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“The rhythm and rhyme had to leap off the page”: An Interview with Ellen Cassedy about Translating Yiddish Children’s Poetry

Jessica Kirzane

INTRODUCTION

I have long admired Ellen Cassedys trans­la­tions for her atten­tion to the vibran­cy of the Eng­lish lan­guage in which she writes. Over the past sev­er­al years, we have devel­oped a friend­ship built around our shared work as trans­la­tors of and activists for women’s writ­ing in Yid­dish. Ear­ly on, I found myself eas­i­ly and open­ly also talk­ing to Ellen about our over­lap­ping expe­ri­ences as care­givers to chil­dren (hers past and mine present), swap­ping reflec­tions about breast­feed­ing and oth­er chal­lenges of work­ing while tak­ing care of young chil­dren, and all the while estab­lish­ing trust and inti­ma­cy almost as soon as we met one anoth­er. When Ellen stayed in my home last year, she brought along a gift for my chil­dren — a book of rhyming children’s poet­ry charm­ing in its sur­pris­ing rhymes and com­fort­ing, reli­able meter. So it came as no shock to me when I learned that in addi­tion to her writ­ing as the author of We Are Here: Mem­o­ries of the Lithua­nan Holo­caust, and her res­o­nant trans­la­tions of women’s prose from Yid­dish (Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Sto­ries by Blume Lem­pel, with Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub, also excerpt­ed in In geveb; and On the Land­ing, sto­ries by Yen­ta Mash), Ellen has also com­plet­ed two trans­la­tions of Yid­dish children’s poet­ry into Eng­lish: a col­lec­tion of pre­war children’s poems for a book called Yid­dish Zoo” and a col­lec­tion of Boris Sandler’s Good Morn­ing” poems for chil­dren. I inter­viewed Ellen over email to learn more about her work as a trans­la­tor of children’s literature.

Jessica Kirzane: Can you tell me about the Yiddish Zoo project?

Ellen Cassedy: In 2015, I was a translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, hard at work on a collection of short stories by Yenta Mash. As part of our training, we were paired off and given just half an hour to translate a famous poem by Abraham Sutzkever. It was just an exercise, but a few weeks later I happened to hear from a friend involved with Czulent, the Jewish association in Krakow dedicated to strengthening Jewish identity throughout Poland. They had begun publishing children’s books in Yiddish and Polish, and now they were seeking to publish one called “Jidiszer Zoo” – a dozen poems about animals that had been written in Yiddish by twentieth century Eastern European poets. They already had a translator into Polish, and they were looking for someone who could do the English.

I’d never written or translated poetry, so at first I told them I could provide a “trot,” a word-by-word rendering that could be passed along to an English-language poet who didn’t know Yiddish. I did start working with such a poet. But after receiving my “trot,” what she came up with was… not right. Lyrical, yes—and lovely and profound—but it didn’t have either rhythm or rhyme, as the original did, and as I knew the English had to. I sent her back a few lines that did have rhythm and did rhyme. “More like this,” I suggested. In return, she had a suggestion for me: why didn’t I do the poems myself?

Beyond a doubt, it was only because I’d just done the Sutzkever exercise that I decided to give it a go. To my surprise, the rhymes and rhythms, and the whole feel of the poems, came surprisingly easily to me. I’ve been thinking about why.

First, I grew up on Mother Goose rhymes. They were read to me over and over, and I read them to my own children, too. I know dozens of them by heart.

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full.

Hickory, dickory, dock!
The mouse ran up the clock;
The clock struck one,
And down he run,
Hickory, dickory, dock!

Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson have long been favorites. Listen to this excerpt:

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do! 1

I’ve also always loved poems by A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh books. Some sample lines:

Christopher Robin
Had wheezles
And sneezles,
They bundled him
Into
His bed. 1 1 “Sneezles” is from poem by that name by A.A. Milne from book “Now We Are Six,” 1927, Methuen & Co., London.

James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,
Though he was only three. 2 2 “James James” is from the poem “Disobedience,” from book “When We Were Very Young,” by A.A. Milne, first published in London by Methuen & Co, 1924.

These propulsive, musical pieces remain overwhelmingly compelling to me. I find them irresistible.

The second reason I think the “Jidiszer Zoo” translations felt so comfortable for me was that my mother was an author of poetry and fiction for children, and she’d also translated Japanese haiku and Indian nursery rhymes for children. Her process—scraps of paper full of rhymes (bell/dell/farewell…) and a certain far-off look in her eyes—was a strong presence in our household.

I started working on the translations on my way to the Yiddish summer program at Vilnius University – literally on the plane. While I was there, when I wasn’t in class or doing mountains of homework, I loved playing around with these little poems. Each one was a puzzle and a source of joy. In my mind, I was down on the rug or curled up on the couch with a little kid and a mom with half her mind on how she was going to get dinner on the table. For both child and adult, the language had to be simple, matter-of-fact. It needed not to call much attention to itself. And the rhythm and rhyme had to leap off the page.

