“Yiddish translators have to learn to read with their noses”: An Interview with Daniel Kennedy — Tobias Ryan

Since getting a taste for Yiddish literature while a student in Cork, Daniel Kennedy has gone on to bring a variety of texts into English, often for the first time. His translations include two collections of Hersh Dovid Nomberg stories, A Cheerful Soul (Snuggly Books) and Warsaw Stories (White Goat Press), Zalman Shneour’s A Death: Notes of a Suicide (Wakefield Press), and, most recently, a previously untranslated tale from Nobel prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. We spoke over Zoom about the world of translation, the challenges posed by a writer such as Singer, and the particularities of Yiddish literature.

It says in your ‘Translator’s Note’ for Shammai Weitz that it was reading Singer which put the idea of translating from Yiddish in your mind. What was it you read and what was your path to becoming a translator?

It’s easy to retroactively make a story out of your own trajectory that makes some sort of sense, but that was definitely where I began. I came across some of his books in the library at University College Cork back in Ireland. I was studying American literature, and one of the classes was about immigrant literature. We studied Abraham Cahan, who wrote in English but was a much more famous figure in Yiddish literature as he ran Forverts, a Yiddish newspaper, which was one of the places in New York where everyone was published, including Singer. So I was reading one of Cahan’s stories, ‘The Imported Bridegroom’, in class, thinking “this is interesting,” not really knowing anything about Yiddish. What’s strange is when I re-read it now, it feels like a Yiddish story even though it’s in English. It reads like a translation. I can picture what the Yiddish words and sentences would have been underneath. It’s interesting to look back on that now because that’s not at all what I would want my translations to read like. But that’s what, in the first place, got me interested in looking further. Reading Cahan lead me to read Singer and the likes of Sholem Aleichem. And I sort of tucked that away at the back of my mind and moved to mainland Europe. A few years later I started learning Yiddish and forgot to stop …

Is it an easy language to learn?

Yeah, it’s easy in some ways and it’s very difficult in others. As a language, in terms of words and grammar, it’s as easy as any other European language. I learned German, and it’s very similar to German. Where it gets hard is in practice: if you want to speak you’ll immediately be confronted with different dialects, accents and varieties, and if you want to read authentic materials you’ll see that in terms of orthography etc. it’s the Wild West. There are different communities who use the language now. On the one hand there are the heritage speakers, families and small communities who have continued to speak the language of their parents and grandparents in places like Paris, New York, Melbourne, Montreal etc. That’s the world I’m familiar with and those are the circles where I learned to speak the language. And then there are Hasidic communities, where Yiddish is the normal everyday language, who represent the overwhelming majority of Yiddish speakers. They have their own literary output and publishing industry, but I’m less familiar with it, apart from a few excursions to buy children’s books in Antwerp and Brooklyn.

At what point did you decide to become a translator?

About 2015. There’s an institution called the Yiddish Book Center, which has a translation fellowship. You apply with a specific project in mind, and they give you some money and a lot of mentorship and contacts. That’s how I started. My first project was the first set of Nomberg stories, which became Warsaw Stories, and the second was Shneour’s A Death. In both of those cases I had some money to start the project, so I could then translate the book and sell it. At the moment, I’m translating full time and perhaps 99% of it is from Yiddish, which is unusual in itself. I mostly translate for private clients or institutions, historical documents or archives – a lot of it hand-written – and the material is often extremely depressing: a lot of Holocaust testimonies and that kind of thing, which can be quite emotionally draining in large quantities.

Working mainly with dead authors and in a minority language, is there is a community of Yiddish translators or a network you can turn to when you’re having difficulties with a translation?

So generally the authors are dead, and that’s an advantage most of the time. There’s a bit more freedom and a lot of the texts I work on are in the public domain. Mind you, there’s a lot of really, really good stuff, published up to the 70s, which is not in the public domain, and it can be difficult to track down the heirs. And sometimes it’s even worse if you do find them because they just get in the way … I know of several novels which can’t be published because the heirs have appeared and decided “no!” They think there might be money in it, which is a very charming notion …

There aren’t many Yiddish translators so of course we all know each other. We all ask each other questions. And there’s also a few non-translators, language experts, lexicographers and teachers who are always ready to help. They probably end up answering fourteen emails from desperate Yiddish translators every week.

I was curious about your process for ending up with him with a book. With Singer, OK, he won the Nobel, but with the more obscure pieces, are these things you find and are more like passion projects?

