Translating the Iceberg: Reflections on the Possibilities of In geveb’s Texts & Translations Section

Madeleine Cohen


At the Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies in December 2015, In geveb organized a roundtable discussion entitled, “Fartaytsht un farbesert? Translating Yiddish in the Twenty-First Century.” This essay is the fourth in a series of reflections by Yiddish translators and scholars inspired by that conversation. You can read the full series here.

The very first seminar on Yiddish literature that I took in graduate school was called “Yiddish Modernisms in Eastern Europe Between the Two World Wars.” 1 1 Taught by Professor Chana Kronfeld I wrote a seminar paper on Moyshe Kulbak’s poem “Vilne,” and thank goodness, because here I am don’t-ask-how-many years later writing my dissertation, in part, about concepts of place in Kulbak’s writing. I still have my copy of the poem from that course, absolutely covered in notes and definitions of Yiddish words and cultural concepts I learned from reading that poem. Maybe this was the first time I read the word “Bund” in Yiddish? And I distinctly remember learning about the cultural beliefs associated with water carriers from the poem. A great poem like “Vilne” is always something of an iceberg, its total mass and weight and meaning and power invisible at first sight, its larger shape only becoming perceptible with careful investigation. But it becomes all the more iceberg-like from the position in which I and many young readers and potential translators of Yiddish find themselves: learning a foreign language and culture, especially given the extra challenges of immersing oneself in the many layers of Yiddish culture that inform any one work of literature. By extra challenges I mean the extreme disruptions to Yiddish cultural continuity given the many upheavals and catastrophes Yiddish underwent in the twentieth century: the disruptions of World War I, emigration, pressure to assimilate, World War II, Stalinism. Not only is the poem an iceberg, hiding most of its mass, but so much of the culture, the material history, the contexts of the poem are hidden from us as well, requiring real dedication from the reader and so much more so from the translator to understand.

Let’s continue with “Vilne” as an example. What kind of knowledge is necessary to access the images and references of Kulbak’s poem? Certainly knowledge about Ashkenazic religious practice, but also cultural beliefs that fall outside of halakhic knowledge. For example, there are the many cultural associations with the vaser-treger—the water carrier—often seen as the lowest profession one can hold in a community, and therefore a job frequently reserved for the mentally disabled. The job itself often serves as a symbol or stand-in for the most disadvantaged members of a community. Superstition holds that it is good luck to pass a water carrier whose buckets are full, bad luck if they are empty. Vaser-treger is also the Yiddish name for the Zodiac sign and constellation Aquarius, which is certainly relevant context for “a vaser-treger a gefrorener, – / dos berdele farkashert, – shteyt un tseylt di shtern.” 2 2 “a frozen water carrier, / Small beard tilted, stands counting the stars.” Translations from Nathan Halper in The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, Ed. by Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk (New York: Viking Penguin Inc, 1987), 406-411. One needs also to know about Vilna’s position as a great center of Misnagdic Jewish tradition and, perhaps especially for the poem, Vilna as an important site for book publishing: “a seyfer iz a yeder shteyn, a parmet – yede vant, / tsebletert soydesdik un oyfge’efnt in der nakht.” 3 3 “Each stone a book; parchment every wall. / Pages turn, secretly opening in the night.” One needs to know about the architecture of Vilna to understand lines like: “Shmole, vi di gasn zaynen dayne khmurne yidn; / shtume shterns, vi di breyte, gliverdike vent fun shul-heyf.” 4 4 “These gloomy men are narrow like your streets. / The brow mute—a rigid wall of a synagogue yard.” These lines invoke the prominence of the shul-heyf (that it is a heyf and not a hoyf) for the identity of the city, as well as the narrow medieval streets of the Jewish quarter. And I would say, one even needs to know something of the weather of Vilna to appreciate that a phrase like “khmurne yidn” might be extending the metaphor of describing the residents through the architecture by here describing them through the rainy weather, as much as it describes a mood. Knowledge of the rain also helps to understand the description of one of the city’s rivers, the Vilye (today the Neris in Lithuanian), rising as a woman from her banks, and no one opening their doors to her—because of course the rivers flood regularly in “Lietuva,” the land of rain.

A student of Yiddish taking the time to close-read such a poem can hopefully discover these things and the many other references and contexts of the poem. Certainly we can hope that a translator will do so as well, but what about the reader of the translation? Can we assume that they will have access to the resources, the colleagues or teachers, to explore all of the history, culture, and geography that can add so much to their reading? Are these under-layers of the iceberg available to the reader of English translation the way they are to the reader of the Yiddish original? Probably not. Or at least, only with great difficulty.

Usually as translators we struggle with the question of how to communicate as much of this context as possible within our translation. Tools like introductions, footnotes, and glossaries sometimes aid in this communication, but they are not appropriate for all translations. Readers are more accustomed to encountering footnotes or endnotes while reading an essay. With a poem, for example, where language is often especially thick with multiple meanings, notes can so easily overwhelm the original.

