Any consideration of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yiddish and English publications must raise questions about the status of the English translations, their success and limitations, the liberties they take with Jewish terms that would have been familiar to a Yiddish audience but must be glossed for an English one. These considerations are always paramount in any discussion of Yiddish translation.
But, in the case of Bashevis,1 we must explore the degree to which the translations can be considered Bashevis's revisions of his own Yiddish texts, and even the extent to which Bashevis's Yiddish anticipates the English in which he knew he would be more widely read. In addition, we confront a writer who wrote different texts under different Yiddish names all of which are erased in other languages. Bashevis's Yiddish stories, like the journalistic pieces of his pseudonymous Varshavski or Segal, are often indiscriminately combined in English under the name Isaac Bashevis Singer. To complicate aesthetic matters still further, Singer was known to have worked closely with his translators and to have edited, shortened, tightened Bashevis's texts before they made their appearance in English. And subsequent translations into other languages have tended to use the English text and not its Yiddish source as the authoritative one.
The differences between Singer's Yiddish and English texts certainly illustrate this attempt to address different audiences and the considerable attention devoted to editing and revising. One impressive but not unusual example is the translation of Singer's most widely anthologized story "Gimpel the Fool" ("Gimpel tam," 1945; English, 1953). When Saul Bellow translated Singer's story in 1953, he introduced the Yiddish writer to a wider audience than he had previously known and extended to him the mantle of American literary respectability. Bellow's translation begins with a strong difference between the Yiddish and English. Bashevis's "Ikh bin Gimpl tam. Ikh halt mikh nisht far keyn nar" becomes Bellow's "I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool." But the term tam invokes, as Chone Shmeruk has noted,2 both the four sons of the Passover story (one of whom is a tam, a simple one) and a story by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav about a wise man and a simpleton. Erasing the crucial distinction between tam and nar, Bellow elides the folkloric and religious resonances of tam as well as the numerous linguistic derivations from nar (Shmeruk, p. xxxv). Rather than regarding this as an error, however, we should consider the alternatives Bellow might have chosen. The most faithful translation of Bashevis's Gimpel tam would have been "Gimpel the Simple," surely an infelicitous choice for an English writer or reader. English synonyms might yield "Gimpel the innocent," or "Gimpel the naïve" as translations of "Gimpl tam," all of them suggesting somewhat different views of Gimpel's character than the view Bellow chose when he called the story "Gimpel the Fool."
Singer, no doubt aware of this interpretive power of translation, insisted on his role as cotranslator following the publications of The Family Moskat and "Gimpel the Fool." In his 1970 "Author's Note" to A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories, he wrote: "I have translated these stories with the assistance of collaborators, and I find that I do much revision in the process of translation. It is not an exaggeration to say that over the years English has become my 'second' language."3 Despite this claim, of course, and despite the very extensive revisions he undertook, Singer never actually wrote in English.
1. I follow the writer's own practice of signing his work Yitskhok Bashevis in Yiddish and Isaac Bashevis Singer in English translation.
2. Chone Shmeruk, Introduction to The Mirror and Other Stories (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1979), pp. v-xxxv.
3. The "Author's Note" to An Isaac Bashevis Singer Reader (1971), now signed I. B. S., begins similarly: "Though I write in Yiddish, I do most of the revisions of my writings after they have been translated into English by myself and a collaborator. Because of this, I can call myself a bilingual writer and say that English has become my 'second original.'"
Excerpted from Anita Norich's essay "Isaac Bashevis Singer in America: The Translation Problem," as published in Judaisim 44:2 (Spring 1995). Reprinted by permission of the author.
Anita Norich is Associate Professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. The author of The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer (Indiana, 1991) and co-editor of Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures (Harvard & Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), she teaches, lectures, and publishes on Yiddish language and literature, Jewish-American literature, and Holocaust literature.