On Translating The Disappearance into Yiddish: Ilan Stavans and Beruriah Wiegand in Conversation

Ilan Stavans and Beruriah Wiegand


On the occa­sion of Beruri­ah Wiegand’s Yid­dish trans­la­tion of Ilan Sta­vans’ The Dis­ap­pear­ance (2007), pub­lished in Tel Aviv by the H.Leyvik-farlag, the author and trans­la­tor engaged in a series of vir­tu­al dia­logues – in Israel, the Unit­ed King­dom, and Mex­i­co – on trans­lat­ing from and into Yid­dish today and about trans­la­tors work­ing with a liv­ing” author. The title sto­ry is about a promi­nent Jew­ish actor in Bel­gium who plots his own kid­nap­ping in order to call atten­tion to ris­ing anti­semitism in his coun­try. The sec­ond, Morirse está en hebreo,” is set at a shi­va in Mex­i­co City in which a patri­arch is being mourned just as a series of polit­i­cal protests are push­ing the nation into chaos. And the third, Xerox Man,” focus­es on a rad­i­cal Ortho­dox Jew whose mis­sion it is to make the uni­verse less per­fect.” What fol­lows is an adapt­ed ver­sion of these dialogues.

Ilan Stavans: The publication of your Yiddish rendition of The Disappearance reminds me of the visit Saul Bellow paid to Shmuel Yosef Agnon in Jerusalem, during which Agnon told Bellow that Jewish books need to be in Hebrew. Bellow brought up Heinrich Heine in English translation. “Ah,” Agnon says, “we have him beautifully transplanted into Hebrew. He is safe.” My book has appeared in other languages but to me it feels safe in mame-loshn.

Beruriah Wiegand: I am very happy to read these words. In our recent online conversation in Mexico, one of the presenters said hearing me read from my Yiddish translation of your book gave her the feeling that these stories were originally written in Yiddish. Of course, this was wonderful to hear! But it is true that I translated your stories in a way that they would sound authentic in Yiddish. The subject matter in all three of your stories is very Jewish, and for that reason, they translate well into Yiddish. I have also been striving to recreate your unique style of writing in my Yiddish translation, and I hope I have succeeded in this.

What is your own connection with Yiddish? I’ve got the impression that you know it well enough to read and appreciate my Yiddish translation of your stories, but not well enough to translate your work into Yiddish yourself.

IS: I grew up in Yiddish. In school it was one of the languages of instruction at the Alte Yidishe Shule in Mexico. I communicated in Yiddish with my grandmothers and at times with my parents. But as a young man, I wasn’t a happy Yiddish speaker. I resented it because I didn’t see any practical side to knowing it: it was a link to what has been called “a world that was no more.” Why not learn English, French, or German instead? I read Peretz’s Hasidism-infused stories, Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye der milkhiker, Israel Joshua Singer’s The Family Carnovsky, the poetry of Avrom Sutzkever (I remember distinctly being exposed, for the first time, to “Frozen Jews”) – yet these efforts were done mechanically. It was only when I moved to New York City, in my mid-twenties, having rejected Yiddish as what I called, following the Mexican idiom, “a camel for the streets,” that I rediscovered it again – and since then I have been possessed by its splendor.

BW: Where were you when this happened?

IS: It happened on a Manhattan subway train. Yiddish wasn’t altogether a thing of the past for me, but I had grown distant from it. As I saw it, it had lost currency, yet, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and elsewhere in the city, it was the tongue of Hasidim. As I understood it, the structure of Yiddish was Babel-like: a mishmash of provenances that made communication an addition rather than a subtraction. After a year or so in New York, where I had arrived as an immigrant, I had begun to fall in love with Spanglish, the mix of Spanish and English, spoken by millions of Latinos of numerous provenances (Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Colombia, etc.), when it suddenly dawned on me that Spanglish was, indeed, the new Yiddish, a hybrid, bastard tongue born out of necessity, spontaneously developed by a growing minority uniquely positioned in the intersection between two cultures. I decided then to become a sort of bal-tshuve: to reembrace my Yiddish.

Nowadays Yiddish colors everything I do, even when I’m not conscious of it. When I lecture on Plato’s The Symposium or Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, discuss the rise of populism on the global stage and the future of democracy, or meditate on 19th-century American poetry, it is Yiddish that forms the substratum of my thoughts. I speak it and read it with joy, but I don’t feel comfortable writing a story or poem in it, although years ago I did. My second son, Isaiah, an actor and playwright, recently played Sholem Asch in Paula Vogel’s Indecent, at the Chautauqua Theater Festival. He knew the basic grammar but needed to learn how to perform in it.

