Pedagogy

On the Pedagogic Uses of Literal Translation

Lawrence Rosenwald

I have been making a case for literal translation for more than thirty years, in theory and in practice, often but not always in relation to the Buber-Rosenzweig Bible translation and the translators’ commentaries on their own work. 1 1 For a discussion and assessment of the Buber-Rosenzweig Bible, see my “On the Reception of Buber and Rosenzweig’s Bible,” in Prooftexts, Vol. 14, No. 2 (May 1994), pp. 141-165. Not an easy case to make, nor uncontroversial, but I have gone on making it nonetheless. Until now, though, I have not considered the uses and meanings of literal translation in the classroom, even while taking such translation as the ground of some important aspects of my teaching in general. What follows is some notes on those uses and meanings. This being In geveb, I focus the notes on my teaching of Yiddish poems, though I would argue that these principles have a more general validity. (My thanks to Miriam Udel, who having seen some of my classroom handouts, suggested to me that they were worth writing about.)

A brief account of the term “literal” is in order, given how often the term is used imprecisely. It can be used more precisely if used comparatively, since no translation can be only literal, only word-for-word. An example: the first verse of the story of the Tower of Babel: vayehi chol-ha’arets safa ehat udvarim achadim. “And all the earth was one language and one set-of-words,” I might translate. Not strictly literal, since the verb in Hebrew is part of the first word and in English only the fifth, there is nothing in English to correspond to the structure of the Hebrew verb, and there is no “the” in the Hebrew verse. But more literal than the Sefaria translation: “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” “Everyone” is not in the Hebrew, which is to say that the original sentence structure has been rewritten, “the whole earth” being the subject in the Hebrew but becoming simply a location in the English. In between would be the King James Version: “And the whole earth was of one language, and one speech.” “Of” is a a clarifying addition (and a reduction of the sentence’s strangeness), and “of one speech” obscures the plurality of devarim achadim.

The translations I make for classes – in college courses, presentations at synagogues, midnight sessions at a Shavuot tikkun – are not quite at the literalist extreme. They almost always give word for word, sentence for sentence, line for line. When a word is repeated in the original, it is repeated in the translation. But my translations do not always give a word’s first sense in a lexicon, nor do they give etymology-based senses - unlike like, say, André Chouraqui’s entête (“in-head”) for the first word of Genesis, bereshit, chosen because bereshit, usually translated “in the beginning,” is based on the word for head, rosh. They strain English syntax and word order but do not break them. Making these translations turns out to be surprisingly hard; we are habituated as translators to add, subtract, and re-order, and obliging ourselves not to do those things is a useful challenge. Sometimes I provide notes, but these are mostly philological rather than interpretive, e.g., an indication, in a translation of some of Itzik Manger’s Ruth poems, that two Yiddish words both translated as “rye bread” (rozeve broyt and kornbroyt) are not the same word.) At the beginning of a session, I recite the English translation first and the Yiddish text second, on the theory that with the English in their head, students ignorant of Yiddish will be able to hear the Yiddish more discerningly than they would if the Yiddish were read first.

I can best set out the meanings of these practices by contrasting them with the practices they replaced. I used to bring in a more conventional handout: the Yiddish text (sometimes transliterated, sometimes the text itself, xeroxing being simpler than transliterating) and a published translation of high quality, e.g., Leonard Wolf’s in the case of the Manger poems included in The World According to Itzik. But doing so inevitably led to conversations I did not want at that moment to have, and put me in relations to students and to translators that I did not like.

I take as an example Manger’s great poem khave un der eplboym, dated London 1941. 2 2 On the poem more generally see my “On Itzik Manger’s ‘Khave un der eplboym,’” in Marion Aptroot et al eds., Leket: Yiddish Studies Today (Düsseldorf: Düsseldorf University Press, 2012). Here is what I used to hand out:

חוה און דער עפּלבױם

חוה שטײט פֿאַרן עפּלבױם.
דער זונפֿאַרגאַנג איז רױט,
װאָס װײסטו, מוטער חוה, זאָג,
װאָס װײסטו װעגן טױט?

דער טױט דאָס איז דער עפּלבױם
װאָס בײגט די צװײַגן מיד.
דער אָװנט־פֿױגל אױפֿן בױם
װאָס זינגט זײַן אָװנטליד.

