Archive for the Poetry Category

A Translator Remains Faithful

Posted in Art and Culture, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry, translation with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2012 by Louise Steinman

As a tribute to my dear colleague Michael Henry Heim, I post an article I wrote about him for the Los Angeles Times, which appeared 10 years ago to the day of his passing on Sept 30, 2012. Michael was a world-renowned translator, a passionate advocate for literature, an inspired teacher, and a generous friend (he and his wonderful wife Priscilla always brought bags of compost from their garden and gave them to me and Lloyd at our annual Institute for Humanities spring parties.) My deepest condolences to his family. He will be deeply missed. Below, also a link to a video of Michael speaking in 4 languages!

September 30, 2001|LOUISE STEINMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Imagine a world without the benefit of translation–the Bible is available only in Greek, Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” only in Spanish. You could read Dante’s “Inferno” if you knew Italian, or Kafka’s “The Trial” with a sure command of German.

Today, if you wanted to read a recent novel by an Afghan writer, and you didn’t happen to know either Pashto or Dari, the main languages of Afghanistan, itwould be a world without translation. There aren’t any contemporary Afghan novels in our public libraries or bookstores; none listed on Amazon. None have been translated into English, says S. Wally Ahmadi, editor of Critique and Vision, a journal of Afghan culture and history. Nor will any be translated soon, he says.

“All of a sudden we want to know about Afghanistan, and we know precious little. We haven’t prepared enough translators,” says Michael Henry Heim, one of the nation’s most respected literary translators. “It could take 10 years to train proper translators for Pashto and Dari.” Heim fears the quick fix. “The government will send people to language schools. They’ll start with first-year Arabic. We’ll have instant scholars and instant experts. But this is reaction rather than the constant steady flow of knowledge.”

Chairman of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA, Heim remembers another time when events in the news piqued the country’s interest in knowing more about foreign cultures. “It was Aug. 21, 1968, and the Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia. Suddenly, everyone was interested in Czech literature.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the national curiosity about Slavic languages waned. “As soon as a country goes out of the news, the interest flags,” he says. “Russia is no longer the Evil Empire, just a future Third World country. There are fewer students studying Russian because there are less fellowships available, fewer jobs. The State Department is not as interested in hiring Russian translators.” Heim says with a sigh, “It just seems to me that in a country of 250 million, we’re rich enough to afford to study all these cultures.”

Heim, 58, has been a translator for 30 years. As an undergraduate, he studied at Columbia University with the great translator Gregory Rabassa, acclaimed for his translation of Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Heim obtained his PhD in Slavic languages from Harvard. Among his many notable translations are Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” from the Czech, Vassily Aksyonov’s “In Search of Melancholy Baby” from the Russian; Danilo Kis’ “Encyclopedia of the Dead,” from the Serb; and Gnter Grass’ Nobel Prize-winning novel, “My Century,” from the German.

Heim is fluent in six languages (Czech, French, German, Italian, Russian and Serbo/Croatian), with a reading knowledge of six more. Asked about his very first job, he lights up with pleasure at the recollection: “I began with Chekhov’s letters. I was the most lucky young translator!”

Though Heim has agreed to an interview, he’s skeptical that many will find the subject of translation to be of much interest. “I’m pessimistic about the general mood,” he admits. “As a friend of mine says, there are 3,000 people in any country who are interested in reading ‘good’ books, by which he means difficult books. No matter what size the country, you have the same 3,000. And since my friend is Dutch, the 3,000 people in his country are proportionally a much larger group than ours, but it’s still 3,000 people.”

Heim may be a skeptical host, but he’s a gracious one. He pours coffee and serves up a plate of dark red Romanian tomatoes to his guest, then settles his lanky frame into a chair. Butterflies dart through the luscious tangle of the flower and vegetable garden behind the comfortable Westwood home he shares with his wife, Priscilla, for many years a teacher of high school Latin and Greek.

Most mornings when he’s not teaching, Heim can be found in front of his laptop in his home office, deep in concentration. Within easy reach on the cluttered shelves above his desk are the tools of the translator’s trade, among them a four-volume Russian dictionary compiled in the 1930s (“many consider it still unsurpassed,” he comments), the Oxford Russian-English Dictionary, the Random House Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms, Webster’s Third, the Oxford Concise, the Longman Dictionary of English Idioms and Rodale’s Synonym Finder.