With Singer it was one of the few times that someone has approached me; I’m one of several translators currently working on a new collection of Singer stories. But all the other books I’ve translated have been stuff I found and decided was good enough to work on. It’s impossible to get it published unless you do the translation first and then try to find someone to publish it. I naively thought I could get away with pitching to publishers with some sample chapters and a synopsis but in practice without a finished manuscript no one wants to know.    

It’s something I worry about because I just don’t have time to sit down and read more books. At first it was a case of “these are authors I think are interesting and, for some reason, no one has translated them.” And also I chose short novels or short stories that I could put together into a collection. But, in fact, a lot of the interesting untranslated books are quite long. I can’t now sit down to read a five hundred page novel and only later decide if it’s worth translating. I don’t read very fast in Yiddish, so that could take almost as much time as it would to start the translation. I don’t really know where the next projects are going to come from.

And do you have a process or method for the translation itself?

I’m actually not a very perceptive reader in the beginning. It’s only in the later drafts where I can look at the text and think “that’s actually quite good what the author’s doing there!” The first couple of drafts are really mechanical. There are bits that don’t work so you polish them. And it’s only after doing that a couple of times that I can actually really see the text … If it’s a good text, then for me that usually means more drafts will be needed. But if it’s not a very sophisticated text, then it’s probably finished by that stage. It does take a lot more time if it’s good. Bad texts aren’t necessarily easier, but they dry up faster and I find they don’t benefit from multiple rounds of revision in the same way.

Singer’s prose in Yiddish is quite unique. If I compare him to Nomberg for example: Nomberg is good – I like his stuff, I spend time on it, and I do lots of drafts – but it’s nowhere near as difficult as Singer. His language is complex, it’s dense; he uses words and expressions that no one else uses. There are often long textured descriptive paragraphs packed with adjectives, and then snatches of dialogue full of Warsaw street slang from the 1920s. There are a lot of expressions that aren’t going to be in any dictionary.

Singer’s prose requires a lot of research, but luckily there are a lot of good resources out there. Almost the entirety of the literary corpus has been scanned and digitised by the Yiddish Book Center, and recent advances in optical character recognition mean that you can now search for terms directly in their digital library. Of course, what often happens is I’ll look up a word, and the only example I find is in the book I’m translating … The consolation there is that at least I don’t feel bad for not knowing the word, and can safely turn to colleagues for advice …

Another experience that’s quite common when working with older texts is the sheer variety of competing and overlapping orthographic convention. At the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, the modern literary language was taking shape. Writers from different cities, who spoke different dialects were working together, forming a literary community, publishing each other’s stories and poems. And a very important figure in all of this was the printer/typesetter. The typesetter was the one who decided how things should look and usually disregarded the author’s preferred spelling, and would sometimes even “fix” grammatical endings if the typesetter’s dialect differed from the author’s. Then there are typos, a particular occupational hazard, which can cause misreadings or send you searching the dictionaries for a word that doesn’t exist. Yiddish translators must learn to “read with their noses” (to quote a former teacher) and become adept at sniffing out typos.

There does seem to be an almost anthropological, socio-historical element to your work.

I think you’re right, but not in terms of how I approach the translation itself. I tend to add introductions, notes and glossaries because I think the reader needs this context, or the text maybe needs more contextualization than something more familiar or contemporary. I’d love not to have to do any of that, actually. But there are so many specific cultural or historical aspects that come up again and again and need to be explained. Even the borders of those countries: is it Poland now or is it Russia? Currencies changed, governments changed, towns had different names; there are different political movements, social movements, artistic movements, and most people don’t know any of these things, but they are important. The original readers of these stories knew all that stuff.

Noticing some common elements between the stories you’ve translated, I was curious how much of that is your personality or taste, whether it was a matter of historical context, or if there are certain tropes that one could claim were particularly Yiddish?

It’s hard to say because it’s probably a combination. There are tropes that are universal to all Yiddish literature, but in the mini corpus of texts I’ve translated there’s other stuff going on which is common in those texts but absent from the rest of it. Not necessarily absent from the canon, but perhaps ignored in translation. Translators in the past have had their own ideas about what to present to the, usually American, audience. People choosing and editing previous translations have had their own agendas. A lot of early translations were saying “look, Yiddish literature exists and it’s its own thing,” right? So perhaps there was an emphasis on certain aspects of the Yiddish canon. These choices were made with more than just literary quality in mind … the works of Nomberg and Shneour that I’ve translated were very much in dialogue with European literature in general, and so they may have been perceived as being marginal to the core Yiddish experience.   

Your Translator’s Note for Shammai Weitz mentions that Singer’s writing was sanitised and reworked for an American audience. Has something been lost in these translations or are they essentially different texts?