אָדם איז אַװעק פֿאַר טאָג
אין װילדן װאַלד אַלײן.
אָדם זאָגט: „דער װאַלד איז װילד
און יעדער ,װילד׳ איז שײן“.

נאָר זי האָט מורא פֿאַרן װאַלד.
זי ציט צום עפּלבױם.
און קומט זי נישט צו אים צו גײן,
קומט ער צו איר אין טרױם.

ער רױשט און בײגט זיך איבער איר.
זי הערט דאָס װאָרט „באַשערט“.
פֿאַרגעס װאָס „ער“ דער גרױסער „דער“,
װאָס ער האָט דיר פֿאַרװערט.

און חוה רײַסט אַן עפּל אָפּ
און פֿילט זיך מאָדנע גרינג,
זי קרײַזט פֿאַרליבט אַרום דעם בױם,
װי אַ גרױסער שמעטערלינג.

און „ער“, װאָס האָט דעם בױם פֿאַרװערט,
ער זאָגט אַלײן: „ס׳איז שײן“,
און האַלט נאָך אױף אַ רגע אױף
דאָס גרױסע זונפֿאַרגײן.

דאָס איז דער חלום יעדע נאַכט,
טאָ, װאָס זשע איז די װאָר?
און חוה פֿילט װי ס׳טרערט דער בױם
אַראָפּ אין אירע האָר.

„װײן נישט, שײנער עפּלבױם,
דו רױשסט און זינגסט אין מיר
און דו ביסט שטאַרקער פֿונעם װאָרט
װאָס װאָרנט מיך פֿאַר דיר“.

און חוה נעמט דעם עפּלבױם
מיט בײדע הענט אַרום,
און איבער דער קרױן פֿון עפּלבױם
ציטערן די שטערן פֿרום... 3 3 Itsik Manger, “Khave un der eplboym,” in Medresh Itsik, ed. Chone Shmeruk (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1969), 9-10.

She stands before the apple tree
While the red sun sets.
Mother Eve, what do you know,
What do you know of death?

Death, ah, death’s the apple tree
Whose weary limbs bend down,
It is the bird upon the branch
Singing an evensong.

Adam’s to the wild wood gone
At dawn into the wood.
Adam says, “The wood is wild
And all that’s wild is good.”

But Eve is frightened of the wood,
Prefers the apple tree,
And when she does not go to it,
It comes to her in dreams.

It rustles, it leans over her,
It says, “Beloved Eve,
Not every warning Word He speaks
Has to be believed.”

In love, she plucks an apple –
She feels strangely light.
Round and round the tree she goes
Like a butterfly in flight.

And He Himself who warned her
Says, “The tree is fair.”
And keeps the sunset lingering
Another moment more.

Each night, whether true or not,
She dreams this dream: A tear
Drops from the weeping apple tree
And falls into her hair.

“Lovely apple tree, don’t weep,
I am your melody
And know your word is stronger far
Than the Word that’s warning me.”

Then Eve enfolds the apple tree,
She clasps it in her arms
While far above the pious stars
Tremble with alarm. 4 4 Trans. Leonard Wolf, in The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, ed. Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk (New York: Viking, 1987), 562-564.

khave shteyt farn eplboym.
der zunfargang iz royt,
vos veystu, muter khave, zog,
vos veystu vegn toyt?

der toyt dos iz der eplboym
vos beygt di tsvaygn mid.
der ovntfoygl oyfn boym
vos zingt zayn ovntlid.

odem iz avek far tog
in vildn vald aleyn.
odem zogt: “der vald iz vild
und yeder ‘vild’ isz sheyn.”

nor zi hot moyre farn vald.
zi tsit tsum eplboym.
un kumt zi nisht zu ihm zu geyn,
kumt er tsu ir in troym.

er roysht un beygt zikh iber ir.
zi hert dos vort “bashert.”
farges vos “er” er groyser “der,”
vos er hot dir farvert.

un khave rayst an epl op
un filt zikh modne gring,
zi krayzt farlibt arum dem boym,
vi a groyser shmeterling.

un “er,” vos hot dem boym farvert,
er zogt aleyn, “s’iz sheyn,”
un halt zikh nokh oyf a rege oyf
dos groyse zunfargeyn.

dos iz der kholem yede nakht,
to vos zshe iz di vor?
un khave filt vi s’trert der boym
arop in ire hor.

