The space between | Jewish translation and the gravitational pull of history

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For professor Naomi Seidman, a native speaker of the language of translation, the space between languages can be a matter of life and death.

Take the story she tells about her father in her most recent book, “Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation.” Recently liberated from the death camps, and finding himself in Paris, Hillel Seidman — by virtue of speaking French and Yiddish — is negotiating the fate of a group of Jewish refugees with the French police. To calm the terrified Jews he tells them, in Yiddish, that the French police are goyim but not Nazis. They will not be mistreated.

When the police ask what he said, he says: “I quoted to them the words of a great Frenchman: ‘Every free man has two homelands — his own and France.’ I assured them that they, who had suffered so much, had arrived at a safe haven, the birthplace of human liberty.”

The result? “As my father told it,” Seidman writes, “the gendarmes wiped away patriotic tears at his speech.” The Jews could stay.

You don’t need to be a professor to understand that you could drive a truck through the holes in this “translation.” And this is the point. Translation is a messy and complicated business. The result — and sometimes even the goal — is often mistranslation.

This spring, Seidman, who is Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, celebrates 20 years of productive scholarship and teaching at the Berkeley institution. At 55 she is considered a leading light in the areas of Jewish culture, literature and translation studies.

David Biale, her predecessor at GTU and now chair of the history department at U.C. Davis, joked at a recent gathering in her honor that her fierce originality and curiosity overcame the fact that the hiring committee was initially looking for “someone completely different, a specialist in classical texts.”

As it turns out, Berkeley is a magnet for Jewish writers and thinkers focusing on translation. Apart from Seidman, this epicenter includes biblical translator Robert Alter; Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, the most influential translators of Yehuda Amichai and other modern Hebrew poets; Daniel Matt, perhaps the most important English translator of the Zohar; translator and liturgist Marcia Falk; New Testament translator Willis Barnstone; and many others.

Why so many Jewish translators in one place? “I’ve wondered about this for years,” Seidman answers over a kale shake at a Berkeley café near her office. But she has a pretty good idea. “The Bay Area is pretty thin as regards traditional Jewish culture. And those who have Hebrew skills can’t just speak among themselves, likely finding themselves in the role of translators by necessity.”

Naomi Seidman

It also turns out that Max Margolis, the dean of 20th-century Jewish translation, and the force behind the groundbreaking 1917 biblical translation from the Jewish Publication Society, taught at Cal from 1897 to 1909. He was an early outpost of what Seidman calls Berkeley’s status as a “far-flung diaspora” of Jewish life and scholarship.

In “Faithful Renderings,” Seidman describes herself as a practitioner of a “narrative approach” to translation. This means, in part, that she is less interested in the ideology of translation than in how the history of Jews, and of their relationship with both themselves and Christians, can be better understood through translation.

Growing up in the Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park, in a family of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors, Seidman understood early the way different languages performed different roles on the stage of Jewish life. Her first book, “A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish,” explored the ways in which Yiddish expressed certain feminine qualities of the Jewish experience, and Hebrew its masculine ones. Which language a Jewish speaker chose to use was sometimes just as important as the content of the language itself.

In 1996, in a highly publicized paper called “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage,” Seidman brought to light Wiesel’s “original” Yiddish version of his landmark Holocaust book “Night.” In her reading of this published but mostly overlooked volume, Seidman focuses on how in the French (and English) version, the ending reveals a silent and broken Jewish survivor staring into the mirror, noting in passing that his young companions go into town to search for food and female company. By contrast, the Yiddish version ends with the same character smashing the image of a silent, emaciated survivor, explaining that “Early the next day Jewish boys ran off to Weimar to steal clothing and potatoes. And to rape German girls.”

Seidman explains that in the Yiddish version Wiesel was able to translate his, and his people’s, rage; in the French he could not, or perhaps would not. “It’s a reminder that inside of Jewish languages and discourse, one could openly discuss fantasies of Jewish revenge.”

Today, in America, the question of which languages Jews speak is less complicated. The vast majority speak only English — to themselves, to other Jews, and to those who don’t identify as Jewish (Yiddish-speaking Hassidim living in and near New York City are a fascinating and notable exception).

And yet a strong echo remains of the Yiddish underpinnings of the American Jewish consciousness. Traces of it slip out when a Jon Stewart or Jerry Seinfeld talk to the American people using “shmaltz” or “shlepping” or “shanda.” One could call this the humorous residue of a great Jewish vernacular. But Seidman suggests there may be something more substantial at play, a version of the “linguistic interference” of Jewish languages that Yiddishist Max Weinreich identified as having a silent but powerful gravitational pull on English.

Whether the translation is visible or not, Seidman explains, “Yiddish and Hebrew have an effect on everyone in America, not just the Jews.”


Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.