Oct 19, 2022
As a final project in a course on “Reading Yiddish” at Yale University, Giovanna Truong took on the challenge of translating Aaron Meisel’s “The Death of Ted Dennis.” Her translation can be found here.
During the fall of my sophomore year at Yale University, In geveb sent out a call for translations of Yiddish texts depicting racist violence for their special issue on race and racism in America. I was curious: how did Yiddish-speaking Jews in the early twentieth century respond to such events as lynchings, especially as many were recent immigrants? History, I believe, is best taught through primary sources — so for my final project in my Reading Yiddish class, which was the very first Yiddish language class I ever took, I was inspired to take up this call.
I asked my lerer Josh Price where to look. He directed me to the bibliography of Amerike in der yidisher literatur [America in Yiddish Literature] by Yitshak Elhanan Rontsh in a chapter entitled “Der neger in undzer literatur” [The Negro in our literature]. While my reading level constrained me to barely skimming the chapter, I combed the citations for stories with titles that might indicate racist violence. Aaron Meisel’s short story “Der toyt fun Ted Denis” [The death of Ted Dennis], along with another, longer story, seemed to fit the bill. I sent the two texts to Reb Josh, and he reviewed them. He suggested I stick to the shorter Meisel text — though it was more gruesome — because I would be able to translate the entire story in time for my final project. (The story can be found in Meisel’s Geklibene Dertseylungen.)
“Der toyt fun Ted Denis” opens with the protagonist Ted Dennis’s arrest in Georgia at the age of 17. After some background, Meisel sets the scene in a fairground where Ted, a recently unemployed Black youth, taunts white people until they throw balls at him. A man in a checkered suit approaches Ted and seizes him, taking him to a police station. The police interrogate Ted, showing him a picture of an elderly white woman and pressing him to confess to her rape before beating him. Meisel then moves to Dennis’s trial, where he emphasizes the quiet, hateful atmosphere. Justice is not served — Dennis’s attorney barely defends him; Ted’s signed confession misrepresents his age (18 rather than 17); and the judge sends him to hang for a crime he didn’t commit. Horrifyingly but unsurprisingly, a mob breaks Ted out of his jail cell and drives him to a forest in order to lynch him. Ted escapes briefly and is able to hide in some bushes, but the lynch party releases hunting dogs to capture him. The young Ted Dennis is hanged and burned. The final paragraphs describe the vast “executioner-fields” — the Southern forests — and a factory (presumably where Ted used to work) hissing with violence.
Any translation involves mapping one vocabulary, one sense of meaning, onto another. With a literary work on racism, however, the pool of available words is well-delineated. My challenge with this piece was mapping American English terms relating to racism onto Yiddish, and vice versa. Reb Josh helped with this early in the course, discussing the use of the word neger in Uriel Weinreich’s classic textbook College Yiddish and providing us with resources pertaining to describing racialization in Yiddish translation — racial slurs being an arena where language is particularly important.
With this historical vocabulary about race in mind, my first step was divining what Meisel meant by his Yiddish — that is, his characters were presumably “speaking English” which was “translated” into Yiddish for his audience. Some words Meisel made easy: the n-word is transliterated into Yiddish and placed in quotes (Fig. 1). So are grocery, lady, police, bastard, sir, church, Jesus, and lynch party. These words all seemed not to have parallels in Yiddish, or Meisel wanted to be explicit about the feeling that he evoked as having connotations resonant with their English vocabularies. He heightens the “Southern” ambiance with these transliterations. But more than that, he demonstrates the power of the racial slur he uses, a word that is so specific to this setting that it has no translation.
I chose not to mark these words as having been in transliterated English, mainly because English was the natural language of the setting anyway. The flow of the dialogue and narration, I decided, was worth the loss of a little bit of information about Meisel’s process. Still, for the translator, it is interesting that these words did not have exact parallels in Yiddish; as much Der toyt fun Ted Denis is a Yiddish story, it is at its core an American
Throughout this essay, I use the term “American” to mean United States American, as the histories of racism throughout the Americas have varied greatly by region.
Other terms were not as straightforward to match as the transliterated ones. The mob refers to Dennis multiple times as a hintishn zun. I first translated hintish as “evil, nasty, loathsome,” but my instructor pointed out that the word also has overtones of “dog-like” (with hint meaning dog). With zun meaning son, I constructed a common phrase in English: hintishn zun I translated as son of a bitch. This phrase flowed better in English, but the translation lost a bit of the original meaning. I settled for a more oblique reference to a dog — “bitch” has become such a commonplace slur in English that its canine association has become somewhat obscure.