How did you make my stories sound “authentic” in Yiddish? Authenticity is elusive, contested in translation.

BW: The subject matter of your book made it very natural for these stories to be translated into, and recreated in, Yiddish. But all along, I was conscious of the fact that I was translating from one linguistic system to another, very different one, and my translation was often an act of problem solving. For instance, Yiddish syntax is very different from English. In Yiddish, the main conjugated verb is always the second sentence unit, which makes it especially tricky when there are long sentences with many subclauses and some insertions in between different parts of a verbal construction, as you tend to have in your stories. English makes extensive use of the passive voice. Yiddish doesn’t. Although there is a passive voice, which is sometimes used in the literature and especially in Bible translations, it’s much more natural to use the construction with מע / מען, which I have often employed in Yiddish where you had the passive voice in English. English uses a large number of abstract nouns, where Yiddish would often have a verbal construction, which is the way in which I have translated many of your abstract nouns.

Then there was the problem with wordplays and invented words. For example, among the films that the actor Maarten Soëtendrop has made and is yet to make in the title story “The Disappearance” there is one entitled “Amsterdamned”. After much reflection, I came up with the translation “פֿאַראַמסטערדאַמט”. Likewise, I was wrestling with the title of your third story “Xerox Man”. How do you translate this into Yiddish דער קסעראָקס-מאַן ? דער פֿאָטאָקאָפּיר-מאַן ? – Surely not! I went for “דער פֿאָטאָקאָפּירניק”.

My translation was a dialogue with your source text and a quest for meaning in my target language: Yiddish. Translating literature implies creativity. It’s not just translation, but “transcreation”. Translating into Yiddish is an art form! I wonder if you can relate to this, not just as a translated author, but also as a translator of literature into English and Spanish.

IS: I like the term “transcreation” because it acknowledges the translator – as should be – as another essential creator.

BW: Yes, indeed. I very much enjoyed “transcreating” the first and the third of your three stories in the book, which I was commissioned to translate by Daniel Galay, the publisher of my two poetry collections at the H.Leyvik-farlag in Tel Aviv. Originally, I was only supposed to translate those two stories and proofread and copyedit the translation of the second story, “Morirse está en hebreo”, which had been done by a different translator, Shlomo Lerman. But I soon realized that if I wanted to have all the three stories in the book in a consistent modern Yiddish style that would reflect the style of your English original, I would have to rewrite the translation of your second story in my own creative way, which I did. And with my Yiddish translation of your book, I have now added to the vast canon of world literature translated into Yiddish, which includes writers like Ibsen, Knut Hamsun, Thomas Mann, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Sh.Y. Agnon, and more recently Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

IS: What makes the history of Yiddish plentiful is the abundance of translations in it. From the start, speakers were bringing into their midst other languages while sending Yiddish back to them. Think of all the other Jewish languages we have created: Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Portuguese, Judeo-Italian, etc. None was ever—even remotely—the type of “translation machine” Yiddish became. Spinoza is in Yiddish… Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, Erich Maria Remarque… Except that, in numerous cases, translators engaged in all kinds of cheap tricks: they abbreviated texts, rendering them not from the original but from a second language like German or English; they modified and even deleted characters; and so on. Personally, I’ve been prone to Shakespeare in Yiddish. In cadence and metrics, the sonnets have been respectfully, though not loyally, approached. Can a translation be both loyal and beautiful?

BW: Yes, even Bashevis engaged in this kind of translation work, long before he became the famous Nobel Prize winning writer I.B. Singer. In Warsaw in the 1920s and early 30s, he translated works like Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg and Erich Maria Remarque’ Im Westen nichts Neues into Yiddish from the German original, but he also translated Knut Hamsun’s Pan from its German translation, not from the original Norwegian, a language which he, of course, didn’t know.

