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Arts & Culture Yiddish Literature Classics to Be Translated and Published in English

October 29, 2002
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What does it take to launch a massive project to translate Yiddish masterpieces into English and publish them?

A fairy godmother, according to David Roskies, the newly appointed editor in chief of the New Yiddish Library.

That figure appeared in the form of Aaron Lansky and the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.

Together they aim to release three or four volumes a year. The Yiddish Book Center is providing the infrastructure and funding for Roskies and his international team of Yiddish scholars.

“We currently have about $300,000 in hand and are seeking additional funding to support the New Yiddish Library for a projected period of 10 years,” says Nancy Sherman, the vice president of the Book Center.

Formerly known as the Library of Yiddish Classics, the project was phased out in the late 1990s.

According to Sherman, the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature, which supported the former translation effort, was seeking a partner to revitalize and enlarge its program. At the same time, “the Book Center was planning to undertake translation of Yiddish works, so the alliance was timely,” she said.

An editorial board of 10 experts, from institutions ranging from the University of Texas to Oxford,

England, met for the first time last March. The board has put together a plan to release at least 20 essential titles, a list that will grow in coming years.

The library wants to include a variety of genres, including poetry, prose, drama, autobiography, memoir and fiction. The first four titles, released this year, reflect that diversity.

Two new releases include Sholem Aleichem’s two short works in one volume, “The Letter of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor’s Son,” and a book of selected poetry and prose by Itzik Manger. They join two re-releases, “The I.L. Peretz Reader” and S. An-Ski’s “The Dybbuk and Other Writings.”

“My job, my main mission, is to set the gold standard” for translating and producing attractive books with comprehensive introductions, Roskies said.

The precursor of the New Yiddish Library, the Library of Yiddish Classics, was acquired by Yale University Press in 1997. The new partnership with the Yiddish Book Center gives the translation effort a new name and the institutional support it desperately needed.

The library is a separate entity co-directed by Lansky, the director of the book center, and Neal Kozodoy, editor of Commentary Magazine and director of the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature.

Roskies and his editorial board will recommend titles to be translated, hire translators and editors and prepare the books, which will be published by Yale University Press.

Yiddish publishing “as a commercial enterprise is doomed,” Roskies said. “The publishing industry is only interested in the bottom line.”

Roskies realizes that the Yiddish Library’s publications are unlikely to make best-seller lists.

The Library of American Classics started out with millions of dollars and support from the U.S. government, he noted. In contrast, he said, “Yiddish doesn’t have a country or a parliament or a capital” that is interested in preserving its heritage.

Sherman describes the library’s goal as translation, not the revival of the language per se.

It is a “program designed to make great Yiddish literature available in English to the reading public, people who do not know Yiddish but who wish to explore these works,” she said.

The library will focus on works from three major centers of Yiddish culture: America, where Yiddish was a main language of Jewish literary expression from the 1890s well into the 1950s; Poland, where the project plans to resurrect works from the period between the two world wars; and the Soviet Union.

The project opens up academic possibilities for professors who have been constrained by the limited number of Yiddish books available in English translation, Roskies said. As a historical archive, it will fill in the gaps of the Jewish cultural experience in America and abroad.

From a literary standpoint, it will allow for what Roskies calls “moments of discovery” as obscure or underappreciated Yiddish authors reach a much wider audience.

Roskies, a scholar of Yiddish literature and a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said he feels a personal connection to the project after growing up in a Yiddish-speaking home and a committed Jewish community in Montreal that valued the preservation of Yiddish culture.

Roskies’ mother, whom he describes as “a patroness” of Yiddish writers and artists, enrolled him in the Jewish People’s School, a Yiddish day school. His older sister, Ruth Wisse, also a professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, edited the Library of Yiddish Classics before her brother did, from the time it was founded in 1987.

The supporters’ interest in the translation project stems from a desire “to make these books accessible to younger readers” by rendering them as accurately and respectfully as possible, Sherman said.

The new translations will portray “the relevance of Jewish culture to our lives today” by showing how Yiddish literature uniquely expressed the conflicts and challenges of Jews confronting modernity, she said.

Eventually, the Yiddish books themselves will confront modernity when they are downloaded into the Yiddish Book Center’s Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library and made available online, assuring that the precious volumes will not be lost again.

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