Thursday, September 04, 2008

About I. B. Singer's "Gimpel the Fool" and Saul Bellow's translation

My son Zed is taking a correspondence course at UNC in short fiction, and the first assignment involved "Gimpl Tam," the famous story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, famously translated by famous author Saul Bellow.

I decided to try a translation, so I searched for a copy of the book. Hard! Singer's work is not available at the National Yiddish Book Center; their librarian sighed that rights to his work in Yiddish are held by the elderly owners of an Israeli publishing company which doesn't respond to correspondence. So the center can't get permission to reprint the works, and the few old copies still extant get snapped up as soon as they hit the shelf.

Also interesting: much of Singer's work was never available in book form. Odd, considering he was a Nobel Prize winner.

Extracts from
Isaac Bashevis Singer: a Bibliography
By Roberta Saltzman

I started working on my bibliography of Isaac Bashevis Singer some 15 years ago. My work was prompted by readers ... who asked whether we could find the original Yiddish version of a given story or novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. We assumed that the works of a Nobel Prize-winning author would surely be available in book form in the language in which he wrote. Singer was internationally famous by 1991, his works having been translated into about 12 languages [including Finnish, Ukrainian, Polish, and Basque].

It turned out, though, that relatively little of his Yiddish work was available in book form. Indeed, the translations into modern languages were made from the English, not from the original Yiddish.

Only nine separate Singer titles have been published in Yiddish in book form ... I think that Singer must have been aware that, in the late twentieth century, the market for Yiddish books was limited.

In one of my favorite Singer novels, Enemies, a love story, a shopkeeper says, "New York is full of thieves, but I don't have to worry about the store... my only fear is that some Yiddish author might break in at night and put in some more books."

The overwhelming majority of Singer's enormous output was published not in book form but serially in the Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward), [which] is not indexed; this means that most of Singer's work was essentially unavailable in its original language.

I took 1960 as my starting point and began the wearisome but necessary task of looking through over 30 years of microfilm of the Forverts -- a daily newspaper until 1983, when it became a weekly, which it remains today. I also surveyed other Yiddish periodicals that Singer contributed to during this period, Tsukunft [The Future] and Goldene Keyt [Golden Chain].

I was lucky in that I had to search for Singer's articles under only three pseudonyms; during the period 1924-1949, according to David Neal Miller, Singer used half a dozen pen names.

In my survey of over thirty years of the Forward and other Yiddish periodicals, I found more than 1,100 separate pieces by Singer.

Although fiction was a relatively small percentage of Singer's output, still, I found a total of fifty-five short stories, eleven novellas and eleven full-length novels that have not yet been translated into English.

So anyway, my Yiddish teacher Sheva Zucker lent me a copy of the book and I set to work. Today I took my mostly completed translation to my friend Musia's house and we debated for quite a while the difference between "simpleton" and "fool," agreeing that Gimple Tam would be more properly translated as Simple Gimpl, or Gimpl the naive. Gimpl himself, in the first line of the story, tells us that while he is, indeed, "simple," (ie not a crafty or skeptical guy), he is in no way a fool. It's an important difference.

Then, serendipity! As I waited for Musia to be ready to go out to lunch, my eye fell onto her coffeetable and there was a copy of the PaknTreger, with an article about this very story and this very idea.

Extracts from the Pakntreger, Summer 2004
Isaac Bashevis Singer in America: Who's the Fool?
by Naomi Seidman

It was Saul Bellow's much-admired 1953 translation of the short story "Gimpel the Fool" ... that truly inaugurated Bashevis's remarkable career in English. The story, first published in Yiddish in 1945, takes place in the shtetl of Frampol and describes the travails of Gimpel, the town fool, whose extravagant gullibility renders him the butt of Frampol's jokesters.

In the American literary arena of the 1950s, Bashevis's narrative world was still utterly exotic; as one reviewer put it, Bellow's English version of Bashevis captured "the barbaric, oriental flavor that one associates with Eastern Jews."

While the Yiddish begins: "Ich bin Gimpl tam. Ich halt mikh nisht far keyn nar," Bellow rendered the two distinct terms "tam" and "nar" with forms of the word "fool": "I am Gimpel the fool. I don't consider myself foolish." Tam, of Hebrew derivation, means something like "simple" or "innocent" (familiar as the third of "the four sons" in the Passover Haggadah). The German-derived "nar," by contrast, lacks any positive connotations and more simply refers to a fool.

While the translation problem of tam/nar rested primarily on linguistic difficulties – as Norich points out, "Gimpel the Simple" would have introduced an inappropriate rhyme – the issues involved in translating Bashevis's references to Christianity were rather a matter of cultural politics.

Hadda describes how these passages were censored. As it turns out, it was not Bellow, but Eliezer Greenberg, Bashevis's European-born editor and friend, who was responsible:
Although not European-born, Bellow was ideally suited to render Bashevis into English for a cosmopolitan audience. ... Nonetheless, he was at first reluctant to undertake the assignment... He simply didn't have the time, he told Greenberg. But Greenberg, undeterred, suggested he could come to Bellow and read the Yiddish to him; Bellow could translate right onto the typewriter. And so it was – which allowed Greenberg to exercise a bit of deception. He omitted the overt anti-Christian references contained in the Yiddish original.
What is so striking, and so modern, about Bashevis's take on the Gospel account is that while he renders Jesus's origins with as much skepticism as earlier Jewish narratives, he finds a new hero in the story that neither Jewish nor Christian sources have ever discerned: Joseph, the father of Jesus. It is he who is the hero of the Gospels, not despite his status as cuckold but precisely because of it. ... Bashevis reclaimed Joseph, not as the foster father of God, but precisely in the full human indignity of his role as the husband of a fallen woman.

When, at the beginning of the story, Gimpel is informed that his mother and father have stood up from the grave, he responds that although he knew the report was "nisht geshtoygen nisht gefloygen," he thought he might as well go and see for himself. "Nisht geshtoygen nisht gefloygen," of course, means "baloney!" (Bellow renders it "I knew very well that nothing of the sort had happened.") More literally,the idiom means "neither stood nor flew"– appropriately enough for denying a resurrection.

Gimpel is ... different, an orphan and eternal optimist who, although he knows better, thinks he has nothing to lose by hoping for the best – parents who rise from the grave, a wife who is faithful to him,and children he can honestly call his own.

My translation starts here.

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At 9:09 AM, Blogger NinaK said...

This is so interesting. I will pass it on to my Aunt Ruthie, who will love it.


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