But what about Shakespeare? There are many translations of Shakespeare’s works into Yiddish. There are also some completely new versions, likeדער ייִדישער קעניג ליר or Yankev Gordin’s play מירעלע אפֿרת, which is like a Yiddish / Jewish “Queen Lear” …

IS: In King Lear and Hamlet, to list two famous examples (though these plays, I should say, were translated into Yiddish more than once), they are entirely new pieces, set in a Jewish milieu, with religious, political, cultural concerns that are absolutely remote from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England. My point is that translators are never innocent. Needless to say, Shakespeare himself was a plagiarist. Many of his plays are rewritings of previous versions of say Macbeth, Richard III, and Henry V. He also inserted segments of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, maybe his favorite book, which show up in Cymbeline, Titus Andronicus, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And Montaigne’s personal essays (in John Florio’s translations) appear in The Tempest. Conclusion: there’s nothing original in originality, least in the sphere of translation.

Anyway, I’m particularly struck by your choice for the title story of The Disappearance, “Der Opgang.”

BW: I was deliberating for a long time on how to translate the title of the first story and thus the title of the whole book. There was no obvious choice for The Disappearance in Yiddish. I checked in the Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, edited by Gitl Schaechter Viswanath and Paul Glasser (Hershl Glezer), originally published by Indiana University Press in 2016, with a second expanded edition in 2021. They listed both the abstract noun די פֿאַרשװינדונג, which isn’t much in use, and the verbal construction דאָס פֿאַרפֿאַלן / נעלם / פֿאַרשװוּנדן װערן, which is in use, but would sound really clumsy as the title of a book. Then I remembered Dovid Bergelson’s novella אָפּגאַנג, first published in the periodical אײגנס in 1920 and later on in book form by the Kultur-lige in Kyiv in 1921.

There is a beautiful bilingual edition of this work in two volumes, edited and translated by Joseph Sherman and published by the Modern Language Association in New York in 1999. Joseph Sherman chose to translate the title of the novella as Descent, but the Yiddish אָפּגאַנג has many more possible meanings, including disappearance. I then had a look at the גרױסער װערטערבוך פֿון דער ייִדישער שפּראַך, edited by Yudel Mark and published by the Yiddish Dictionary Committee in New York and Jerusalem in 1980, which to this day encompasses 4 volumes with the letter alef… Volume IV lists 10 different meanings for the noun אָפּגאַנג and 25 different meanings for the verb אָפּגײן, from which the noun is derived. Some of the meanings of the noun אָפּגאַנג are: אַקט אָדער רעזולטאַט פֿון אָפּגײן, i.e. departure; אָפּגאַנג פֿון אַקטיאָר פֿון דער בינע, i.e. exit; דאָס פֿאַרשװינדן, i.e. disappearance; פֿאַרלוסט, אָנװער, i.e. loss. Some of the meanings of the verb אָפּגײן are: פֿאַרבײַגײן, passing (e.g. of time), צעגײן, i.e. decay; פֿאַרגײן, זײַן אין פּראָצעס פֿון ניט-װערן, i.e. passing away, disappearing; שטאַרבן, i.e. dying, death.

IS: One singular aspect of what you’re conveying is the intimate relationship between the translator and the dictionary. I can’t think of a more constant, loyal, and devoted friend. Yet dictionaries – I have a large collection of them – are also treacherous books: they reflect the fancifulness of their creators. One often thinks of the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, as infallible. It isn’t, really. The definitions we encounter on its pages have been distilled over three hundred years.

BW: In the process of translation, my dictionaries are most definitely my best friends. But one also needs to know how to use them, and quite often one has to make one’s own creative choices. In any case, all these different meanings of the noun אָפּגאַנג and the verb אָפּגײן, listed in the גרױסער װערטערבוך פֿון דער ייִדישער שפּראַך, seem to be very suitable for the first story of your book, as well as for the book as a whole. Thus, my chosen title אָפּגאַנג דער not only reflects your original English title The Disappearance, but also has all those other connotations, which are so fitting for all the three stories in your book!

Can you tell me more about what inspired your three stories? I also know that one of the stories was turned into a feature film and another one was adapted for the theatre.

IS: Each of the stories had an auspicious birth and has grown to find its own place in the world. “Morirse está en hebreo” was the basis for the script of the Mexican film My Mexican Shivah, directed by Alejandro Springall and produced by John Sayles. Seeing it “translated” to the screen was joyful. The adaptation tones down some of the political content. For instance, the death of the Jewish patriarch coincides with the crumbling of the dictatorship of PRI, Mexico’s ruling party. That aspect doesn’t show up in the movie. But the movie has a dimension the story doesn’t have: it has the feel of a telenovela, which goes well with the emotional excesses I sought to convey in the plot. “The Disappearance” has been adapted by Double Edge Theatre into a traveling play. And “Xerox Man” was commissioned by the BBC in London, where it aired for the first time in my own reading.