What if—instead or in addition to the tools above—we can locate that context outside of our translation, in other translations and sources, rather than trying to fit it all within the translation at hand? That is to say, rather than trying to find a way to communicate the structure of a heyf in Vilna, and the cultural importance that courtyards have for Vilner yidn, what if I translated a section of Zalman Szyk’s 1930 guidebook to Vilna, 1000 yor vilne? Or could link to a translation of Chaim Grade’s memoir, My Mother’s Sabbath Days? Or if I could point a reader to Moyshe Vorobeichic’s images of the city in Yidishe gasn in Vilne, which not only presents photographs, but does so in a modernist mode that complements Kulbak’s poetic modernism? Those are the sources that I as a scholar and translator turn to in order to understand this work in Yiddish and translate it into English. What if rather than trying to somehow squeeze them all into my translation, I can make more of them accessible to the readers of that translation?

There are several reasons why I might not do those things. As a translator coming from the perspective of literary analysis, I am trained to gravitate toward great works like Kulbak’s “Vilne,” to the difficulty of interpreting and communicating as much of my reading of such poems as possible. Zalman Szyk’s guidebook to Vilna, fascinating and informative as it is from a historical and cultural perspective, is not the high literature that I have been trained to take as my focus. This returns us to the iceberg. While Szyk’s work may be part of the submerged iceberg supporting Kulbak’s poem, where is the prestige in translating something from this middle ground of cultural production? And prestige is not meant as a wholly immaterial consideration: I know what the possibilities for publishing a translated poem are (limited though they may be), but where would I find a publisher for an excerpt from a guidebook 75 years and several political revolutions out of date? But if I did decide to move from the foreground to the middle or background of cultural production and translate some of Szyk’s work, and could find a publisher for it, what an asset to students and readers of not only Yiddish, but of Central and Eastern European history, of Polish and Lithuanian literature, and scholars of these related fields who do not have the linguistic training to access the originals.

This idea is certainly not novel for Yiddish translation. Several of the anthologies and readers edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel come to mind, with the best example for my iceberg scenario being The Dybbuk: A Haunted Reader. This book presents a translation of Sh. An-ski’s play Der dibuk, certainly a pinnacle of Yiddish theater and the source material for one of the great Yiddish films, placed in the context of some of the Yiddish folklore that informed and inspired An-ski to write the play. Another anthology that Neugroschel worked on, The Shtetl: A Creative Anthology of Jewish Life in Eastern Europe, features several pieces by Dovid Bergelson, another great (and difficult) modernist writer, putting his writings in the context of his antecedents and contemporaries in Yiddish literature. In the realm of history, works like Simon Rabinovich’s Jews and Diaspora Nationalism: Writings on Jewish Peoplehood in Europe and the United States similarly offers a sampling in English of a wide variety of sources previously only available in the Yiddish original. Or Tony Michels’ sourcebook, Jewish Radicals: A Documentary History.

The opportunities for publishing such print collections are difficult. They take the commitment of a translator-scholar (or team of translators and scholars) to put together a book’s worth of material, and still need to attract the interest of a publisher through the reputation of the translator or attractiveness of the material. Online publishing, however, offers different opportunities in these regards. A single essay about a city’s architecture, a poem only quoted in an essay but translated in full by the author, or an entire shund roman that a publisher would not spend 300 pages on today (despite how popular those pages might have been a hundred years ago!) are finding space on these pages. The last year of coordinating In geveb’s Texts and Translations section has demonstrated this to me. A great recent example is the article by Art Green and Ariel Evan Mayse on Hillel Zeitlin’s project to build a new spiritual movement called Yavneh in interwar Warsaw, which they published along with translations of ten essays and letters by Zeitlin about the project. It’s easy to imagine that, had they published this article in a print journal, the great amount of source material they worked with from those ten pieces by Zeitlin would have been reduced to quotations and footnotes. In geveb is able to offer the complete translations as sources for other scholars and readers. Additionally, we are able to make the Yiddish originals of such works more accessible to scholars by presenting them as standardized, searchable text.

If it is true that many of the readers of our translations are students of some sort (whether aspiring academics within Yiddish studies, or academics from fields for which Yiddish sources are relevant, or lay students of culture and history writ large), perhaps we can agree that in addition to translating the peaks of this literature and culture, making the “best” available to wider audiences so they can appreciate the geniuses of Yiddish culture, it is also valuable to translate the archive behind those works, or under the surface, as it were. An online project like In geveb is in a better position to foster and present such work than print publications or a traditional literary journal; for us, curation of an archive does not have to mean choosing the rarest, or most representative examples (though we do invest significant energy into making each translation the best it can be). Rather we can focus on curation in the sense of making accessible, which means publishing broadly and organizing well. Our exhibition space is not finite.

Every translator likely hopes that they turn some readers toward the original, sparking the interest of new Yiddishists through translation. But given the prominence of English in Yiddish Studies and the investment of energy in translations from Yiddish to English to bring some of this cultural legacy into new contexts, we should also consider the value of transmitting not only the visible peaks of the culture, but also the mass of cultural and historical context under and around these great works. I am excited to see all of the translations that will surface here in the coming months and years.

Cohen, Madeleine. “Translating the Iceberg: Reflections on the Possibilities of In geveb’s Texts & Translations Section.” In geveb, May 2016:
Cohen, Madeleine. “Translating the Iceberg: Reflections on the Possibilities of In geveb’s Texts & Translations Section.” In geveb (May 2016): Accessed Jan 21, 2019.


Madeleine Cohen

Madeleine Cohen received her PhD in Comparative Literature with a designated emphasis in Jewish Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the Director of Translation and Collections Initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center and In geveb's Senior Editor.