The Real First Translation of Bashevis into English!

Faith Jones

If you know a lot about Isaac Bashevis Singer, and particularly about translations of his work, I’m about to surprise you.

Most readers of Bashevis in English think the earliest translation of Bashevis into English was “Gimpl tam,” translated by Saul Bellow as “Gimpel the Fool” in 1952. Cognoscenti (including you, In geveb reader) think it was Di familye mushkat in its 1950 translation by A. H. Gross.

Actually, the earliest work of Bashevis translated into English was a section of Der sotn in goray, appearing in a British anthology in 1938.

This particular discovery was hiding in plain sight. In the first half of the 2000s I was researching the writer Esther Kreitman, Bashevis’s sister who ended up living most of her life in London. It made sense to me to follow up on the work of her son and translator, Morris Kreitman. Morris Kreitman, I found out, wrote a novel (The House of Napolitano) under the name Martin Lea. Later, while working as a journalist, he took the name Maurice Carr, and was known by that name until his death. (For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to him as “Carr” and Esther Kreitman as “Kreitman.”)

When he was only 24, Maurice Carr edited a Jewish short-story anthology under his original name, translating many of the selections himself. Among these were translations of a story by his mother and one by each of his uncles, I.J. and Bashevis Singer. He also included a story of his own using his pseudonym Martin Lea.

The anthology is called Jewish Short Stories of To-Day. It was published by a mainstream publishing house, Faber & Faber, as part of a series of ethnic short story collections. 1 1 Welsh, Scottish, and Irish had already been published when Carr’s book came out in 1938. Faber & Faber continues this practice still: in 2004 they published The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories; in the 1990s they produced Latin American and Caribbean anthologies. Carr’s collection runs to almost 500 pages, and contains 28 stories originating in six languages.

Among those who study Esther Kreitman, this anthology has been long noted. 2 2 It is mentioned in articles responding to the re-publication of Kreitman’s masterwork, Deborah, in 1983 in England. Carr also mentions it in a 1975 Jerusalem Post article about the writers in his family and in a somewhat different version of the same in Commentary in 1992. (Yet another version of this memoir, not mentioning the anthology, appears on his daughter’s website.) Michael Boyden mentions it in an article about Kreitman in Prooftexts in 2011. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of cross-pollination between scholars interested in Kreitman and those interested in Bashevis.

To be sure, Jewish Short Stories of To-Day probably deserves to be examined on its own. It is a rather unusual Jewish anthology to arise from the British milieu, particularly as it does contain so much Yiddish material rather than focusing on the longer-standing, and literarily dominant, Anglo-Sephardic community of England. Carr’s novel, The House of Napolitano, is also completely unexplored. The book is hard to find and I haven’t read it. It recently went for $200 on; surely it would have cost more if the bookseller had realized it was Bashevis’s nephew’s work. (Luckily for future researchers, it was purchased by the New York Public Library). Who knows if this novel, written when Carr was in his twenties, has any literary merit. But it surely would shed light on the Singer family literary tradition. Why exactly did he choose to write about London Docklands Italians, rather than immigrant Jews? There is, as well, the tantalizing and unposed question of Carr’s many names, with its eerie reflection of Bashevis and other Yiddish writers. Yet in Carr’s case, it may have been precisely to declare independence from that tradition that he chose a name so un-Yiddish. Just as Kreitman published as Kreitman and not as a Singer, so too perhaps Carr needed some distance from his famous uncle—meaning, in the 1930s, and particularly after the English-language triumph of The Brothers Ashkenazi, from I.J. Singer; Bashevis wasn’t famous until much later.

I don’t intend to research any of these things (graduate students: a fresh angle!), but I do have a few observations.

It’s not clear what criteria Carr used to select material for his anthology. In the editor’s introduction, he acknowledges that he left out English-language American writers, as he felt they had sufficient coverage in other anthologies. He comments that the book is international, like Jews themselves, and notes that he includes some stories that are less concerned with Jewish themes, taking a broad view of what constitutes Jewish literature. He also notes that he only includes one experimental work, a story by Boris Pasternak, and justifies this inclusion on the basis of its artistic excellence. Otherwise he seems unimpressed by the avant garde work of the day.

