Next up in our new books for June, Translating Sholem Aleichem: History, Politics and Art, a volume of proceedings from the Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish Studies. This was a cheerful hubbub of an event, held in the beautifully restored Jacobean manor house at Yarnton, a few miles northwest of Oxford: outside the long windows, summer sunlight falling across immaculate green lawns; inside, much quoting from the sometimes rueful, but often optimistic stories of Aleichem. “Sholem Aleichem” was a pseudonym, of course, and it says something about the spirit he wanted to project. He was certainly loved for it — 100,000 people attended his funeral in 1916, and he has memorials in every Russian town even slightly connected with him; not to mention his crater on the planet Mercury, near 51N, 56.5W.
Aleichem is most famous for Fiddler on the Roof, in the same way that George Bernard Shaw is most famous for My Fair Lady: the musical of the book, then the movie of the musical of the book, took on a life of their own. Aleichem’s stories, almost folk-tales, have a timelessness about them — nostalgia always does — and could apply to any village anywhere: but that doesn’t make them easy to translate. In a fascinating comparison, Gabriella Safran’s chapter prints passages from four translations of the same story (“Five Pots”) side by side. Here’s a tiny story-within-a-story, told to us by a garrulous narrator:
- “Bashe her name was, Bashe the Candler. She used to buy tallow from the butchers and make candles, she twisted candles from tallow and sold them. That was long before anybody knew anything about gas or about lamps with chimneys that crack all the time…” (Frances Butwin, 1949)
- “Bassy, her name was, Bassy the Candle-Maker; used to buy up fat from the butcher, you know, and make candles, thin candles, you know; those days they didn’t have paraffin, and oil-lamps, and those glass chimneys that keep cracking…” (Bernard Isaacs, 1958)
- “Batya was her name, see — Batya the candle-fitter. She’d buy up tallow from the butchers and braid the candles. Who’d heard then about gas? Or about lamps with glass tops, that drip all the time?” (Sacvan Bercovitch, 1979)
- “Which her name were Bassia. That be Bassia the Tallow Chandleress, as she was call, ‘cos she were a tallow chandleress, which she used to first buy up the tallow at the butcher shops to dip candles with; “tallow twists” these was, ‘cos there wasn’t no gas lamps back then with the gas mantle over ‘em, which they’s forever getting cracked anyhow;” (Ted Gorelick, 1998)
Never wear more than one watch; and never read more than one translation. The two-sentence biography of Bashe/Bassy/Batya/Bassia, the Candler/Candle-Maker/candle-fitter/Tallow Chandleress, places her in four different social backgrounds. To say nothing of the lamps.