Review of Sutzkever Essential Prose, translated by Zackary Sholem Berger

Raphael Halff

Avrom Sutzkev­er, Sutzkev­er Essen­tial Prose, trans. Zackary Sholem Berg­er (White Goat Press, 2020). 282 pp. $18.95.

Over the past three years there has been a steady spotlight on Avrom Sutzkever. In 2017, Heather Valencia published a bilingual English-Yiddish collection of his poetry. 1 1 Avrom Sutzkever, Avrom Sutzkever. Still My Word Sings, trans. Heather Valencia, Avrom Sutzkever. Still My Word Sings (Düsseldorf University Press, 2017). That same year David E. Fishman published his accessible and well-selling book on the Paper Brigade, of which Sutzkever was a key player. 2 2 David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis (Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2017). In 2018, Uri Barbash’s documentary Black Honey, The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever enjoyed (and is still enjoying) international success. 3 3 Uri Barbash, Black Honey, The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever, Documentary (Go2Films, 2018), A year later, in 2019, Richard Fein published an English translation of Sutzkever’s selected poetry. 4 4 Abraham Sutzkever, The Full Pomegranate: Poems of Avrom Sutzkever, trans. Richard J. Fein, SUNY Series in Contemporary Jewish Literature and Culture (Albany, NY: Excelsior Editions, 2019). Fein’s book was also reviewed in In geveb: Nadel, James, “The Many Essences of Sutzkever,” In Geveb, May 16, 2019.
Towards the conclusion of 2020, the tenth anniversary of Sutzkever’s death, the National Library of Lithuania in partnership with YIVO published a facsimile of a manuscript written in the Vilna ghetto of Tsen lider (Ten Poems) that they had found in 2017, along with a bilingual Lithuanian-English translation. 5 5 Avrom Sutzkever, Dešimt Eilėraščių = Ten Poems: Vilniaus Getas, 1943, trans. David E. Fishman et al. (Vilnius: Lietuvos nacionalinė Martyno Mažvydo biblioteka, 2020). At the same time, the Yiddish Book Center jointly released another documentary on Sutzkever, this one focusing on the poet’s granddaughter, 6 6 Emily Felder and Christa Whitney, Ver Vet Blaybn? (Who Will Remain?), Documentary (Yiddish Book Center, 2020), and a book of his prose, selected and translated into English by Zackary Sholem Berger. 7 7 Avrom Sutzkever, Sutzkever Essential Prose, trans. Zackary Sholem Berger (Amherst, MA: White Goat Press, 2020).

Though the four sections that make up Sutzkever Essential Prose now find themselves together in one volume, it is not a unified work in which sections share a common style, tone, or even genre. It may be a unified world: one constantly shifting between postwar Tel Aviv, prewar Vilna and Siberia, and the wartime ghetto, forest, and swamp; one where wolves are always slinking, bees buzzing, and eagles soaring with clutching talons; one where alleys are coffins and buildings have slashed throats; one where it rains blood and bleeds snow. Sutzkever’s metaphors, imagery, and motifs permeate everywhere—they follow the narrator through the various styles and tones that make up the book. They appear, reappear, and metamorphosize. In this book wonders await. As the scholar John Glad once warned, writing about a collection of Russian stories: if you are about to read these stories for the first time, “you are a person to be envied, a person whose life is about to be changed, a person who will envy others once you yourself have forded these waters.” 8 8 Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, trans. John Glad, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics (London: Penguin Books, 1994), ix. It is important, however, not to take this warning as a premonition of engrossed, captivating, and uninterrupted reading. It is a book whose stories are at times hard to understand and at other times we wish we hadn’t understood.