But the bulk of Carr’s introduction is taken up with his contention that the short story is the most appropriate medium for contemporary Jewish expression because it reflects an “atmosphere of uncertainty”—the hallmark of both Jewish and modern existence. His greatest hope for the anthology is not related to the position of the Jews either in Great Britain or in the rest of the world (although it is 1938, when danger was both present and visibly increasing), but rather his desire that the anthology should “add a little more impetus—no matter how little—to the development of the modern short story.”

If this seems unsatisfying, it may be some comfort that in the actual selection of material, Carr was perfectly arbitrary. It is a highly idiosyncratic selection, arranged alphabetically by author (thus, from a literary point of view, a random order). By language, the 28 stories break down this way:

12 Yiddish
6 German
3 Russian
3 French
2 English
2 Hebrew

Yiddishist though I am, I have to admit that is a pretty strange language mix. Fifteen of the stories appear in translations by Carr himself. Twelve of these are from Yiddish, two from German, and one from French. Other translations were re-publications of earlier translations, except for a story by Pasternak that was made specifically for this book. For this, Carr thanks translator Alec Brown, British novelist, poet, and Communist, who later translated Gorky and other major figures. 3 3 See Ian Patterson, “The Translation of Soviet Literature,” in Russia in Britain, 1880-1940: From Melodrama to Modernism, edited by Rebecca Beasley and Philip Ross Bullock, for more on this interesting figure.

There are many important names, both in Yiddish and in world literature, included: Sholem Asch, Dovid Bergelson, Opatoshu, I.J. Singer, I.M. Weissenberg; and Pasternak, Proust, Kafka, Vassili Grossman, and Stefan Zweig. There are those who were not yet famous, but deserved to be so, Bashevis and Kreitman prominent among them. There are those who were famous then, and forgotten now: Louis Golding, poor thing, and Egon Kisch. And then there are those who are just… well, obscure. Henri Duvernois, a French screenwriter. A Hebrew writer named M. Stavsky. From Yiddish, one Berl Grinberg. And in all of Anglo-Jewish writing, only Louis Golding and “Martin Lea” made the cut. You have to wonder if his publisher knew Carr was himself Martin Lea. Carr’s selections were likely personal. He foregrounds his own favorites, perhaps his friends, his political confrères (the Kreitman family, unlike Bashevis, was on the Left), and his family members.

And what of that Bashevis translation, the first English appearance of his work? It is an awkward choice. Der sotn in goray is a short novel that ran serialized in Yiddish newspapers in 1933 and appeared in book form in 1935. It is divided into two parts, each made up of short chapters suitable for newspaper publication. Carr chose sections of the first part to meld together into a story titled “Hail, the Messiah!” From chapters one and three he took a few pages, with a few sentences of his own in between to smooth the transition. These pages set the scene: in the mid-17th century, the town of Goray sustains a brutal massacre and expulsion of the Jews. Gradually they trickle back, among them the venerable rabbi, Reb Bainish Ashkenazi. Mysticism and Kabbalah are beginning to take hold among Polish Jewry. Reb Bainish fights a rear-guard action against these trends, while another pious Jew, who dislikes him anyway, attempts to undermine him by supporting the messianic trend.

Following this introduction, the story consists of all of chapters five and six (plus another smoothing sentence added where Bashevis jumps from one subject to another). In these chapters, various messengers and wanderers arrive to fully convert the town to Sabbateanism, the movement that followed the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi, with only Reb Bainish and a few of his students holding out. Finally, a fight erupts in the shul, and the mob of messianists attacks one of Reb Bainish’s students. The story ends with the student lying prostrate and Reb Bainish’s mortal enemy standing over him, triumphant. It is not clear if the young man is dead or alive.

This is, of course, an excellent cliffhanger for a serialized story. But as the end of a standalone story, it feels rather abrupt. Carr’s choice here is quite capricious. They do not form a complete incident that can be truly understood without the remainder of the book. They aren’t even the most compelling or interesting chapters. To me, later sections of the book dealing with the demon-haunted orphan Rechele, and her struggle with her sexuality and religious impulse as well as her exploitation by the community, are more intense, curious, and psychologically insightful than the early chapters. Perhaps here we see Carr’s gendered literary outlook. Most of the stories he includes in the anthology are on male themes. Even Kreitman’s story, the only one by a female author, features a man as its central character.