In all probability, you’ll find translated literary works on the bookshelves of many Americans. The Bible is a ubiquitous example. Yet there is little public awareness or understanding of the demanding art of translation. Translation is an art form that takes place “behind the scenes” of the literary life.

In his 1998 polemic, “The Scandals of Translation,” Lawrence Venuti, professor of English at Temple University, lays it out: “Translation is stigmatized as a form of authorship, discouraged by copyright law, deprecated by the academy, exploited by publishers and corporations, governments and religious organizations.”

It’s not uncommon for a book critic, in reviewing a book, to neglect to mention that the book is a translation, a fact that once prompted novelist Joyce Carol Oates to complain in a letter to the New York Times: “Those who imagine that foreign-language works are transposed into English by a mysterious chemical process, without the efforts of gifted translators, are kin to those who imagine that film actors speak their own lines, without the benefit of screenwriters.”

The traditional view holds that the translator should be “invisible,” merely a conduit for the work. “There’s a new ideological ‘take’ on that nowadays,” Heim comments. “The postmodern stance is that the translator creates a new work. That’s where I disagree. I believe that the translator is a creator, but I’m not so sure that I’d want to create a new work. I would like to create, as much as possible, the same work.”

Is creating the same work even an option? Heim smiles patiently. “‘As much as possible’ is what I said.” As one might expect from a man whose job is to find the right phrase, Heim chooses his words with care. “It’s possible enough so that a good translation will allow a person who has read the work in the original and a person who has read the work in translation to have an intelligent conversation about it. I think that’s the most that we can hope for.

“The reader must believe he or she is reading a work in French or Japanese and yet be reading it in English. That’s the real paradox. It’s a scam, if you like. A feat of legerdemain. But I think it can be done.”

There are those who argue that there are too many differences among cultures for a translation to ever be “true.” Say “bread” ” to one person, and she’ll conjure up a package of plastic-wrapped white bread. Say “bread” to another and she’ll imagine a crusty baguette. The oft-used pun about translation is tradduttore, traditore, literally, “the translator is a traitor.” The translator is unfaithful.

In a 1985 essay titled “Taking Fidelity Philosophically,” Barbara Johnson suggests a more apt metaphor: “The translator ought … to be considered not as a duteous spouse but as a faithful bigamist, with loyalties split between a native language and a foreign tongue.”

What attracts Heim to a particular work is an author’s interesting use of language. “I don’t think I’d translate an incendiary piece that goes against my beliefs, no matter how beautiful the language was. However, I have translated authors with whom I haven’t agreed 100%.” Milan Kundera comes to mind. “Kundera’s language is very pristine, and that’s what attracted me to it. I was also attracted by his ideas, even though I didn’t agree with all of them. And yet Kundera introduced a number of ways of looking at things that were completely new to his audience at the time.”

Heim is diplomatic when discussing Kundera, a writer notorious for stormy relationships with his translators. In an oft-cited essay published in the journal Lingua Franca (October 1999), Caleb Crain chronicles Kundera’s decade-and-a-half crusade against “unfaithful translations.” Some in the literary world have characterized the novelist’s crusade (which has included public condemnation of his translators, including Heim) as an obsession.

In his own defense, Kundera has replied, “An undue obsession? I can’t say. My books lived their lives as translations. As translations they were read, criticized, judged, accepted or rejected. I was unable not to care about translation.”

Gunter Grass provides a quite different example of the kind of relationship an author can have with his translator. For his most recent work, “My Century,” Grass brought together 15 of his translators from all over the world for a seminar in his publisher’s offices in Gottingen, Germany, spending 15 hours a day for three days with them. “Grass told us what he had in mind. He asked us what we had in mind. He asked us our advice, as the novel wasn’t finished when we began work translating it.”

Heim recalls a long debate between the Danish translator and Grass about the East Berlin workers’ uprising in 1953. “In the end,” Heim chuckles, “Grass won the argument.”

For the last five years, Heim has been translating the diaries of Kornei Chukovski from the Russian. “Chukovski was a children’s book writer, a critic and a translator–which puts the fear of God into me. He translated Mark Twain, among others.”