BW: How was it for you to see your work transposed to the stage and to the cinema?

IS: Throughout my life, I have enjoyed collaborating with actors, directors, playwrights, filmmakers, and illustrators. As I see it, it is a natural dialogue across the arts, since culture is, in its essence, promiscuous. The experience has led me to at times imagine a piece in one format only as “a first draft” and the subsequent adaptations as revisions or recreations. I feel close to Whitman’s views on closure in literature. As you know, time and again he kept revising Leaves of Grass. In my case, the return to a piece of work I’ve done often comes in the form of a collaboration. It has happened in my graphic novels, like Angelitos, or in plays such as The Oven. Plus, when I translate my own stories I give myself permission to rewrite them in the new language, though this happens only occasionally. (I don’t like to translate myself.) At any rate, I don’t believe a work of art should be trapped in a particular genre or language.

BW: What you say about revisions and recreations of your own work is fascinating. This is something that also happened a lot in Yiddish literature. The first of the three classics of modern Yiddish literature, Sh.Y. Abramovitsh, who published his books in Yiddish under the name of his narrator (at times editor, at times translator, and at times an important protagonist in his novels) Mendele Moykher-Sforim, was famous for rewriting and polishing his works many times. He was a bilingual writer, who wrote in both Yiddish and Hebrew and constantly translated his own works from one language to the other. Five of his novels were written in both Yiddish and Hebrew, with his Hebrew recreations following the publication of his works in the original Yiddish. But he also kept enlarging, rewriting and polishing his novels in Yiddish, like דאָס װינטשפֿינגערל and פֿישקע דער קרומער. And he wrote some of his stories originally in Hebrew, which he later translated into Yiddish.

IS: Translation implies movement: a text moves to another linguistic eco-system, a writer is accessible to a reader and vice versa, and also, a text is repositioned through the recalibration of its messages. Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his essay “On the Different Methods of Translating,” states that “Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.” The same happens, I should add, when we translate not a contemporary text but a historical one, meaning one that was written a long time ago: either you bring the reader to the past by means of recreating the original language in the target one, or you move in the opposite direction, allowing the text to travel to the present. When it comes to self-translation, things, obviously, become less complicated, since your original and target language are synchronous.

BW: It is interesting to me, and somewhat surprising, that you don’t like to translate yourself. You probably know that apart from being a Yiddish lecturer, teacher and translator, I’m also a Yiddish poet, with two bilingual collections of my poetry, published by the H.Leyvik-farlag in Tel Aviv, the publisher of my Yiddish translation of your book The Disappearance. For the past twenty-two years at least, I’ve been writing all my poetry in Yiddish, but also translating much of it into English. All the English translations of my Yiddish poems in my two books (2012) צי האָט איר געזען מײַן ציג? און אַנדערע לידער and כּלת-בראשית (2018), are my own, kindly checked by my friend Vincent Homolka, who made several very useful suggestions on how to improve my poems in English.

IS: Your friend Homolka is crucial in the endeavor, if I can say it, allowing you a certain distance from the text you would otherwise not have, unless you work with an editor capable of doing the same.

BW: Yes, my friend has played an important role in improving my own English translations of my Yiddish poetry. I’ve always found it easiest to translate myself, as I know exactly what I want to say in my own poetry, and I also feel much freer in translating and recreating my own poems in another language than I would feel when translating another poet or prose writer. I’ve found it much more difficult to translate A.N. Stencl’s poetry into English, for example. I published a bilingual collection of some of Stencl’s early work from his time in Berlin together with my fellow poet and co-translator Stephen Watts, All My Young Years: Yiddish Poetry from Weimar Germany (Five Leaves, 2007). I was sometimes struggling with Stencl’s language when we were translating him. He uses quite a few dialectal words in his own unique dialect from Western Poland, which are not in the dictionaries, and the meaning of some of his images and expressions or the connections between two lines of a stanza are not always clear. And I want to be faithful to this charming poet, who lived in the East End of London for decades, who died in 1983, and is no longer around to ask what he meant when there is something slightly unclear in his poetry.

Why don’t you like translating yourself?