At the time, I didn’t know anything about the original poets: Israel Goichman, Mates Olicki, Nochem Weisman, and Eliezer Steinbarg. Later, I learned that they were accomplished educators, poets, and lyricists, all born in the late nineteenth century in Eastern Europe. Some had published in their countries of origin, and some in the US or Argentina. To tell the truth, I didn’t think about them very much. What mattered were the little kid, the mom, the animals, the rhythm, and the rhyme.

Of course, especially with poems that are very short, you can’t translate them word for word or line by line. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a detail—or add one. With every poem, I spent some time setting the original lines aside and trying to inhabit the spirit of the poem. And I tried to remember not to be afraid to get silly.

A zoo can be a sad place, so not all of the poems turned out cheerful and sprightly. The elephant and the tiger in particular seem a bit depressed in their urban environment. But in other poems, as in these two excerpts, the animals cut loose, as in “The Band” by Eliezer Steinbarg:

Marching down the avenue - here they come
Elephant’s trunk goes thump on the drum
Brown bear strums on the bass with his claws
Cat holds cymbals in her paws

Oom pah pah and bim bam bum
Crash go the cymbals, boom goes the drum
High above the others, cricket gives a trill
They make me want to dance - and I think I will!

Published by Czulent in 2015, “Jidiszer Zoo” is a slim, square hardback with a bright green cover. Its wonderfully inventive drawings, based on Hebrew letters, are by Ewa Gordon. It’s available through [email protected].

JK: Was this how you came to the Boris Sandler project? Through your work on “Yiddish Zoo”?

EC: I was very pleased to be asked to translate the 24 poems that appear in Boris Sandler’s “A Gut Morgn! (Good Morning!),” a 2020 publication for children ages 3 through 8.

I knew of Boris Sandler as the longtime editor of the Yiddish edition of the Jewish newspaper Forward and a prolific writer of all sorts of literature, including work for children. Sandler grew up in Moldova, home of Yenta Mash. He’d known Mash, and he helped me with vocabulary and background when I was translating her stories.

At the time I was asked to translate Sandler’s children’s poems, I was deep into a book project, and I really should have said no. I couldn’t, though. I said yes, and whenever a set of Sandler’s joyful, energetic verses appeared in my inbox, I’d drop everything and dive into what felt like a guilty pleasure. I began to accumulate my own lists of rhymes on scraps of paper, and I’d get that faraway look in my eyes….

Sandler was in my head much more than the authors of the zoo poems had been. I felt connected to him and to the persona that comes through in his verses—that of a curious, thoughtful child who’s often puzzled by the wonders of the world, as in these excerpts:

Mother is beating my pillow
She beats till the hour grows late
Oh Mother, the pillow - what did it do wrong
To deserve such a terrible fate?

--

A fat worm’s wiggling on my hook
But all the pond is quiet
How come the fish won’t bite today?
Could they be on a diet?


I had the opportunity to go back and forth with Sandler, and on occasion he voiced an opinion or asked me to be sure to include a particular detail. Mostly, though, I worked on my own.

The poems in “A Gut Morgn/Good Morning!” appear in Yiddish orthography, Yiddish translation, and English translation, and can be read, and read aloud, in any of those versions. The illustrations are by Sonia Filipkina, a talented young artist from Birobidzhan, the former Jewish Autonomous Region in far-eastern Siberia. The book is available for $20 plus postage from [email protected].

Here’s an excerpt from Sandler’s exuberant “Carousel”:

Giddyap, horsie, take me for a ride
Over the fields and far away
The grass is fresh and the meadows wide
Come on, horsie, what do you say?

JK: This poetry is all so playful and warm. I can definitely picture parents reading to their children, and even making sounds (like clopping hooves) to accompany the rhymes.

I’m taken with your images of mothering and mothers: the inspiration of your mother’s work as an author and translator of Yiddish poetry as well as your tender portrait of an imagined reader. As a very tired, very distracted mother of young children myself, I’m quite moved by the idea of a translator having sympathy for me and trying to capture my interest through the fog of fatigue and responsibility, as well as trying to care for my child with me by feeding them rhyme and rhythm. But I couldn’t help noticing that the poets you translated are all men. I wonder if you can speak a bit about the gender dynamic at play for you between the authors and the world of childcare that you conceived of as largely female.

EC: Sigh. The world of childcare IS mostly female, and most poets are men. I believe passionately that we’d be better off with equality in both spheres. I’m always on the lookout for women writers in Yiddish, and at the same time I’ve had rich experiences with literature written by men. I applaud these male poets for devoting themselves to educating, entertaining, and sustaining children and their parents—probably mostly mothers. I also hope they did the laundry from time to time.

JK: Have you ever had the experience of reading your translations with or to children?

