The Assignment

by Chana Bloch

A TASTE for language was my inheritance as the child of immigrants. My father, who had learned English in night school, recalled one homework assignment with relish: a letter of condolence to President Coolidge on the death of his son. “Dear Mr. President, I share your bereavement,” he began. The teacher asked him to copy his letter onto the blackboard for everyone to read—the first published work in our family. “I really went fishing for that word,” he confided to me in his heavily-accented English.

My parents came to this country from small towns in the Ukraine. At home they spoke English, not Yiddish—they wanted to be “American,” whatever that meant—though they sent me to a Yiddish folkshule every day after school. Not a Hebrew school: Hebrew belonged to the men and the boys. We lived in the South Bronx, in the shadow of the Jerome Avenue El, a neighborhood soon to become loud with gang wars, but at that time almost too quiet: my friends and I referred to it with disdain as the Bronx Bourgeoizoo. My parents had settled into a life of placid routine, and who could blame them? They’d already endured their quota of violent uprootings. The safety they plotted for me I experienced mostly as a constraint. My innocence about life, like my virginity, was an embarrassment, and I was impatient to lose it.

Yiddish and Hebrew literature offered tastes, smells, pungencies of experience I could only imagine. In Yiddish poems by Jacob Glatstein and stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, I sought the life of Eastern Europe that my parents had escaped. The life in Palestine and Israel that they hadn’t chosen I discovered in Yiddish poems by Abraham Sutzkever, and later in Hebrew poems by Dahlia Ravikovitch and Yehuda Amichai. Reading can bring you close to the very threshold, but the act of translation brings you inside. I began translating these Yiddish and Hebrew writers in much the same spirit that I went to Budapest, Prague, East Berlin, Warsaw and Auschwitz one summer to see and hear what remained of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

For their part, the Yiddish and Hebrew writers shared an urgency to be heard that was different than anything I’d encountered among writers of English. For those who wrote in Yiddish, especially, translation was a necessary condition of survival. Who, after all, was reading them in Yiddish? Or who would be, in a couple of years? As Irving Howe put it,
“the potential readers of Glatstein became the actual readers of Eliot.” In America, Yiddish is preserved mostly in a debased form, in the jokes of stand-up comics and the handful
of words that have made it into Webster’s: schlep, schmooze, schlock, schmear, shtick (this is celebrated in some quarters as a cultural achievement). Cynthia Ozick has a painful story called “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” about Ostrover, the fiction writer (a shrewd portrait of Singer) and Edelshtein, the poet (who in some respects resembles Glatstein), the first reaching a large audience through his translators, the second desperate because he has none. Behind both of them stands the destruction of Jewish life in Europe, the death of Yiddish: “Of what other language can it be said that it died a sudden and definite death, in a given decade, on a given piece of soil?”

It was not by chance that the first poem I translated was Glatstein’s “Smoke,” a Yiddish poem about the Holocaust:

Durkhn krematorye koymen
Kroyzt aroyf a yid tsum asik yoymin.
Un vi nor der roykh farshvindt,
Knoyln aroyf zayn vayb un kind.

Un oybn, in di himlishe hoykhn,
Veynen, benken heylike roykhn.
Got, dort vu du bist do,
Dortn zaynen mir ale oykh nishto.

From the crematory flue
A Jew aspires to the Holy One.
And when the smoke of him is gone,
His wife and children filter through.

Above us, in the height of sky,
Saintly billows weep and wait,
God, wherever you may be,
There all of us are also not.

The bitter irony in that voice thrilled me; the poem gripped me and would not let go until I’d turned it into English. Never having done this thing called translation before, I wasn’t at all sure I was doing it right. I sent my version to Glatstein with a letter half apologizing for the freedoms I had taken. When he wrote back asking me to translate more of his work, I understood his invitation as an assignment. I was longing for what I called real life, the life of tragedy that lay beyond the pale of my uneventful girlhood. I went toward those poems with open arms, happy to be bereaved.


from Poetry International 27/28. To purchase the issue or explore a full table of contents, go here. 

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