The book is organized chronologically by date of publication, beginning with the cryptic staccato of the “Green Aquarium” collection. Sutzkever described these as “kurtse bashraybungen,” or short descriptions. One might call them vignettes, if the word did not feel inappropriately dainty when applied to Sutzkever’s frightening poetic landscape. These are descriptions of ghetto and partisan life, difficult both in content and style. It is the pieces in this section that warrant the term “prose poem” 9 9 See Ruth Wisse’s introduction in: Avrom Sutzkever, Griner akvaryum: dertseylungen, Yidishe literatur (Tel Aviv: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yiddish Department, 1975), x, as well as her master’s thesis, Ruth R. Wisse, “Green Aquarium: A Critical Study of Fifteen Yiddish Prose Poems by Abraham Stuzkever” (New York, Columbia University, 1961). —they require the same patience and concentration of a poem. But though they comprise the first section of the book, they do not foreshadow what is to come. From the swamps, forests, and ruins that the reader has been trudging through, paying heed to every lightning flash, every ghost, and every elusive melody, we enter the stories of “Messiah’s Diary,” the first of the three succeeding sections. These sections share a fuller plot structure and a simpler narrative style—theirs can be called stories with no hesitation. And though time, metaphor, and even the fantastical still play just as important and nuanced a role, the reader steps forward with a touch more self-assurance that the words will not slip through their hands like ash.

This three-year proliferation of Sutzkever material is comforting and exciting. Yiddish is becoming, once again, a language without borders. And even more: its interlocutors are not only academics, but Lithuanian ministers, Israeli filmmakers, and even, in the case of this latest translation, an American medical doctor and Yiddishist poet. Some of it is already finding an audience among Yiddish readers and Yiddish scholars, and much of it is likely to continue attracting the attention of future Yiddish readers, writers, and scholars. But anything that can be revived has a past.

Before this outpour of Sutzkever in translation, the English reader primarily had at their disposal the volume of poetry and prose selected and translated by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav. 10 10 Several smaller volumes have been published in book form and a decent amount has been published in journals. It contains a rather extensive selection of quality translations as well as an informative 26-page introduction. Physically, it is a handsome hardcover book, elegantly typeset, with a pleasing dust jacket. In addition to this volume, the slightly more dedicated reader will be acquainted with Ruth Wisse’s translation of Green Aquarium, published in the journal Prooftexts in 1982. 11 11 While the Harshavs clearly present selections of Sutzkever’s prose, Wisse’s translation appears to present entirety of Green Aquarium. It is important to note, however, that one of the fifteen “short descriptions” is excluded: “Lady Job.” Together these two publications make up more than half (29 of the 55 stories) of the prose works contained in this new volume by Berger, which, as its back cover boasts, supposedly “shows Sutzkever, for the first time in English, as a true master of prose,” 12 12 From a blurb by Shachar Pinsker. Lisa Newman in the Yiddish Book Center’s podcast also calls Sutzkever’s prose “very little known and not very much in translation”: Lisa Newman, “New in Translation: Sutzkever Essential Prose,” The Shmooze, n.d., though Heather Valencia, in her introduction to the book, makes no such extravagant claim. 13 13 Rather, she reasonably asserts it to be a “vital contribution to a wider knowledge of this genre of his [Sutzkever’s] work.” Sutzkever, Sutzkever Essential Prose, 13..

Multiple translations of the same work is no bad thing. In fact, when there is a dialogue between and around different translations, it is a tremendous advantage to both readers and scholars. May Sutzkever one day be graced with translations as numerous as there are of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment! 14 14 There are available at least the following English translations by: Jessie Coulson, Pevear and Volokhonsky, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, Michael R. Katz, Oliver Ready, David McDuff, Sidney Monas, and, of course, Constance Garnett. Indeed, the abundance of English translations of Yiddish poetry by the Harshavs may even bring to mind Joseph Brodsky’s criticism of the prolific English translator from the Russian, Constance Garnett: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.” 15 15 David Remnick, “The Translation Wars,” The New Yorker, October 31, 2005, New translations thus create discussion around the original, how it best be read and understood. New translations also invite historical studies of the field itself: why was it translated that way before, and why this way now? What needs of the readership have changed? How have the translator’s objectives shifted?

Sutzkever Essential Prose, however, makes not one mention of these previous translations. They are neither criticized nor praised, not in Valencia’s introduction nor in Berger’s note. 16 16 Only in the Yiddish Book Center’s podcast does Berger mention their existence; see note 12. Their absence is amplified by Berger’s acknowledgment of both Ruth Wisse and Barbara Harshav for their unspecified help. The unsuspecting reader is thus left wondering why the apparently critical prose of this supposed master Yiddish poet has been neglected for 65 years, while the initiated reader wonders whether to blame the fault on gaps in the translator’s research, his fondness for brevity, or the publisher’s marketing strategy.