IS: There are a couple of reasons why I dislike translating myself. First, the lack of objectivity. Whereas when I translate Don Quixote into English, Hamlet into Spanish, or Bashevis Singer from the Yiddish, I approach the original as a sacred text. Rendering my own work often pushes me to revise the original, which means I’m not only translating but rewriting. If every translation is an interpretation, why not leave it to someone else to interpret the work? The author is often the worst interpreter of their own oeuvre. And secondly, I think to myself: instead of translating yourself, why don’t you write something new? The day generally doesn’t have enough hours for me to accomplish what I want. Why steal time from new work?

Thus, as a matter of choice, I prefer to translate a dead author: Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz, Jorge Luis Borges, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop... That’s because I’m interested in the layers of interpretation a book accumulates over the centuries – and insert myself in between those layers. I’m attuned to how words change meanings and how writers push dictionaries to refresh definitions. But I often translate new authors, too. Translation brings about renewal. It is also about death: the metaphorical death of a text as it metamorphoses across languages. When Sutzkever talks about “tasting all kinds of death,” the image brings to mind the taste of original texts and their repositioned translations.

BW: For me personally, it’s not so much death, but a change of form and dimension. But maybe this is what death is – a change of form and dimension? In any case, it’s a unique situation when you are translating a living author. When I started translating your stories into Yiddish, there were a few things I was wondering about: a couple of English words I didn’t know and had to look up, different geographic locations in Belgium and in Mexico that I had to look up, the anti-Semitic play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, mentioned in your first story, that I had to read up on, and one or two matters that weren’t immediately clear to me, but became clearer the more I was working with the text. Then there was the question of what to do with the many words and entire lines in Spanish, French, and Dutch in your English original. At the beginning of my process of translation, I was considering writing to you and asking you some questions, but I wanted to wait until completing at least a first draft of my Yiddish translation. In the end, I decided to go it alone, to look up everything I needed to know and to make my own decisions, and I just hoped you would like my Yiddish translation / transcreation and appreciate my choices!

What prompted you to include so many words in Dutch, lines in French and words, expressions and poems in Spanish, as well as the Kaddish prayer in Hebrew (in Hebrew characters)? It is highly unusual nowadays for a work of literature written in English to be so multilingual.

IS: I’m thrilled you’ve asked the question because it is at the heart of how I see things. Languages don’t exist in a vacuum, isolated from the others. Quite the contrary: the world is messy, convoluted. Tongues don’t only borrow from each other; they also steal shamelessly, creating a symphonic – perhaps the word is “cacophonic” – chaos.

My autobiography On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, published in 2001, is made of discreet chapters about disparate periods of my life, each experienced separately through the prism of another major tongue: Yiddish, Spanish, Hebrew, and English, in that order. My original intention was to compose each of the sections about them in that language: the section on Yiddish in Yiddish, on Spanish in Spanish, and so on. Needless to say, my editor said it was all a Quixotic dream. I therefore resorted to writing the whole book as if it was a translation of each of these languages but without an original. What I learned in the process is that languages step on each other and they push others around. Hebrew penetrates Yiddish, which in turn subverts English from within, only to allow Spanish to reconfigure it. All this is a way to rationalize that multilingualism never exists in a state of purity.

I return again to Schleiermacher’s utopian view that translators into a language – in his case, German – enrich it by pushing it beyond its confines. Every time another translator renders Sutzkever’s “Frozen Jews” into English, Shakespeare’s tongue is expanded even more. Just as, in translating The Disappearance into Yiddish, you’ve pushed Sutzkever’s language further. But tell me about your decisions on what to do with my multilingual insertions in my English texts. Of course, the segments of the Kaddish in Hebrew in Morirse está en hebreo appear as such, obviously without the need of a Yiddish translation. There’s the song “Desapariciones” by the Panamanian salsero Rubén Blades, which you incorporate in Spanish, followed by the Yiddish translation. The epigraphs by Bishop (“One Art”) and Shakespeare (Henry IV, Part II, Act V) also appear in English, followed by your renditions. These are just examples.