Chukovski knew most of the great writers of his time–Isaac Babel, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak–and his diaries, which run from 1901 to 1969, “are a wonderful testimony to his own attempt to remain honest throughout the period, a period that almost required dishonesty,” says Heim. His long labor nearly done (Yale University Press will publish the diaries in 2002), Heim must soon decide what to take on next. “It’s a real problem. You don’t want to take on the wrong project, because you’re with it for so long.” He pauses a beat. “It makes me anxious.” As if to amplify his sentiment, the phone rings in Heim’s office. It’s the American publisher of an Eastern European novel, eager to know if his book is next on Heim’s agenda. Heim explains that he can’t commit yet and soothes the caller with suggestions of other possible translators.

Heim worries that American readers are afraid of tackling literature in translation. “An editor once told me that he resented the assumption on the part of foreign writers who don’t get translated that Americans are not interested in what goes on outside their borders. He said, ‘Americans are as interested as any other people, but they just don’t trust those damn foreigners to tell them about it.’ So they’re more likely to read James Clavell about Japan, but they won’t read Kenzaburo Oe, who’s a Nobel Prize-winning author.”

Fear of the unfamiliar, and mistrust of the translator, are factors in those choices, Heim says, and he regards teachers and librarians as crucial allies in the struggle to break down barriers. “Teachers because they can show you while you’re still learning–that these barriers don’t need to exist. Librarians–and booksellers–because they can help you at the time when you’re choosing the book.”

Every two years Heim teaches a workshop at UCLA in literary translation. “Out of each workshop has come one or two professional translators,” he says with justifiable pride. He considers it scandalous that American universities (including UCLA) require only one year of a foreign language. “We need people to study languages for our own sophistication as a country, for our own broad-mindedness, for our own awareness of what language per se is. Not for practical purposes–English is the world language. Americans who go abroad will not need to order coffee in Urdu.”

He notes that America is less hungry for works from other cultures than are other countries. English language works are by far the most translated literature into every other foreign language.

By comparison, little foreign literature is translated into English. Increasingly in this country, the publishing of literature in translation falls to academic presses. Among the few major American publishing houses still committed to publishing literature in translation is Farrar Straus & Giroux. When reached for comment in New York, gutsy co-founder Roger Straus said, “You can’t call yourself a proper publisher unless you publish world literature!”

“While it’s true that that Anglo American literature is extremely vibrant,” says Heim, “it doesn’t mean that nothing else of interest is being written. We ignore what else is being written at our own peril. To our detriment. We’re missing a lot.”
http://www.international.ucla.edu/videos/article.asp?parentid=121775

My English Teacher: Lorraine Schulmeister (1918-2012), In Memoriam

Posted in Art and Culture, Life and What about It, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2012 by Louise Steinman

(This piece is part of an ongoing series of writers’ profiles of influential teachers published July 10, 2012 in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

An autumn afternoon on the sunny Great Lawn at Westlake School for Girls. Lorraine Schulmeister, my English teacher, and I read aloud from Emily Dickinson: “I dared not meet the Daffodils, / For fear their Yellow Gown / Would pierce me with a fashion / So foreign to my own.” We read aloud from Blake: “If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the / spread of my own body, or any part of it.” It’s 1967. I’m in the tenth grade, my first year as a scholarship student at this exclusive school tucked into Beverly Glen canyon north of Sunset Blvd. It sounds idyllic — it was.

I picture her pacing in front of the blackboard: high Nordic cheekbones flushed, excited hands mid-gesture. Like the poet Theodore Roethke, her own mentor, she had mastered the art of appearing to see the work for the first time. She introduced us to the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, Ted Berrigan, Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, to the possibilities of writer-as-activist. It was a stance with immediate resonance as the Vietnam War raged abroad and protests raged at home.

After school, I’d trade pastel shirtwaist uniform for torn blue jeans and sandals and hike down to the Resistance office in Westwood Village to pick up leaflets to hand out at draft boards. My high school boyfriend, almost 18, refused to register. Instead, he chained himself to the altar of a church in Watts. U.S. Marshals obligingly hauled him away to court, from there to federal prison.
Lorraine taught at Marlborough School (our cross-town rival) before teaching at Westlake, but resigned when the administration there questioned her “Americanism.” There’d been complaints from parents: when she taught Whitman, she actually spoke about “sex” in the classroom.

