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Thursday, September 04, 2008

My English translation of "Gimpl Tam" (Gimpel the Fool) by I. B. Singer, part one

This is the beginning of the translation I've done over the last couple days. I get a chance every week or two to consult with my friend Musia Lakin about the hard parts...

The first translation of "Gimpl Tam" (Gimpel the Fool) was done in 1953 by Saul Bellow, you can find it in A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. And here's some more interesting information...

Part One.

I'm Gimpl the Simpleton. I don't consider myself to be any kind of fool, on the contrary, but folks gave me the nickname, they started using it back in school. I had seven nicknames, like Jethro: Drip, Donkey-Ass, Blondie, Dummy, Yokel, Misfit, and Simpleton. The last's the one that stuck. What was my foolishness? People could deceive me easily.

They said: 'Gimpl, you know, the rebitsin is in childbirth,' so I didn't go to kheyder. Well, turns out it was a lie. How should I have known that? Because she didn't have a big belly. Well, but I never looked at the rebitzin's belly. Is that foolishness? But the pranksters laughed and snickered, they danced around me and read me a right prayer: 'what a chump you are.' Instead of the raisins we usually get at a birthing, they piled me high with goat turds. Look at me, you'll see I'm no babe in the woods. If I punched a guy he'd see all the way to Cracow. But by nature I'm no slugger. I think: let it slide. So I'm everybody's fall guy (customer).

I was leaving school one day, I heard a dog bark. I'm not afraid of dogs, but I don't want to get into it with some vicious cur. He could suddenly get crazy and bite me, then not even a wild horseman (Tatar) could help me. So I make my getaway, then I take a look: the whole marketplace is rolling with laughter. It wasn't a dog after all, only Wolf-Leyb, the thief. How could I have known that? Seeing as how he'd howled just right, just like a bitch.

Once those jokers sniffed out that I could be tricked, every one of them tried his luck. 'Gimpl, the Kaiser's coming to Frampol.' 'Gimpl, the moon is falling into the turbine.' 'Gimpl, Hodele found a treasure behind the bath-house.' And like a golem I believed them. Because, first of all, anything can happen, as it says in the book, but I can't remember where exactly. Second, by now I really have to believe. The whole community expects certain things from a person. Why, if I'd ever tried to say 'It's a joke,' there'd have been such a cursing, fire and flames everywhere. How could it be, for me to say 'I don't believe,' such a thing, I'd be calling everybody in Frampol a liar. What should I have done? So I believed, let the buffoons enjoy it.

I was an orphan. The grandfather who raised me already smelled like the earth. In short, they gave me away to a baker. Well, don't ask what happened there. Every girl, every woman who came to bake some cookies or dry a pan of farfel had to try to fool me at least once. 'Gimpl, there's a carnival in the sky.' 'Gimpl, the rabbi calved and bore a seven-monther.' 'A cow flew over the roof and laid brass eggs.'

Once a religious student bought a pancake and said, 'You, Gimpl, you're scraping away with your baking paddle while, outside, the Messiah's come. It's time for the dead to rise.' 'How's that possible,' I say, 'we haven't heard the shofar blow.' He says: 'Are you deaf?' And everybody takes to shouting: 'We heard it, we heard it.' Just as he spoke came Raytse the candledipper and called with her hoarse voice: 'Gimpl, your father and mother have risen from the grave, they're looking around for you.'

Why should I say, 'I know perfectly well that's ridiculous, the notion won't rise or fly [nit geshtoygn nit gefloygn = a Jewish skeptic's answer to Christian beliefs about Jesus].' That's just the way people talk.

I put on my vest and went outside. Perhaps it's true, what have I got to lose? Well, well, folks were making cat music at me with a sack. I made a vow not to believe anything any more. But then again that wouldn't do. They addled me so, I didn't know what was in and what was out.

