Pedagogy

The Yudika Variations: Translating b’Chevrusa

Faith Jones and Annie Sommer Kaufman

Early in 2020 we were paired as mentor and mentee in the Yiddish Book Center’s translation fellowship: Faith as an alumna of the program, and Annie as a current fellow. This was always going to be a long-distance mentorship, as we live in Vancouver and Chicago respectively. We had our first meeting in March, just as both our countries entered COVID restrictions.

Early in the process we decided to create a small translation exercise for ourselves, translating and re-translating the same text into different formats. Faith chose a poem by Yudika, the Canadian proletariat poet. Yudika (1898-1988) was born in Lithuania and lived in Germany and Russia before coming to Toronto in 1929. She began writing as a teenager, later publishing in Yiddish-language newspapers and anthologies, and her own chapbooks. After arriving in Canada, she was the single mother of one son and worked in menial labor, but continued to write prolifically through the 1960s. She published three books in Canada. The poem we chose to work from is a brief meditation on the individual in the world:

Why this poem? Looking for a text for this exercise, we knew it had to be short, yet have enough images and ideas that could be expressed in a number of different ways. Annie has avoided working with poetry, so the selection provided a good growth opportunity for her and offered many formal quandaries to grapple with. She has found poetry’s vagueness off-putting, but these exercises reframed the vagueness as an opening. We also wanted something with no existing English translation, so there would be no way to be influenced by another translator’s work.


I.

The first thing we did was prepare “literals.” This is a method Faith learned from Irena Klepfisz twenty years ago at YIVO: you try to capture the meaning and structure as closely as possible (ignoring artistry at first). Annie learned this practice from her Talmud teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe, who calls it “inside translation” and uses it to make sure we know the structure of the text before creating its meaning. Of course, literally “literal” translations are impossible: every translation is a reading, and even every reading is a reading. But in the practice of translation, making sure you understand what the text means is a central first step. And if you skip this step, it’s surprising how far you can go down the road of translation before realizing you’ve got it all wrong… so this step has a place, especially when working with poetry.

We met to discuss our literals/insides. They were not the same. We fought over what the poem meant. Here is Faith’s literal, with some notes from Annie:

This gives you a sense of how things were going at this point. We spent an entire meeting trying to parse these meanings.


II.

A few weeks later, we met again with our “literary” translations. They looked like this:


Annie’s translation

My steps are small for the size of the land,
As small as a day in eternity’s turn
Only, my day gets held back by each step,
With worlds of joy,
With worlds of pain.
There’s such a restlessness in golden dusk,
There’s such a softness in rigid mood.
With your own lighted gloom,
With darkened light over yourself.
There’s a will to set out over the land,
Like a shimmering dew.


Faith’s translation

Compared to the world, my steps are small
As a day is small in eternity’s turn
Yet each step holds a day--a world
Hiding joy, hiding sorrow
A golden evening, brusque
Tension so tender
Sadness--bright,
Light--shadowed
A shimmer that falls on the world, like dew.

Yeah, we did not agree on this poem at all. We both used “eternity’s turn” to mimic the original’s eybikayts-kayt—the chain of eternity, which happens to provide an internal rhyme. The fact that we separately latched onto the same device made it seem sort of fated and also a bit gimmicky. Annie’s translation emphasizes forces beyond the self (“there’s a will”) while Faith cuts back the verbiage to its bare bones. These are basically two different poems.


III.

Our experience with the meanings and forms of our English literary interpretations inspired each of us to go in a new translating direction. Annie liked the elegance of her English and was curious to see how much more elegant it would be in Russian. Her Russian has atrophied since she abandoned it a dozen years ago to spend more time with Yiddish, so this was a sweet reunion and а reality check that if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Маленькие Мои Шаги
Маленькие мои шаги, для размера мира,
Как день маленький для цепи вечности
Только, в каждом шаге сдерживался мой день
С мирами счастья
С мирами боля.
Такое беспокойствие есть в золотых сумерках,
Такое мягкость есть в твёрдом настроении.
С светлой грустю в себе,
С тёмным светом над собой.
Хочется пойти по миру
Как серебристая роса.


Faith wondered if the allusion and imagery of Yudika would work as a pop song. Googling “top 50 pop songs of all time,” she found a few that seemed like they could provide a frame that would hold the text. Her results are below.


“Side By Side”

By Yudika, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman

The world is so big
But my steps are very small
The day’s small, eternity holds us in its thrall
Each step hiding a world inside
Pain and sorrow live side by --
Golden evening yet restlessness still is there
Anxious and lonely but holding a heart of care
Sadness lightly--bright darkness too
The earth is drenched with dew
And it wants to disperse across the world
Side by side
The world is so big--my steps are small
Side by side

Putting words to “Time After Time” was fun and came surprisingly easily. Imagining Yudika singing in Cyndi Lauper’s melancholy croon to a synth backing track was also fairly satisfying. Yet it seemed like it leaned pretty heavily on the desolate side of this poem: the hopeful ending didn’t stick. And so...