In her eloquent resignation letter, dated February 29, 1964, she wrote: “I have presented American Literature as a great and living force, as a body of work that is loving and critical at one and the same time. Like Frost, most writers have had a ’lover’s quarrel with the world.’ Literature is most of all concerned with life; sex is an important part of life. I presented Walt Whitman as I have always presented him: as poet of the body as of the soul; as the great revolutionary and innovator that he was.”

She was born Lorraine Breckheimer in 1918, in Mankato, Minnesota. It was the year the Great War ended, as she noted in The Making of a Teacher or The Last of the School Ma’ams, her astute self-published chapbook. Mankato was a small town “far from the currents of the world.” No movie theaters. No television. A quiet, peaceful life—walks, berry-picking, window-shopping, band concerts, school plays, church. A trip to the library was an adventure. “No one we knew had had a divorce. Only teachers traveled to far off places.”

In the crash of 1929, her family fell “from the middle class to no class.” Her father’s farm implement business failed, he lost everything. The family moved to a dairy farm in northern Minnesota classified as “suitable only for subsistence living.” Living in this rural isolation, from age 11 to 17, Lorraine turned inward, books were her companions.

She received a full scholarship to Carleton College, but had no money for room and board. Disappointed, she opted for a state teachers college closer to home. An advisor discouraged her from seeking a PhD to teach at the college level. He told her she’d just be asked to teach remedial courses, not literature. “I recognize the truth of Karl Marx’s economic interpretation of history,” she wrote. “Economics has ruled my life.”

Her career included a stint teaching elementary school in a rural two-room school, where she was successful, for the most part, in awakening her students to the importance of reading and the pleasure of literary study. “Only one parent objected to my reading list. The offensive book was Steinbeck’s Cannery Row”. During World War II she served as a WAC at an air base in Ogden, Utah, and, courtesy of the GI Bill, studied American Literature at the University of Washington with Theodore Roethke.

Lorraine and I re-discovered each other in 2001 and remained fast friends until she died this past spring, at age 94. At least twice a year, I’d drive up to San Luis Obispo from L.A. We’d go out for dinner, a glass or two of good wine. She always brought a list of things to discuss; wanting to make good use of our precious time together.

Her home for the last decades was a small studio apartment in an assisted living facility. A painful and economically disastrous divorce (she kept his surname, Schulmeister, which described her chosen profession) in her early fifties severed her from her teaching career. She’d wanted but had no children, though a number of former students stayed in close touch. We were, she said, “the daughters she never had.” She worried about outliving her modest savings, and she almost did.

We stayed in touch by writing letters. Envelopes in Lorraine’s clear cursive arrived at least twice a month, and I wrote back almost as often. We sent each other books. Who else would gift me Henri Troyat’s massive biography of Tolstoy for my birthday? (As good as she said it was, all 800 pages.) She insisted I read President Obama’s memoir; she admired him, worried about him. She loved Hazel Rowley’s bio of Sartre and De Beauvoir and marveled at Yiyun Li’s short stories. Her responses to Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, Susan Jacoby’s An Age of Unreason, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (she read it twice) fill pages handwritten front and back. She re-read the classics — Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Her unequivocal vote for greatest American novel was Moby Dick (she loved it more after each of her eight readings).

Of all the books I sent, her favorite was Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars. She considered his skillful narrative of those advocating for peace amidst the carnage of World War I to be one of the most significant history books ever written.

I wrote to her about my own writing life, my own struggles and joys. She reminded me of my great good fortune to live in a creative community, to meet great writers, to travel, to observe. She adored my husband.

Among the many books I treasured receiving from Lorraine was Robert D. Richardson’s study of Emerson and the creative process (First We Read, Then We Write). Last year I made a pilgrimage to Concord, Mass to swam in Walden Pond, place pencils on Thoreau’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and visit Emerson’s home. I sent Lorraine a postcard– an image of Emerson’s study– featuring the round oak table where the master read and wrote every day. Emerson’s belief that creative reading was essential to creative writing was one that Lorraine instilled in all her students. She concurred with Emerson’s dictum, “While you are reading, you are the book’s book.”