I went to the rabbi for advice. He said, 'How's all this possible? Better to be a fool all your years than to be a wicked man. You are,' he said, 'no fool. They're the fools, because they shame other people. They'll forfeit the next world.' Nevertheless the rabbi's daughter herself deceived me. When I was leaving the court, she asked: 'Have you kissed the wall?' I say: 'No, why should I?' She says: 'There's a law, if you come to the rabbi's court you kiss the wall.' Well, one half believes. So I kissed the doorpost, did it cost so much? And she let out a howl of laughter.

I was wanting to go away to some other town, but people had started talking about finding me a wife. You call this 'talk'? They tore my clothes apart, I got water in my ear from this 'talk.'

There was a woman, people told me she was a maiden. She hobbled on one foot, folks said she did it on purpose, for beauty's sake. She had a bastard child, they said it was her younger brother.

I shouted, 'All your talk is wasted, I'm not going to the chupa with that whore.' They complained: 'That's nice talk, you'll be taken to the rabbi to pay a fine because you've ruined a nice Jewish girl's reputation.'

I saw I wasn't going to be able to get out from under their hands. I thought: 'I'm the sacrifice. Anyway I'm the man, not her. If she likes the idea, I'm agreeable. Besides, one really can't die in the ritual undergarment." [???]

So I was off to see her in her little clay house built on sand. The whole pack was singing behind me, ready to goad the bear; however, when they'd gotten as far as the well, they held back, they were afraid to start in with Elke. She had a lovely little mouth, a cavernous orifice on a hinge.

I went inside. The whole house was just a little hut with a dirt floor. From wall to wall, ropes with drying underwear. She was standing barefoot by the tub doing laundry. She was wearing a faded dress. She had two braids, twisted into pretzels on each side like, pardon the comparison, a shiksa. She took my breath away.

You could see on her face, she knew already who I was, she took a look at me and said: 'Welcome, aren't you the sucker! Pull up a bench, have a seat.'

I told her everything, I denied nothing. 'Tell me the truth,' I say, 'are you really a virgin, and is that scamp Yekhiel your little brother? Don't make fun of me,' I say, 'because I'm an orphan.'

'I'm an orphan too,' she answered, 'and whoever's making fun of you, he should get an ugly growth on his nose. But these people shouldn't think they can make a fool out of me. I want,' she says, 'fifty guldn for a dowry, and a collection. If not, they can kiss my what'cha-ma-call-it.' (She had a coarse way of speaking.)

I say: 'It's actually the bride who provides the dowry, not the bridegroom.' She says: 'I'm not bargaining with you. Either agree or go back to where you came from.'

I'd already been thinking, 'There won't be any bread made from this dough,' but it's not a poor community. They gave her everything she asked for and the wedding was a go.

It was right at the height of a dysentery epidemic, they raised the chuppa at the cemetery, near the hut where the corpses are washed. Everybody was drunk.

At the signing of the ketubah I hear the rabbi's assistant ask: 'Is the bride a divorcee or a widow?' 'Both,' says the servant.

Everything went black before my eyes, but what could I have done? Run away from the chuppah?

The band played, people danced. A granny danced, facing me, holding a challah. The jester sang 'God Full of Mercy' for our parents, rest in peace. Schoolboys threw nettles, as if it were Tisha B'av. Lots of wedding presents tumbled in: a noodle board, a kneading trough, a bucket, brooms, ladles, a whole housekeeping setup.

I did a double-take: two kids were dragging in a cradle. 'What's the cradle for?' I say. 'Don't worry your head about it, it'll be useful.' I'd already seen I'd be taking a bath on this one. But look at it the other way around: what have I got to lose here? I thought it over: I'll wait and see what's up ahead. A whole town surely can't be crazy.

Part Two.

That night I went to my wife's bed, but she wouldn't let me in. 'How can it be?' I said, 'isn't this why we got married?' She says: 'I'm having my period.' I complain, 'but yesterday the klezmers led you to the mikvah...' She says, 'Yesterday isn't today and today isn't yesterday, and if you don't like it, just pack your things.' In short, I waited.

