found so interesting about this selection is that it has a “meta” quality: not only are we watching the characters from the cartoon watch another cartoon and comment on it; we are also, watching a cartoon that is based on the Three Stooges show.

There is an additional surprise to this since, while watching it, I am prompted to wonder whether there a) was another episode that this was based on (or if it is something new) or b) the gestures that are depicted in this cartoon “properly” depict the characters gestures from the show.  In other words, the constant question in my mind, which the comments of the three comic characters watching the cartoon remind me of, is what to make of this interpretation which was made, most likely, in the 1970s or early 80s?  How do we interpret this piece of cartoon trash (which may really be a treasure) that is floating around the Cartoon Lagoon.  Like many things from the past, the submarine, so to speak, stumbles upon it.  But, as with any dream or figment from the (cultural) past, we need to ask whether it is meaningful or just a piece of trash.

The first thing that strikes me, even before I hear the cartoon characters’ comments, is the fact that the speed of this cartoon, in contrast to the Cartoon Lagoon segment in the beginning, is much slower.  There is already a lapse.  And this may indicate that our sense of timing, today, is different.

In fact, the first comments focus on the represented space and on the time gap between the two: “I miss furniture tassels.”  And when Curly says his “teeth are killing him,” one of the cartoon characters says that this “cartoon is killing me.”  Already, he is agitated (perhaps by its slow delivery).

We are then reminded of the 90s (and a scandal which changed history) when, upon hearing Moe say “shut your trap and close your mouth,” one of the characters says: “That’s Bill Clinton’s motto.”  This hits on the historical-political dimension.

Following this, the Cartoon Lagoon characters poke fun at the timing, design, and gestures of the cartoon Stooges.  After Moe opens the door to attach Curly’s tooth, he makes an odd gesture with his leg.  Upon seeing this, one of them asks: “Is he peeing on an invisible fire hydrant?”  Following this gesture, Curly flies into the door. We see half of his body, the back half, twitching in the door.  Seeing this, one of Cartoon Lagoon characters makes a reference to the present moment (namely, Miley Cyrus’s “twerking” on MTV moment): “Oh no…he’s twerking?”  In contrast, the next comment focuses on the past (namely, on Vaudeville): “We didn’t save our money from Vaudeville.”  Following this we hear a vulgar slapstick idiom which marks the time: “Hey, he’s talking out of his ass!”  At this point, the commentary is interrupted.  And we notice there is a technical difficulty – most likely in response to the vulgar commentary.  But the Cartoon Lagoon doesn’t end with a reflection on the past.  It ends with an ad for Squish Cereal.  And this break, juxtaposed with the previous dated comments and scenes, suggests a way of thinking the past against the present cartoon moment.

To be sure, the attention to gesture (dated and not dated) that we see in this clip is an attention to the fine points of the past and its cultural translation into the present.  What we need to ask is: What is translated and what is not?  This question, necessarily, is a meta-commentary on cartoons.  And I think this question is prompted by the fact that, by virtue of the plot, the characters and their submarine are bound to run into old cartoons and the fact that when they comment on them they often reference historical moments.

This implies that the cartoons as well as the commentary they use are historically embedded.  And this calls for us to carefully read the translation into the present.  We are, in effect, asked to consider whether the Cartoon Lagoon has discovered Cartoon Treasures or….trash that comes from the depths of cartoon history to the surface of our comic historical consciousness.

This exercise, I believe, is important since, in a postmodern age where, as Fredric Jameson argues, history itself is in the dustbin.   And any form of historical consciousness, especially when articulated through the cultural imagination, is timely.  What interests me most about this gesture is that at least two people of the Cartoon Lagoon commenting on these cartoons are schlemiels.  This suggests that at least one variety of the schlemiel is caught up in reflections on the culture past.  And this suggestion, to my mind, is right on the money.  To be sure, Walter Benjamin would subscribe to this whole-heartedly.  Indeed, one of the things that worried him most about his thinking is that the more he remembered the past, the more addicted he would become to its translation.  For Benjamin, this was a good thing and a bad thing.  The good thing is that it provided a relation to the cultural past (as in his reflection on the telephone, which I have blogged on).  Yet, on the other hand, it is bad because too much reflection on the past may keep one from politically acting in the present.  But, as Benjamin later realized, reflection on cultural artifacts (even if they are cartoons – which have never been of interest to philosophers but were of great interest to Benjamin) in itself had a redemptive and revolutionary act built into it.  For as Jews have known for centuries, interpretation of the past has its benefits and can be the basis for a shared world.

Cartoon Lagoon steps along a similar path to Walter Benjamin and should provide us – just like the characters of Cartoon Lagoon – with lots of things from our animated-cartoon past to translate into the present.  In a way, being addicted to the past makes schlemiels out of all of us; but in translating it into the present, we realize that, after all is said and done (and to play on the title of the Cartoon Lagoon episode), the game is far from over.  Analysis is, as Freud once said, interminable…and so are the cartoons hidden and waiting for discovery in the cartoon lagoon!

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?