Though it is standard practice to mention previous translations—either to explain where they faltered to begin with, or why they are no longer as relevant, or even how they were inspiring and helped guide this new translation—it is no crime to forgo formalities. As long as we learn from the past, need we accredit it? The crime only lies in ignoring the past. Yet it seems to me—a native English speaker and a graduate student of Yiddish literature—that in this case the past has been entirely erased, to the detriment of the resulting translations. What follows is a specific and detailed critique of the translation. While some might find this mean-spirited, it is my strong belief that we are often too quick to praise translations from Yiddish, celebrating that they exist at all, rather than offering the serious criticism that they deserve. It is out of a commitment to a robust field of Yiddish studies capacious enough to include harsh critique, argument, and even polemic, that I share my views on this translation.

To understand where Berger’s translations fall short, it might be best to begin at the beginning, in Sutzkever’s prelude to “Green Aquarium,” with a most simple phrase describing the man who left Sutzkever with both inspiring and ominous advice on the power of words: 17 17 Avrom Sutzkever, Ode tsu der toyb (Tel Aviv: Goldene keyt, 1955), 75; Abraham Sutzkever, “Green Aquarium,” trans. Ruth R. Wisse, Prooftexts 2, no. 1 (1982): 98; Avrom Sutzkever, A. Sutzkever: Selected Prose and Poetry, trans. Barbara Harshav and Benjamin Harshav (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 357; Sutzkever, Sutzkever Essential Prose, 21.

The differences between these variants are not great. Likewise, one’s preference for one over the other cannot be great. Berger, in fact, could have easily looked at these and decided to combine the beginning of Wisse’s and the end of the Harshavs’ to produce what does indeed sound better. Only, he dropped the conjunction. Without the “or,” the line transitions awkwardly between clauses. Berger favors this rhythm and the reader quickly habituates to it, maybe even likes it—for in this case it works and faithfully renders the Yiddish—but every so often this paucity of conjunctions and other methods of distinguishing between clauses results in confusion, like it does in the story “The Gravedigger’s Strike.”

The gravediggers are on strike and the dead cannot be buried in the cemetery that their bodies crave: 18 18 The Yiddish below is quoted from Sutzkever, Griner akvaryum: dertseylungen, 97.

פֿאַר מתים איז דער אַרײַנגאַנג פֿאַרבאָטן, עלעהײ אַן עראָטישער פֿילם פֿאַר מינעריעריקע.

No entrance for the dead, like an erotic film to minors. (96)

Berger’s propensity for ambiguous, back-to-back clauses—here with a conjunction but without any verbs—obfuscates the originally powerful image of a fairly straightforward simile. Berger’s translation can barely be deciphered as a result of its awkward syntax. The Yiddish reads quite differently. It is a straightforward sentence ending in a simile and might be better translated as, “Entrance is prohibited for the dead, like for minors to an erotic film.” Such a translation evokes not just the forbidden state of the cemetery, but the perverse desire of the dead, who eroticize the somber resting place. This is the same perverse desire expressed four pages later, this time by the narrator himself. Still in the cemetery, he is thinking about an old neighbor, Ayzikl the Snowman, who passed away but who would longingly tell stories about the Garden of Eden, the paradise for the dead, and the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge that grow there. The narrator interjects his thoughts with a sudden desire:

מע מוז געפֿינען אַ פֿאָרטל טועם צו זײַן זײערע פּירות. (103)

A portal to their fruits must be found. (100)

While consumption of the fruits is implied in Berger’s translation, it is emphasized in the Yiddish: “We must find some way to taste those fruits.” Sutzkever wants only the physical satisfaction of consuming the fruits. He does not want the spiritual journey, or the chance to once again hear Ayzikl’s voice; rather, like the dead lusting for their cemetery, the narrator is lusting for the heavenly fruit. It is quite apt, then, that Sutzkever ironically follows this story with one much unlike it, “A Smile at the End of the World”: an indictment of gluttony similar to that of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

“The Gravedigger’s Strike,” despite these missteps, is also home to Berger’s greatest accomplishment as a translator. The narrator is nagging the strike leader. He wants to know against whom they are striking. The strike leader will have none of it and dismisses him:

— קענטיק אַ נײַער עולה, געקומען פֿון די לענדער װוּ מע טאָר ניט שטרײַקן. אַ רחמנות.