Not even four months later my wife was in labor. All of Frampol laughed into its knuckles. But what could I do? She was lying there in agony, tearing at the walls. 'Gimpl, I'm a goner,' she said, 'forgive me.' The house was full of women. They carried pots of water as if to the washing of a corpse. A wailing rose up towards heaven.

As is expected, I went off to the studyhouse to pray. That's all the good young folks had been waiting for. I was standing in a corner, talking to God, and they were wagging their tongues at me. 'Keep talking,' they encouraged me, 'from talk nobody gets pregnant.' One kid put a little piece of straw on my mouth: 'a cow should eat straw.' Well, I guess he was right at that.

Luckily she got through all right and gave birth to a boy. Friday night the shamas strode up to the podium, banged on the railing and called out: 'Our wealthy Reb Gimpl invites the whole community to the celebration for a son.'

The whole studyhouse laughed. It was as if my face got smacked. But what could I do? I was, properly, the host of the bris.

Half the town came running to the party. You couldn't have stuffed one more pin into the place. Women brought peppered peas, we were given a keg of beer. I ate and drank along with everyone else and folks said 'Mazl-tov.' Then came the circumcision, and I gave the boy my dead father's name.

When everyone left and I was alone with the woman in the childbed, she stuck her head out from behind the curtains and called me over. 'Gimpl,' she says, 'why are you so quiet? Has your ship gone under?'

'What should I talk about?' I ask. 'How nicely you've treated me. If my mother had lived to see this, she'd have died a second time.' She says: 'Are you out of your mind, or what?' 'How can it be,' I say, 'that a man is made a fool of in this way?' 'What's going on with you?' she asks, 'what have you taken into your head now?'

I saw I had to speak with her openly and explicitly. I say: 'Is this how one treats an orphan? You've given birth to a bastard.'

Says she: 'Just knock that nonsense out of your head. It's your child.'

'How can it be my child?' I complain. 'It's only been seventeen weeks since our wedding.' She tells me a story, the baby's premature. I say: 'Two months early is one thing, but four months early is another.'

She took to complaining that she had a grandmother whose pregnancies were only five months long, and that she and her grandmother are as much alike as two drops of water. She swore to it with oaths so fervent, you'd believe them even from a peasant at the county fair. To tell the truth, I didn't believe her, but when I talked it over next day with a schoolteacher, he assured me you could find this sort of thing in the holy books. Adam and Eve went up into the bed as two people and came down four. 'And,' he said, 'every woman is our mother Eve's descendent, and how is Elke worse than Eve?'

However that may be, we talked until our teeth hurt. And to look at it from the other point of view, who knows? As people say, maybe Yoyzl (Jesus) really didn't have any father...

I began to forget my disaster. I loved the kid like crazy and he loved me too. As soon as he saw me, he started waving his little hands so I'd pick him up. When he was gasping with croup, nobody but me could calm him down. I bought him a bone bagel for teething and a little hat embroidered with gold. He was so cute, he was always getting struck by the Evil Eye, I'd come running to frighten it off.

I was working, then, like an ox. With a baby and a house, expenses are greater.

Why should I lie? I didn't hate Elke either. She abused me, she reviled me, she swore at me, I got on her nerves. Oy, what a strength she had! If she just took a little look at you, you'd be dumbfounded! Ay, her little way of talking! She cursed me, tar and sulphur, it was so charming, I kissed every word. She creeps right inside you, under your skin, you lie there wounded and you want more. Like a good potroast.

On to part two ...

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At 9:32 PM, Blogger Hannah said...

That's beautiful. I can't wait to hear what happens!

At 6:07 PM, Blogger shalom said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger shalom said...

Hi, Pratie: thanks for your beautiful translation. I am trying to read Gimpl Tam in original with my poor Italian Yiddish, your pages are a great help. You question why " ... one really can't die in the ritual undergarment ... ". I think the "tallit katan" was undressed for religious respect only when some man was going to make love. Therefore, the meaning of the sentence is somehow " ... you have to make love sooner or later ... ". Let me know your opinion! Thanks Again!

At 6:00 AM, Blogger melinama said...

Very interesting, Shalom! Thanks.


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