Speaking of Yiddish, I noticed this review of a biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer in December. Interestingly, the biography itself is a translation, which is never mentioned, but the review does briefly discuss the translation of Mr. Singer’s work:
“Fame in America came to Singer shortly after, when The Partisan Review published his story “Gimpel the Fool.” Here too, though, sweetness came with bitterness. Saul Bellow had translated the work at the request of Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. “I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny and fool,” Gimpel begins, sounding more like Augie March than someone from the old country. It’s hard not to wonder about the effect on Singer of this side door to renown. We know he never let Bellow near another story of his, doing his own translations from that time on with the help of not-so-famous assistants.
“These translations — “second originals” as Singer called them — grew to be quite different from the Yiddish texts. Singer often stripped much of the metaphysics and verbal density out of his native-language efforts, leaving a simpler mix of the imaginative and the quotidian, the carnal and the concrete, that he felt would appeal to the tastes of English-language readers. And they — especially American Jews — responded. Singer became for them an appealing combination of home-grown mystical realist and approachable modernist. In addition, he was the beneficiary of their guilt and grief over the fate of the people they had left behind in Europe.”
In other words, Mr. Singer changed his works as he ‘translated’ them, perhaps just to make small adjustments or improvements at times, and for other works, changing them for the target audience. Is something still a translation if it is a new, changed version in a new language? Where is the line drawn between translating and rewriting, or translating and adapting?
This will be discussed more in the next post.