“It’s All Together”

By Yudika and the Turtles

The world is very big and wide -- I hide
My steps inside it very small, and that’s not all
A day compared to history you can’t recall
But it’s all together
Inside a step I take events befall
A day is hidden, dawn to dusk, the minutes crawl
They turn inside eternity and in its thrall
And it’s all together
Days are happy and they are so full of pain--and such is life
Light and darkness, sunshine is clouded with rain--and such is life
The world is gorgeous but you want to bawl
And when it’s peaceful still you know there’ll be a squall
Just like a dew so silvery, it wants to fall
That it’s all together
Days are happy and they are so full of pain--and such is life
Light and darkness, sunshine is clouded with rain--and such is life
And it’s all together…. In all kinds of weather…

“Happy Together” turned out to be complex to work with. It uses a surfeit of rhymes and has complex rhythmic elements that need to be adhered to rigidly or they lose their muscle. With Yudika’s words, the boppy tune is paired with some introspection and brooding. The result is pretty strange but, thinking about it, so is “Happy Together.”


IV.

Admiring Annie’s courage in attempting a Russian text, Faith realized she probably knew enough Spanish to make it happen. Translation is all about taking risks, right?


Son pequeños mis pasos

Son pequeños mis pasos comparados con el mundo
Pequeños como un solo día en el paso de la eternidad
Pero en cada paso está mi día oculto
Con mundos felices, con mundos penosos
Hay inquietud en la tarde dorada
Hay suavidad en el mal humor
Con tristeza luminosa en un misme
Con luz oscura en un misme
Quiere caer sobre el mundo qual rocío plateado


This is nice, but not a risky translation. The only unusual feature is its use of a new, non-gendered form of “oneself” (un misme). We both noticed that our translations into our less-fluent languages are much more closely literal, and we were hesitant to stray from the closest words or meanings for fear of fucking it up. We did get pleasure in finding the cognates, Russian “роса” and Spanish “rocío”, for the word “dew” (itself a cognate with the Yiddish “toy”).

Annie loved Faith’s songs and wanted to get in on that game. She let her reading of the poem’s meaning lead her to the similarly themed “These Boots Are Made for Walkin,” by Nancy Sinatra. (Apparently neither of us are up on contemporary music.) The results:


I Should Be A-Steppin’

By Yudika, Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra

I got two feet, but the wide world ain’t noticed.
Just like forever don’t notice the clock tick.
But when I’m walkin, I could go on all day long.
I got worlds that make you smile, and make you sick.
I should be a-steppin, all across the land
I should be a-steppin, but I can’t hardly stand.
I get restless when the sun gets to settin’.
My mood is hard, but all in all I’m just soft
Light or darkness, I can’t tell which to let in.
Spread me like dew, I know I’d pull it off.
I should be a-steppin’, all across the land
I should be a-steppin’, but I can’t hardly stand.


Nancy Sinatra’s country-inflected, no-nonsense anthem gave Yudika a different complexion: she seemed more brassy and down-to-earth.


V.

When we decided to create comics from the poem we knew we’d need to distill it right down to its essence: you may have noticed that comics have very, very few words. It turns out Annie can draw, so she created an original four-panel comic to capture Yudika’s unique combination of weltschmerz and optimism. Faith, let’s put it this way, can’t draw—she used a comic strip blank that you can find on teachers’ websites. Since she couldn’t move the images around at all, this provided an additional formal constraint.

VI.

By this time we had spent almost four months with these ten lines, and it was time to be finished. The poem had offered us a fun project during COVID lockdown, and we were grateful to Yudika for providing rich fodder to re-make her words in so many forms.

For Annie, as a novice translator, this journey helped widen her conception of what translation can mean. She expected translation training to refine her technical skills in the service of accuracy, not launch her imagination to create something new. As exercises and experiments, the Yudika variations granted permission and encouragement to flex some talents and skills that she generally neglects, and added some risk and vibrancy to the book project, and to quarantine. She was able to see several genres included in the one novel—pastoral romance, underworld intrigue, agitational speech, courtroom drama—and then to accentuate each of those styles. She’s hopeful she will bring this adventurousness and patience to her own teaching and create more formats for more artistic interpretation of Talmud texts, which can become music, plays, sculptures, weavings, etc.

For Faith, who is also still developing her translation practice, the joy in playing with words and meanings brought relief to COVID despair. After a long writer’s block, Faith finds herself again writing essays and blog posts (like this one!), with a lighter touch and more enjoyment than in a long time. Returning to her own book project, it seems less daunting to edit words already on the page, an often-paralyzing moment in her translation process.

In some ways, we’ve taken this poem from its most verbose to its least—paring it down from all its specific images and thoughts to a concise summation of its ambience or feeling. Taking this to its logical extreme, we asked, if this poem were a corporate slogan, what would it be? The answers:

Annie: I’m small. Or is it you?

Faith: Everything, and its opposite.

MLA STYLE
Jones, Faith, and Annie Sommer Kaufman. “The Yudika Variations: Translating b'Chevrusa.” In geveb, March 2021: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/the-yudika-variations.
CHICAGO STYLE
Jones, Faith, and Annie Sommer Kaufman. “The Yudika Variations: Translating b'Chevrusa.” In geveb (March 2021): Accessed Sep 28, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Faith Jones

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

Annie Sommer Kaufman

Annie Sommer Kaufman is a Chicago-based teacher and translator.