איך װער חוצפּהדיקער. נאָך אַ קאַפּעלע און אונדזערע נעזער באַרירן זיך:

— דװקא אַן אַלטער און דרײט זיך ניט אַרױס מיט אַ תּשובֿה: קעגן װעמען שטרײַקט איר? ... און נאָך אַ שאלה: אַ מענטש איז דאָך ניט מער װי אַ מענטש. קאָן דאָך געשען, חלילה, אַז פּלוצעם זאָל אײַך פֿאַרצװיקן אונטערן האַרץ און אױס קאַפּעליוש־מאַכער. װער װעט אײַך דעמאָלט מקבר זײַן?

צװישן די לאָפּעטע־מענטשן װערט אַ גערודער. אױף אַזאַ שאלה האָט זיך מסתּמא קײנער ניט געריכט. ... און װאָס שייך ר׳ יואליש — האָט אים בעיקר אױפֿגעשױדערט מײַן אױסדרוק „אױס קאַפּעליוש־מאַכער“, װול אָט נעמט ער אַרונטער זײַן קאַפּעליוש מיט די ברײטע ראַנדן, באַשנאַפּט אים פֿון דרױסן און פֿון אינעװײניק און איך פֿיל, אַז ער האָט מורא אים צוריק אָנצוטאָן אױף דער יאַרמלקע. (101)

“Obviously a new oleh, come from a country where one can’t go on strike. A pity”

I get even more in his face, our noses almost touching: “So old and still no excuse not to answer the question. Who are you striking against? ... And another question: People are just people. So it could happen, God forbid, that you might get a little twinge in your chest and here’s-your-hat-what’s-your-hurry. Who would you bury then?”

A hubbub among the shovel people. Probably no one expected a question like that. ... And as far as Reb Yoelish goes—he was most taken aback by my expression “here’s-your-hat,” because he doffs now his hat with the broad brim, sniffs it outside and inside, and I sense that he is scared to put it back on over his yarmulke. (99)

Berger masterfully translates the idiomatic Yiddish expression “oys kapelyush-makher”—literally “hat-maker no longer,” and figuratively “down from a high social position, bankrupt,” 19 19 Yuda A. Yofe and Yudl Mark, eds., “Oys — negatsye,” in Der groyser verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh (New York: Komitet farn groysn verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh, 1961). or “retired” 20 20 Solon Beinfeld and Harry Bochner, eds., “Oys kapelyush-makher,” in Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary (Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 2013). —as “here’s-your-hat-what’s-your-hurry.” He employed an English idiom that not only preserves the same imagery of the hat present in the Yiddish, but is also just as coarse. The narrator’s later reflection on his own use of this expression therefore flows just as naturally in the English as it does in the Yiddish. It is a shame, though, that Berger did not faithfully render the beginning of this excerpt: having been called a new oleh, the narrator rebuts, “Davke an alter un dreyt zikh nit aroys mit a tshuve.” The first part of the sentence is in reference to himself. A new oleh? “Actually, an old one—and you won’t talk your way out of answering.” The first line of the story mentions the many years he has already spent in Israel, but the narrator also places us precisely in the year 1969: on the morning of the strike, he reads in the paper that man has landed on the moon. Sutzkever has been living in Israel for 22 years. An old oleh indeed.

Let one more comparison stand for the many more like it. It is the famous line describing Sutzkever’s successful march through a minefield guided by the angelic meter of his own poetry, now reversed, “Walk through words like you’d walk through a minefield:”