“Veyn nisht, sheyner eplboym,
du royshst un zingst in mir
un du bist shtarker funem vort,
vos vornt mikh far dir,”

un khave nemt dem eplboym
mit beyde hent arum,
un iber der kroyn fun eplboym
tsitern di shtern frum…

I would give out the handout, do some situating, read aloud, invite comments. But then students would make acute remarks about features of the translation that were not features of the original. A student might come across Wolf’s translation of ovntlid as “evensong,” and then, plausibly treating it as a feature of Manger’s poem, might comment on the richness of the word, the association it implied between Jewish legend and Christian liturgy (“evensong” being the name for a celebrated Anglican and Episcopalian afternoon service), between Yiddish poets and Christian vocabulary. A great topic! And Manger was in fact interested during his earlier years in the figure of Jesus, as Efrat Gal-Ed and others have pointed out. But that is not what is happening in this poem; ovntlid does not refer to the Christian service, it means only “evening-song,” as my literal translation has it.

All of which I could and did explain, of course. But in offering the explanation, I felt I was in a false relation to the students. I imagined they might feel suddenly unable to proceed as readers. If feature x of the translation is not a feature of the original, a student might say to me, How can I know that any feature of the translation is a feature of the original? And if I can’t know that, how can I use the translation as a means of understanding the poem? And if I can’t use the translation as a means of understanding the poem, why on earth are you giving it to me in the first place? Few students were so confrontational, but I imagined the questions even when students didn’t ask them, I found them legitimate questions, and I had no good answers to them.

At other moments, of course, these questions are pressing, and too often are ignored. The fiction we live by as teachers of works in translation is that when we assign, say, a translation of Bergelson’s Nokh alemen, we can, after saying why we’ve chosen, say, Joseph Sherman’s translation of the work, treat the translation as the original. That fiction is simply not true, even in the case of Sherman’s remarkably literate and exact translation, and we should as teachers challenge it. We should, moreover, suggest to students, and for that matter to colleagues, that the imagined student’s radical uncertainty – “How can I know that any feature of the translation is a feature of the original?” – is a profound question for all readers of all translations. (It is also a profound question for teachers uneasy about having so much intellectual authority in the classroom, and about students having so little.)

But we cannot, in the relatively brief intervals of time in which we teach, consider these big questions and also consider the smaller but equally necessary and important questions pertinent to Manger’s poem in particular –who is speaking and when, what is going on with the words “wild” and “beautiful,” what is dreamed and what is real, why are only the stars trembling as Eve embraces the apple tree, why is God so repetitively gendered, and where on earth is the serpent?

Hence my present handout:

חוה און דער עפּלבױם

חוה שטײט פֿאַרן עפּלבױם.
דער זונפֿאַרגאַנג איז רױט,
װאָס װײסטו, מוטער חוה, זאָג,
װאָס װײסטו װעגן טױט?

דער טױט דאָס איז דער עפּלבױם
װאָס בײגט די צװײַגן מיד.
דער אָװנט־פֿױגל אױפֿן בױם
װאָס זינגט זײַן אָװנטליד.

אָדם איז אַװעק פֿאַר טאָג
אין װילדן װאַלד אַלײן.
אָדם זאָגט: „דער װאַלד איז װילד
און יעדער ,װילד׳ איז שײן“.

נאָר זי האָט מורא פֿאַרן װאַלד.
זי ציט צום עפּלבױם.
און קומט זי נישט צו אים צו גײן,
קומט ער צו איר אין טרױם.

ער רױשט און בײגט זיך איבער איר.
זי הערט דאָס װאָרט „באַשערט“.
פֿאַרגעס װאָס „ער“ דער גרױסער „דער“,
װאָס ער האָט דיר פֿאַרװערט.

און חוה רײַסט אַן עפּל אָפּ
און פֿילט זיך מאָדנע גרינג,
זי קרײַזט פֿאַרליבט אַרום דעם בױם,
װי אַ גרױסער שמעטערלינג.