BW: Reading and translating your stories, it was important to me to leave all your Dutch, French, Spanish, and Hebrew words, quotations, poems, and prayers in their original language, some with and some without a translation into Yiddish. And I wanted to have your epigraphs to all the stories both in the English original and translated into Yiddish. There was obviously no need to translate the segments of the Kaddish. I also left the one French quotation and the one note in intentionally messed-up Spanish in your story “The Disappearance” in the original in Latin characters and without a translation. These two instances were a bit separate from the main text. So I could leave it in Latin characters. I decided to leave the Dutch words and titles of publications without a translation, but to transliterate them into Yiddish. To that end, I had to know exactly how they are pronounced in Dutch. The same also applied to all the Dutch proper names and place names. I checked with a young Yiddishist from Amsterdam, David Omar Cohen, who used to be in one of my advanced Yiddish literature classes at Oxford (online), and he told me how everything is pronounced, so I could transliterate it properly in Yiddish. I thought these Dutch words and titles could be easily understood by a Yiddish speaker and didn’t require any translation. On the other hand, most Yiddish readers, unless they grew up in Latin America, wouldn’t necessarily know Spanish. For your second story, “Morirse está en hebreo”, I decided to leave the Spanish, mostly transliterated into Yiddish, but to provide a translation into Yiddish wherever necessary. I thought it would have disturbed the reading experience of the Yiddish reader to have a great deal of Spanish in Latin characters in the Yiddish text in Hebrew characters. Plus employing two different alphabets, one written from right to left and one from left to right, in the same paragraph, always creates great difficulties in the process of typesetting! I only left the Spanish in Latin characters in a few key places in the story, as in the explanation of the phrase Morirse está en hebreo, and the song “Desapariciones”, which was, at any rate, separate from the main text and wouldn’t cause any problems with the typesetting. And for this song, I decided to provide a rhymed translation into Yiddish… So I had to make a lot of creative choices here. But I always had my potential Yiddish readers in mind when I made these choices.

IS: Let me return, by way of conclusion, to the idea of translation as a recalibration. Every text has its implied readers. Those readers might have been the author’s intended audience. But no author is ever in full control of a text. Once the text is out and about in the world, it finds its public. (To me, this is like parenthood and even like teaching: as a parent, you prepare your children, giving them, as best as you’re able to, the tools they need, and as a teacher you do the same with your students; but those preparations have little to do with control, for once they are active in life as adults or as professionals, they find their own ways, either applying or discarding the tools they are equipped with.) But translation reinvents a text’s readership; it reorients it by bringing it to the attention of new audiences. This, in and of itself, represents a repositioning of the text. Still, for as much as the translator might have a specific public in mind, the text, once again, will create its own paths. Who did you intend your translation of דער אָפּגאַנג for?

BW: Of course, I intended my Yiddish translation of דער אָפּגאַנג for any Yiddish reader who will want to read it! First and foremost, I wanted YOU to read and appreciate it! I would like all my Yiddishist friends and colleagues around the world to read it, Yiddish scholars, lecturers, poets and writers, as well as a general audience of Yiddish readers and advanced Yiddish students. I very much hope that my Yiddish translation of your book will find its readership, probably much of it in Israel, where the book was published, but also internationally.

I really think that my Yiddish translation of your stories enriches the Yiddish language and pushes it beyond its boundaries, and it adds to the vast canon of literature in Yiddish!

For you as an author of short stories and novellas and for me as a Yiddish poet, there is always the question of when a work of literature is finished. The same applies to a translation of a work of literature into a different language and different cultural and linguistic system. In the Talmud, in Tractate Kiddushin 59a-b, there is a discussion about what causes a vessel, crafted by an artisan, to be finished and thus susceptible to ritual impurity. Is it one last action that makes it a finished vessel? No, it’s a thought! The artisan just needs to decide it’s a finished work of art or craft, and that’s it. On the other hand, if the artisan changes his mind and wants to work on it some more, this will require an action. It’s the same for a work of literature or a translation of a literary work. After a long process of writing or translating and of being in dialogue with a text and wrestling with a text, the writer or translator needs to decide at some point that this is enough. This is it. It is now a finished work of art that can go out into the world! And thus, I eventually completed my translation of your book, and now it’s out there in the world, waiting for its Yiddish readers!

Stavans, Ilan, and Beruriah Wiegand. “On Translating The Disappearance into Yiddish: Ilan Stavans and Beruriah Wiegand in Conversation.” In geveb, October 2022:
Stavans, Ilan, and Beruriah Wiegand. “On Translating The Disappearance into Yiddish: Ilan Stavans and Beruriah Wiegand in Conversation.” In geveb (October 2022): Accessed Dec 07, 2022.


Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.

Beruriah Wiegand

Dr. Beruriah Wiegand is the Woolf Corob Lector in Yiddish at the University of Oxford.