It’s hard to generalise because the works he published in English often went through various kinds of revisions and in some cases they ended up being quite different texts. But I was thinking more specifically about certain details in his Demon Monologues for example, stories like “The Mirror” or “The Last Demon” where there’s a lot of quite complex stuff going on in the original: Talmudic and Kabbalistic elements and wordplay that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to translate myself, much of that has been tidied up. Then there’s the titillating erotic stuff, blasphemy; a lot of that was toned down in the English. There’s undeniably some loss there, partly because of the complexity of the original, but also it was just the fashion of the time. If people were translating those texts now I think it would be different.

With the (newfound?) popularity of translated fiction in particular, there have been strides made in giving translators their due, getting their names on covers and, more recently, receiving royalties. There’s also a greater recognition of their role, with some going as far as to consider the translator as a kind of co-author of a work. What’s your take on that idea?

It’s funny, because, before, almost the complete opposite was going on in the world of Yiddish translation. I once had to convince someone to put the author’s name on a piece which only had the translator’s … Hashtag name the author … But that was just the nature of the very academic way Yiddish translations were published. That’s definitely changed, but there was a point when Yiddish translation was so marginalised that the translators weren’t even thinking about themselves in the same way as translators from other languages were. The cohort of translators who have come through the Yiddish Book Center’s translation fellowship are much more in step with the wider translation community and I think things are slowly moving towards more professionalisation.

Do you feel like the co-author of the texts you work on? Is there a sense of ownership?

Not really. I mean, yes obviously. But no … It’s difficult to say … I fight against that, but also obviously admit to it at the same time. I’d love a situation where there’s multiple versions of the same text, so that the translators can really go head to head. In a perverse way I’m half hoping that some day a younger translator will come along, re-translate the Nomberg stories and ruin my life.

Do you feel protective of the authors you translate?

It’s almost like adopting a stray. I’ll look up Nomberg on Google and see if he has more hits now. I started his Wikipedia page, for example, and when I see someone’s added something, that’s good. A lot of the Yiddish translators I know, when they start their first project, they have their own little author they’ve adopted. But then there are other authors who everyone is scrambling to translate. I’m so slow that I don’t have time for that kind of thing. I have to find authors no one else is interested in.

With that idea of rescuing a writer from obscurity, in the particular context of Yiddish literature and its history, do you feel a social responsibility doing this kind of work?

A lot of the non-literary work I take on to earn a living is often very rewarding in other ways. My private clients are often families; like a group of cousins might hire me to translate their grandfather’s memoirs or articles. They are often very moved, appreciative of gaining access to these texts. So it may be only five or six people who are reading these, but they are reacting to them in a way that, to me, is very gratifying.

Do you have any dream projects?

In fact I’d really love someone just to bring me projects. I’d love it if, like, Penguin came along and said “we need you to do this Modern Classics Collected Yiddish Stories,” something like that … I would like someone else to make the editorial decisions, then I could just focus on the nitty gritty business of the words.

Speaking of editors, Shammai Weitz is out with Sublunary Editions, who you’ve worked with a couple of times. Did you approach them, or do they suggest projects?

That’s all thanks to Twitter really! I made a vague, cryptic tweet about the Singer text as I was working on it and Josh Rothes made googly eyes at me … I’ve submitted a few things to Firmament too.

And you have a translation of Jean Paul coming, right?

Yeah, just one text in a book of many. It’s a fake preface written from the perspective of a Jewish merchant who has come into possession of a manuscript he believes was written by the devil.    

What other projects do you have coming up?

I have another collection of Nomberg stories coming out with Snuggly Books later this year. And I also have a completely different project going on where I’m the publisher: Farlag Press. There I’m editing and publishing other people’s translations, mostly from the Yiddish, and some of my own stuff too. It’s a completely different part of the brain I’m using, typesetting and designing the books; I can eat ice cream and listen to a podcast while I work. Translation requires all my concentration, so I can’t do anything else when I do that. With Farlag, we have the print version of a novel, which already came out in serialisation, on the way, translated by me. And we also have a very slim volume of short stories by Anna Margolin, who’s more famous as a poet. There are only a handful of stories I could track down, one of which will be out in the next edition of Firmament. My short term is very busy, but after that I’ve got no idea … Perhaps I’ll retire gracefully from the literary side of things …

Shammai Weitz is available now from Sublunary Editions. You can buy a copy here.

Daniel Kennedy is the translator of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Zalman Shneour, and more. He also runs Farlag Press. He lives in France. Twitter: @fliglman