און „ער“, װאָס האָט דעם בױם פֿאַרװערט,
ער זאָגט אַלײן: „ס׳איז שײן“,
און האַלט נאָך אױף אַ רגע אױף
דאָס גרױסע זונפֿאַרגײן.

דאָס איז דער חלום יעדע נאַכט,
טאָ, װאָס זשע איז די װאָר?
און חוה פֿילט װי ס׳טרערט דער בױם
אַראָפּ אין אירע האָר.

„װײן נישט, שײנער עפּלבױם,
דו רױשסט און זינגסט אין מיר
און דו ביסט שטאַרקער פֿונעם װאָרט
װאָס װאָרנט מיך פֿאַר דיר“.

און חוה נעמט דעם עפּלבױם
מיט בײדע הענט אַרום,
און איבער דער קרױן פֿון עפּלבױם

ציטערן די שטערן פֿרום...

Eve stands before the apple tree,
the sunset is red,
what do you know, mother Eve, say,
what do you know of death?

Death, that is the apple tree
that wearily bends its branches.
The evening-bird on the tree,
that sings its 5 5 The Yiddish word for bird is masculine, not neuter. So also the apple tree. It would be legitimate to replace “its” with “his” in this line, and so for all pronouns connected with the tree.(This and the following two footnotes are footnotes for the handout, not for this article.) evening-song.

Adam has gone before daybreak
into the wild wood alone.
Adam says, “the wood is wild,
and every ‘wild-thing’ is beautiful.”

But she is afraid of the wood,
she prefers the apple tree.
And if she doesn’t go to it,
it comes to her in dream.

It rustles and bends over her.
She hears the word “bashert.” 6 6 Meaning “fated” – but one can speak of one’s beloved as being “bashert,” as we might say, “you were the only one for me.”
Forget what “he,” the great “he,” 7 7 “Der groyser ‘der,’” the great “der.” “Der” is the masculine form of the Yiddish word for “the.” So one might say, “the great he-guy.” Gender is being emphasized here.
what he forbade you.

And Eve breaks off an apple
and feels strangely light,
she circles lovingly around the tree
like a great butterfly.

And “he” who forbade the tree,
he himself says, “it’s beautiful,”
and the great sunset
holds back for a moment.

That is the dream every night,
but what is the truth?
And Eve feels how the tree weeps
down into her hair.

“Don’t cry, lovely appletree,
you rustle and sing in me
and you are stronger than the word
that warns me about you.”

And Eve takes hold of the apple tree
with both hands around,
and above the top of the apple tree
tremble the pious stars … (tr. LR)

khave shteyt farn eplboym.
der zunfargang iz royt,
vos veystu, muter khave, zog,
vos veystu vegn toyt?

der toyt dos iz der eplboym
vos beygt di tsvaygn mid.
der ovntfoygl oyfn boym
vos zingt zayn ovntlid.

odem iz avek far tog
in vildn vald aleyn.
odem zogt: “der vald iz vild
und yeder ‘vild’ isz sheyn.”

nor zi hot moyre farn vald.
zi tsit tsum eplboym.
un kumt zi nisht zu ihm zu geyn,
kumt er tsu ir in troym.

er roysht un beygt zikh iber ir.
zi hert dos vort “bashert.”
farges vos “er” er groyser “der,”
vos er hot dir farvert.

un khave rayst an epl op
un filt zikh modne gring,
zi krayzt farlibt arum dem boym,
vi a groyser shmeterling.

un “er,” vos hot dem boym farvert,
er zogt aleyn, “s’iz sheyn,”
un halt zikh nokh oyf a rege oyf
dos groyse zunfargeyn.

dos iz der kholem yede nakht,
to vos zshe iz di vor?
un khave filt vi s’trert der boym
arop in ire hor.