Firstly, Berger tames Sutzkever’s imagery of “searchlight-windmills.” The restless, omnidirectional scanning of the searchlights is censored. Why? “Searchlight-windmills” is the poet’s neologism. We are fortunate that the Yiddish words, “reflektorn-vintmiln” are nearly the same in English—certainly as clunky, and certainly as menacing. But what truly detracts from the power of the Yiddish is Berger’s interpretation of the concluding metaphor. Each translator has understood this metaphor differently: Wisse evokes a nail in a violin, rattling with each step, each note, scratching at Sutzkever’s beating heart like at the inner wood of the instrument. The delicacy of the heart/violin, the panic of the searchlights, and the torment of each step/nail are elegantly contrasted; and each is, in turn, amplified. The Harshavs suggest a more violent scene. With each step there is a mind-numbing screech of a nail clawing at a violin, like Hitchcock’s Psycho on a chalkboard. The reader feels their own pace slowing and worry grows with each measure of each word. Berger introduces a mixed metaphor that makes for clunky reading. The word, “shearing,” and the action it implies are longer, stretched, and softer than the immediacy of Sutzkever’s original. The snipping sound of scissors in this crucially audible metaphor clashes with spontaneous danger of a mine and the violence of the action he pairs it with: a nail piercing a fiddle. Shearing and piercing are not the same. In Berger’s translation the originally poetic metaphor is rendered as a clumsy mishmash of arbitrarily selected words.

Other translation issues diminish the reading experience. For instance, the famous Lodz industrialist, Ignacy Poznański, whose factory still stands today, who is indeed memorialized in a novel by I. J. Singer, is referred to by Berger as Pozansky (26–27), as if Sutzkever were alluding to a fictional character. If we distort that thin line between fact and fiction how will we make sense of Sutzkever’s dancing around it? How will the modern reader distinguish between the concrete details of Sutzkever’s wartime experience and the magical and literary embellishments? Another concerning moment occurs at the very start of the first “Green Aquarium” story that begins, “In eynem a tog fun der shkhite-tsayt” (80). Sutzkever was already in the ghetto, already old pals with both starvation and death. Berger’s translation of the phrase as “before the time of slaughter” (25) is a mistranslation of the timeframe of the story, which takes place not before, but during, that brutal period.

I was also troubled by the conclusion of “A Smile at the End of the World”. In this story, Sutzkever escapes from his generous but repulsive host who treats him to the local delicacies of fresh monkey brain in its still-warm skull and cobras cooked in their own venom and to whom Sutzkever writes an apology to the effect of: “I had to leave because—though you were a most hospitable and generous host, though you never stepped foot in the camps—had we met in Auschwitz and not in this city, you’d have been my murderer.” Berger translates the letter’s “Tsum nitviderzen” as simply “May we never meet again,” thus obscuring the crucial emotional resonance that Sutzkever’s use of a specifically German-language incantation carries in this harrowing story.

Finally, the lack of consistency in Berger’s transliteration decisions seems almost arbitrary. Thus, sometimes a term is translated to an English equivalent, like אשת־חיל as “woman of valor” (100); sometimes its common spelling is used, like the village “Worniany” (69), but sometimes an inexplicable spelling is used, like “Varnian” (71); sometimes an anglicized version of the world is used, like “shochet” (65), “chuppah” (70), and “Sabbath and holidays” (94), but sometimes things get mixed up like “Shabbos and yom tov” (94) and “gesundheit” (צו געזונט) (135) ; sometimes words get italicized like “payos” (97), “oleh” (99), and “shel rosh” (33), and sometimes they don’t like “tichel” (66) and “badchen” (98). Sometimes they are transliterated as Sutzkever would pronounce them (for example, “lagboymer” (73)), and sometimes as Berger would pronounce them (for example, “Shabbos”).

What I’ve laid out above is a nit-picked selection of interpretive and stylistic decisions. And though they may seem, out of the context and flow of the work, to be insignificant trivialities, these interpretations have a halting effect on the reader’s understanding and enjoyment of Sutzkever’s prose. Just as the previous translations of Ruth Wisse and the Harshavs have been neglected, so too have the standards these Yiddish academics instituted and maintained in the field of Yiddish literature that they themselves shaped. My only hope is that Sutzkever Essential Prose continues to persevere for the uninitiated as an introduction to Sutzkever and Yiddish literature—as it seems to be according to at least one review 21 21 Aviya Kushner, “On the Delights of Discovering a Truly ‘Essential’ Jewish Book,” The Forward, February 23, 2021,—but also, for the rest of us, as a stark reminder of the tremendous work that needs to be done to uphold the rigorous standards of our predecessors.

Raphael Halff. “Review of Sutzkever Essential Prose, translated by Zackary Sholem Berger.” In geveb, June 2021:
Raphael Halff. “Review of Sutzkever Essential Prose, translated by Zackary Sholem Berger.” In geveb (June 2021): Accessed Aug 03, 2021.


Raphael Halff