One of the themes of racism in this piece, however, hinges precisely on that animal reference. Throughout the story, Meisel refers to Dennis in animal terms: first he “lifted his ears like a hare,” then was “like a mouse in a cat-corner.” As Ted was beaten in the police station, Meisel describes him with the “eyes of a tortured foal” making an “animal moan.” When he is kidnapped, he paws “like a cat” at the noose around his neck, and while he hides, he is “a crawling beast … ready to compete with hunting hounds in a pelt-tearing.” Thus, Meisel reduces Dennis to animal instincts and feelings. One might argue Meisel is illustrating the way violence triggers compulsions to survive, though Meisel goes further: he characterizes Dennis as having an “inherited Negro-thought” about the danger of white racism — a kind of genetic, animal instinct rather than a rational thought. Working in tandem with this message of biological inheritance are Meisel’s frequent images of Dennis’s white eyes and teeth, descriptions that accentuate racial difference and align with minstrel caricature. Finally, in emphasizing Dennis’s wide-eyed surprise at and inability to “grasp” his situation, Meisel portrays Dennis as child-like or animal-like not only in body but also in intellect. This language seems especially abrasive in the context of dehumanization of nonwhite people in the United States and affirms racist assertions of white supremacy and Black inferiority, even in a text that describes the travails of an innocent Black man confronting white supremacist violence.
As a translator, I wanted to represent Meisel’s position accurately by staying true to the figurative language he used, even though I was uncomfortable with his descriptive choices. Meisel’s wording is important to our understanding of the context of his era, showing that he, as a Jewish writer concerned with racist violence, also used regressive language and propagated racist beliefs. I can speculate that he used such animal imagery to draw in audiences who otherwise would not have read the piece, or perhaps he actually viewed Black people in this light, but I cannot erase his words from the narrative.
Even with his animalization of Dennis, however, Meisel does not shy away from confronting the mob’s hypocrisy. While he writes animal features into Dennis, lessening his humanity while pulling at pity, he shows his disgust for the mob with harsher animal descriptions. They are a swarm of “insects,” grabbing with “hands — paws” and releasing a “whinny coming from all sides.” Hunting for Ted in the forest, they “sniffed all around pits and bushes,” and, unable to find him, they “whispered to each other like wolves licking themselves over.” Finally, with a sense of irony, Meisel writes that the lynch mob’s “eyes sparkled savagely.”
Whether or not Meisel employs these descriptions with an eye toward the violence done by language, the literary effect is poignant. The metaphors and similes migrated to English quite well — perhaps both languages lend themselves to unraveling the animalistic in human nature. Or perhaps the racism typically expressed in both languages has led to a shared vocabulary of racist representations.
With “Der toyt fun Ted Denis,” Meisel, an immigrant, portrays a deeply American issue through his fresh eyes. The Yiddish language embodies this viewpoint, sometimes encoding the racist comparisons in its diction and other times borrowing outright from the English-language culture and vocabulary it observes. In translating the story and comparing the results — a Yiddish and English version of the same text — I garnered much more information than the mere progression of the story. I found that Yiddish, applied to American racism, has the capacity to express both universal ideas — humans acting like animals, for example — and specific, context-rich, untranslatable concepts — such as the n-word. I also felt as a translator that Yiddish perspectives on American racist violence bear Yiddish histories — embedded in this language is, for example, the senseless destruction from the pogroms of Europe, even when the language is directed at observing white supremacist violence from within an American framework.
Translation can be a way for a culture to scrutinize itself, and the job of a translator is not only to make words legible to speakers of a different language but also to learn from the interaction between the languages and to mediate that interaction. In this instance, Meisel shines a light on American racist violence, delivering it to Yiddish speakers with appropriate literary horror while indicating its specificity to the American story through his diction. As a translator, I had to grapple with the vocabulary of racist violence, which I found to be best exemplified in English. Indeed, Meisel’s ugly caricatures, as well as his unmasking of the white lynch mob, demonstrate that Yiddish can convey American racism. But in the end, a total picture of racist violence in the U.S. must come back to the language of its inception: English. My translation, I hope, is a return to that origin that will allow American English speakers to reflect — from a Yiddish vantage point — on the racist violence that has persisted in our country.