“Veyn nisht, sheyner eplboym,
du royshst un zingst in mir
un du bist shtarker funem vort,
vos vornt mikh far dir,”

un khave nemt dem eplboym
mit beyde hent arum,
un iber der kroyn fun eplboym
tsitern di shtern frum…

The new handout helped me to put off for a moment the more theoretical and political questions, to focus in a less hindered way on the poem being discussed, to be in a better-faith relationship with students. Sufficient justifications, surely. But they are not the only ones, because it is not only students whom my earlier practices put me in a bad-faith relation with, but also translators. Leonard Wolf is shoyn oyf yener velt, and cannot be hurt by anything said of him in a class of mine or of anyone else’s, but I keep imagining him watching over a session in which I am pointing out, again and again, that his translation misrepresents the original, gives a false image of it: in “evensong,” in replacing exact rhymes with slant rhymes, in blurring the distinction between dream and truth, in neutering the apple tree, in eliminating farlibt (“in love”) from his account of Eve circling that tree. These things, and others like them, I have to point out to give my students a richly precise sense of Manger’s poem.

But Wolf was a conscientious and distinguished translator, and surely had reasons for his choices. Hence my sense, in classes where I have had occasion to correct his translations - or translations done by others, e.g., Marcia Falk’s translations of Malke Heifetz Tussman or Cynthia Ozick’s of Anna Margolin - that the absent translators deserve better than “they must have done it for the rhyme” or whatever other weak, conjectural explanations I have improvised when such matters come up, knowing that I am not doing the translator anything like justice.

I should say something about sound, because a legitimate argument against literal translations is that they are faithful to words, to sentences, to the order of information, even to lines but never faithful, intendedly never faithful, to patterns of sound: meter, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration. Wolf’s translation of Khave is more faithful than mine in this regard; it retains Manger’s ballad-meter and to some extent its rhyme scheme, while mine does not.

The difficulty, though, that Wolf’s translation is also unfaithful in these matters. Manger’s rhymes are exact; Wolf’s are sometimes exact and sometimes not. Manger holds close to the ballad meter; Wolf varies it, lopping off a syllable here and there.

Fine with me, and I have done the same sometimes in translating Manger. But what Wolf is providing for the student is not only information but also misinformation. A student might see Manger as translated by Wolf as working with the rules of rhyme we see in some song lyrics, where “tree” and “dreams” are regarded as rhyming because they share a vowel sound. The student would be in error. Or a student might note the ways in which the rhyme patterns lead us to compare and contrast pairs of words: “sets” and “death,” “wood” and “good,” “fair” and “more.” None of these pairs is Manger’s, however, he having chosen to associate “red” and “death,” “alone” and “beautiful,” “beautiful” and “sunset.”

What I am substituting for Wolf’s translation in these respects is first the transliteration, and second the sound of my voice reading the Yiddish poem. In an ideal world, that would be enough; the student would listen to me and look at the transliteration and hear, as my poet colleagues can hear, the sound patterns of the original poem. In the world we live in, they often do not hear those patterns, not the first time round at any rate and maybe never. Wolf’s translation stays visible on the page, it can be studied; my reading is gone when it is over, even if to some extent the transliteration keeps it present. But the information provided by my reading and the transliteration is, if not easy to grasp, still correct. The student may not hear fully, but will not be led to hear falsely.

I can imagine refutations of my arguments and ingenious alternative practices. A teacher might provide non-literal translations of his or her own, thus getting rid of the bad-faith relations with absent translators. A teacher might argue that it is always better to raise questions about translation than not to, given how often such questions are ignored. Good luck to such innovators! I myself simply find that my earlier practices led to bad-faith relationships with students and translators, and a necessary but misleading evasion of some fundamental questions about translation. My current practices, whatever critiques might be made of them, solve these problems. The students are being given a translation that retains lexicon, syntax, order of information, lineation. The only translator is the room is me, and if the students want to denounce me, they at least have to do it to my face, and the conversation remains dialogic. The strict, almost obsessive literalism of the translation, the fact that its only goal is to give the Yiddishless reader some access to the Yiddish poem, keeps the large theoretical questions at bay. No translators are being dishonored, no students misled, no questions uneasily avoided.

MLA STYLE
Rosenwald, Lawrence. “On the Pedagogic Uses of Literal Translation.” In geveb, November 2019: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/on-the-pedagogic-uses-of-literal-translation.
CHICAGO STYLE
Rosenwald, Lawrence. “On the Pedagogic Uses of Literal Translation.” In geveb (November 2019): Accessed Nov 11, 2019.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lawrence Rosenwald

Lawrence Rosenwald is the Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of English at Wellesley College, where he is also the Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Program.