Another explanation for Carr’s choice to exclude Rechele is to ask whether Carr felt, as some literary critics have, that her character was based on Kreitman’s emotionally-tormented early life. If so, Carr’s avoidance of this troubling depiction of his mother could be quite understandable.

The translation itself is fluid and nicely written. It is to my mind better than the later full translation by Jacob Sloan. Carr uses terms more accessible to his English-language readers, such as “Cossacks” instead of Sloan’s (and Bashevis’s) “haidamaks” (“haydamakn” in Yiddish). These are not identical terms: haidamaks are a subset of Cossacks. Carr opts for less precision and greater comprehension. The Yiddish term “meshulekh,” imbued with a long history of Jewish religious organizing using messengers who traveled to collect donations for Yeshivas or sects, is particularly tricky. Sloan says “legate”; Carr says “missionary.” Both words are inexact. Both have Christian overtones, while Sloan’s choice is slightly closer in its meaning of a delegate or representative of a religious figure. But I had to look up “legate,” while “missionary” barely registered consciously. Again, Carr’s fealty is to the reader of his translation.

Not surprisingly, Carr’s English is British while Sloan’s is American: the hurled insult “Sheygats!” (a relative, one assumes, of “sheygets,” but an insult unto itself) becomes “Rotter!” in Carr’s translation, and “Apostate!” in Sloan’s. We can also perceive here that Carr paid attention to register. A brawl among men in shul is more likely to sound like a brawl in a bar than like a theological argument, even if the cause of the conflict is indeed religion. (It’s not clear to me that “sheygets,” much less “sheygats,” even does mean “apostate” in any real sense. It is a bit like calling someone a bastard: you aren’t commenting on his parents’ marital situation.)

Carr’s translation is also different from Sloan’s simply because of its timing. On the first page of the story, as the Chmelnitski massacres are described, Carr has:

For months after the holocaust corpses lay about the street and there was no one to bury them.

How different that lower-case “holocaust” would sound even a few years later. Sloan has, with the original Yiddish:

וואָכן לאַנג נאָך דעם חורבן האָבן זיך געוואַלגערט טויטע איבער די גאַסן, און עס איז נישט געווען ווער עס זאָל זיי צו קבֿורה ברענגן.

For weeks after the razing of Goray, corpses lay neglected in every street, with no one to bury them.

Carr must have been something of a linguistic genius, as well as an able and engaging writer. At age 24, he was fully capable of nicely rendering not just his mother tongue, Yiddish, but demanding German and French literature as well. But he was surely a great meddler. The conceit of remolding of the first part of Satan in Goray into a standalone short story is quite heavy-handed from the get-go. His insertion of additional lines to make the story conform to English conventions goes even further. And the structure he chooses, chopping and melding of parts of two chapters and all of two further chapters, with intervening chapters entirely left out, is also an extreme intervention.

Bashevis might have thought he knew something about translation before this, but he was wrong. At the end of the 1920s he had brought world literature into Yiddish to earn extra cash. He been an indifferent translator himself, hewing too closely to the original and dashing off two or three book-length translations in a year. His work with Carr may have been something of an eye-opener for him. Sadly, there are no letters between the two from this era (I checked), so we may never know how Bashevis felt about the translation or how involved he was in it.

At the time Jewish Short Stories of To-Day was published, Bashevis was living in New York working occasionally for the Forverts. He had witnessed his older brother’s enormous success and it is possible that he too was eager to be translated. He was 36 and had produced one novel and a few dozen stories, as well as manifestos and essays; but he was mired in a longstanding case of writer’s block that had gradually robbed him of his ability to write fiction. He wrote the occasional book review and essay under his pseudonyms. After he married Alma in 1940, he emerged bit by bit from his cocoon. In 1943 his new writing life began. After I.J. Singer’s death in 1944, Bashevis’s creativity welled up again in greatness with 1945’s Di familye mushkat, but translation eluded him until 1950.