EC: Not yet. Boris Sandler and I were planning an event for children when the pandemic hit New York. Someday!

JK: I ask because I’m thinking about how children learn their own language by exposure to the written word, and how children’s authors teach children about the plasticity and expansiveness of their own language. I see from my own children how children experience language in books differently from adults, because certain words or turns of phrase will be entirely new for them even when they are run of the mill for their parents and guardians. Like the phrase “run of the mill,” which is so ordinary to me, but would hold no meaning for my children. My children delight in such phrases, sometimes laughing at them, sometimes repeating them, and often believing that they originated in the book they are reading. I’m wondering if you ever thought about your role as an English language teacher for children as you were translating. Did you feel you had to limit yourself to words and phrases that children would be likely to have encountered before, or did you feel comfortable introducing them to new ways of saying things in English at the same time as you were bringing them into an encounter with Yiddish through translation?

EC: I do want to share our English-language heritage with children—to help them develop an ear for what makes English English, to echo phrases they’ll run into elsewhere, to play around with sounds. So in these translations I used the phrase “It’s raining, it’s pouring,” echoing the nursery rhyme (“the old man is snoring”), the phrase “monkey see, monkey do,” and sounds that show off the wonders of our beloved tongue to best advantage, like “pit-a-pat,” “rat-a-tat,” and “wick whack snicker snack.”

I think it’s very important to introduce children to words they don’t know. I don’t make a point of seeking out unfamiliar words and uncommon expressions, but I don’t hold back, either. So you’ll find a peacock “decked out like a bride” and a bear “so fat and stout” and a parrot with a “beady eye.”

JK: Are there things you need to teach or explain more (or differently) with regard to Yiddish culture when translating for children? Or do you leave more unexplained? What elements of Yiddish culture do you expect your readers to already understand?

EC: There’s very little in these poems that draws on Yiddish culture. Yes, the parrot wants a bagel instead of a cracker—but other than that, the animals in the zoo are not Yiddish-inflected, and Sandler’s poems about the carousel, fishing trip, hockey game, pet dog, and so on don’t have a Yiddish flavor either. The way children will pick up the “Yiddishness” of the books is not through the translations but through the pictures and the Yiddish text—whether they get to hear it or just look at the words on the page.

JK: That’s very interesting. It seems to me that often translators and scholars are drawn to writing about elements of Yiddish or Jewish literature that deal directly with Yiddish or Jewish culture. They see themselves as giving new readers access to an aspect of a culture they otherwise would have trouble understanding. Can you explain what is to be gained by translating poems that don’t explicitly deal with Yiddish/Jewish cultural content? Do you see them as conveying something about the universality of Yiddish culture? Or maybe there’s not a learning objective about Yiddish language/culture in the translation, and you’re just sharing and creating good children’s poetry more broadly. How do your goals in translating these poems differ from your goals in other translation work you have done from Yiddish in this regard?

EC: In translating Blume Lempel and Yenta Mash, I felt strongly that one of my goals was to open a window into a particular time and place and culture, and another goal was to enable readers to sense the universality of these writers – to learn new things about the human condition. You know how astounded I have been by some of the content in your translation of Miriam Karpilove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, or The Battle against Free Love. In the same way, I expect readers to be very surprised that a writer like Blume Lempel has things to tell us about abortion and women’s liberation and incest, or that Yenta Mash can be a profoundly consoling source of insight into surviving an extreme situation—I’ve turned to her again and again during the months of the pandemic.

I think the context of these children’s books is important. “Jidiszer Zoo” is part of a series that brings lost elements of Jewish culture to Jews and non-Jews in present-day Poland. Parents and children are meant to snuggle up and turn the pages together, savoring the illustrations constructed from Hebrew alphabet calligraphy, switching back and forth between the Yiddish and the translations. Sandler’s poems take their place within his decades of devotion to producing Yiddish culture, and they, too, are expected to be experienced bilingually.

JK: I hope to snuggle up with these books and my own children someday soon.

Ellen Cassedy’s translations and writing can be found through her website: www.ellencassedy.com.

Information about purchasing Boris Sandler’s “Good Morning” poems for children, with English translations by Ellen Cassedy can be found here.

Jidiszer Zoo, with English translations by Ellen Cassedy, and Polish translations by Bozena Keff, published by Czulent in 2015, is available through [email protected]. A pdf version of the book can be found here.

MLA STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. ““The rhythm and rhyme had to leap off the page”: An Interview with Ellen Cassedy about Translating Yiddish Children’s Poetry.” In geveb, November 2020: https://ingeveb.org/blog/ellen-cassedy-translating-yiddish-childrens-poetry.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. ““The rhythm and rhyme had to leap off the page”: An Interview with Ellen Cassedy about Translating Yiddish Children’s Poetry.” In geveb (November 2020): Accessed Dec 01, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane is a Lecturer in Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief for In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.