By contrast, Maurice Carr offered an easy entrée to mainstream English-language publishing. Because of the age difference between Bashevis and his older siblings, his nephew was only 12 years his junior. Carr had grown up in England and was effectively a native speaker of both Yiddish and English. His English-language novel The House of Napolitano was already in press. He offered his uncle an opportunity to publish in the anthology he later called “mea culpa—a family vehicle in disguise.” Carr’s ease in the English publishing milieu may have impressed Bashevis. In contrast to his own translation practice, he witnessed a translator who put real thought and energy into it, making the prose sing and cobbling together a story out of pieces of a novel. Could this be the source (or a source) of Bashevis’s later translation practice? In those later translations, Bashevis freely condensed, changed, edited, and made his work more English in style. While Carr never translated for him again, it is possible his approach had a lasting effect on Bashevis. Indeed, it was another 12 years until the next translation came along, that 1950 Familye mushkat. And within a few years of that, Bellow’s “Gimpl tam” got the ball rolling, and Bashevis was on his way.

Certainly by that time, Bashevis knew translation was his future. Whether he felt that way in 1938 is a puzzle. There has often been speculation about Bashevis’s feelings of both envy and admiration towards his older brother, a sense of inferiority that likely began while they were still in Poland and was perhaps exacerbated in America by I.J.’s success in English. Similar English-language success may have mitigated Bashevis’s literary failures during those years. But, we have very little evidence that Bashevis thought much about the question of translation. Indeed by 1943, well aware of the destruction of European Jewry, Bashevis espoused a return to Jewish folk culture as the only authentic source for Yiddish literature, an approach that likely extended to a lack of interest in reaching English-speaking audiences, whether Jewish or not. So while by the 1950s Bashevis had become actively interested in translation, the year 1938 stands as something of a blind spot for documentation on Bashevis’s approach to the question.

Maurice Carr is also quite laconic on the subject (memoirs he apparently wrote are unpublished), but somehow a clearer picture of him during this period emerges. His work in this book is remarkable, as much for its breadth as for its execution. His reading habits were lively and varied, although oddly conventional in some ways. He prefers male writers (his mother surely only made it into the book through genetics); he prefers traditional narratives to the avant garde.

Following the publication of the anthology and his later novel, Carr moved away from literary writing and into journalism. During the war he worked for the Daily Telegraph, Reuters, and the BBC, most likely serving a useful function because of his many languages. After the war he became Paris correspondent for the Palestine (later Jerusalem) Post, a position he held for twenty years before transferring to Israel to be near his in-laws. Later, his colleagues at the Post remembered him as deeply eccentric, though not in a bad way: he was among a group of Jerusalem Post writers considered “civilized, charming men who had an uncanny ability to transform into raving maniacs at the first appearance of injustice.” During his years in Israel he wrote at least one governmental PR publication, a pamphlet called “Forward to Peace.” He also edited, and perhaps translated from Hebrew, a book of humorous essays.

I have found no further evidence of literary translation, which is a shame since, meddling included, I consider his translations rather good. Carr himself tells us that, many years after their first creative association, he was supposed to translate a novel for Bashevis. During this process, Bashevis explained to Carr that Kreitman was mad. The two never saw each other again. As we saw in his editorial choices in Jewish Short Stories of To-Day, Carr was motivated by his family and was loyal to it. A lack of loyalty on Bashevis’s part was an unforgivable sin, and thus ended the potentially spectacular collaboration of two exceptional writers. And this break probably contributed to the fact that this first translation has not been mentioned until now.

There are ways this translated story could have been found earlier, but it wasn’t. Some libraries add catalogue data for individual stories in anthologies, which means if you search Bashevis Singer at the New York Public Library, you get the record for Jewish Short Stories of To-Day. I found the book as I was working on my 2004 bibliography of Esther Kreitman, and a year or so later gave the information and photocopies from the book to Joseph Sherman, who intended to write about it. Joseph died in 2009 without, as far as I know, having done so. I should have long ago brought it to the attention of other Yiddish scholars. There are so many reasons to consider this translation, not least that it falls into an important and puzzling moment in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s literary life.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Amanda Miryem-Khaye Seigel at the Jewish Division of the New York Public Library; the archivists at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas; and Eve Jochnowitz, Ri J. Turner, Carl Rosenberg, Winnifred Tovey, Diana Clarke, and Ben Feldman.

Dedicated to the memory of Joseph Sherman, z”l.
Jones, Faith. “The Real First Translation of Bashevis into English!.” In geveb, September 2015:
Jones, Faith. “The Real First Translation of Bashevis into English!.” In geveb (September 2015): Accessed Dec 09, 2023.


Faith Jones

Faith Jones is a librarian and translator in Vancouver, Canada.