Reading kept her mind young even as her body failed her. Historian Tony Judt’s final book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, thrilled her and she zeroed in on his chapter about American nationalism. “In a global world,” she wrote me, “we are so provincial. Witness our current politics. We are anti-intellectual as a people. More so than others.”

This she found as true in 2012 as when she had resigned from Marlborough nearly fifty years earlier. She ended her resignation letter with a ringing admonition:

“Everyone should read President Kennedy’s speech at Harvard, dedicated to Robert Frost, published in the February issue of The Atlantic Monthly called ‘Power and Poetry.’ He expresses better than I the challenge America faces: Can we have poetry and power? Athens did for a brief moment in history. It seems unfair that I should have been asked to remain at home so that a student could attend class without contamination from an accused teacher; why should the teacher be more expendable than the student? I do not at this point know the real charge against me, but I do recognize the forces that are greater than myself. I represent poetry; they represent power.”

On the day Lorraine died, one of her former students, Judy Munzig, was able to spend several hours sitting at her bedside stroking her hand, telling her how much we all loved her. Lorraine’s eyes were closed, but she could still hear.

Judy wrote afterwards: “Her reading glasses were on her nightstand on top of a paperback of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell with a bookmark from Chaucer’s Bookstore. A young man who works at the hospice said that Lorraine had been reading passages aloud to him and when he told her he didn’t understand it, she would explain it to him. ‘Now I’ll have to read it myself,’ he said.”

END

Woke Into Heron

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Family History, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry with tags , , , on May 19, 2012 by Louise Steinman


(heron dream drawing by Beth Thielen, c. 2012)

Matilija poppies are blooming along the L.A. River… bright yellow and white, like fried eggs. I’m grateful to have an hour to ride my bike in what’s left of the morning overcast, to let my thoughts whir with my wheels while I inhale the unique salvia-sewage tang of the river. I think about Terry Tempest Williams, naturalist and poet, whom I had the honor of interviewing recently at ALOUD.

The title of her new book, WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS, came to Terry in a dream.

There’s a great blue heron on my left, and another. A pair of cormorants, a crow chasing an avocet, stalking egrets, a swallow alighting on a fence railing. The Seventh Day Adventists are strolling adjacent Frogtown, briefcases in hand. A father in a white shirt and tie speaks tenderly to his son. Last night on my way home from downtown, I peered into the open door of the Pentecostal church on Glendale Blvd, where white-scarved women were clapping tambourines and praising the Lord to the beat of an bass guitar. Birds are singers of life, not of death, as naturalist Loren Eisley reminds us, as Terry reminds us “that the world is meant to be celebrated.

Terry Tempest Williams inherited her mother’s journals after her mother died. Or rather, her mother bequeathed those journals to her, after extracting a promise that she wouldn’t open them until after she was gone. Terry’s mother left too soon, even younger than my mother, who left too soon. Cancer claimed both our beautiful mothers.

Terry opened the first journal on the shelf and to her astonishment, found that it was blank. As was the next and the next and the next. What was her mother’s intention in leaving her daughter these empty pages? Terry’s stunning and unclassifiable book is an inquiry into the power of absence. It is the creation story of her own sensibility as an artist, naturalist, activist. It is a dialectic between silence and voice. (The subtitle is: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice). It is about censure and erasure and about daring to speak up.

Birds wing through many pages of the book, through Terry’s family life. Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds was the first book Terry took to bed at night. It was her grandmother Mimi who helped her learn the songs of birds. Redtail hawks circled high above my first wedding on the Oregon coast, on a cliff above Cape Foulweather in 1971. Some of the guests wondered at the lack of an officiant, but my Russian grandmother Rebecca, wrapped in a pink blanket, nodded sagely and said, “I understand, the ocean is marrying you.”

Blue heron stalks the shallows of the river, waiting, watching. Was the heron once a woman? Could I join the mockingbird outside my window in song? Might I someday wake into heron like the girl in this Swampy Cree poem?

Woke Into Heron

She was tall, you could see her
in the distance before anyone.

Once, in late summer,
she stood so long at the edge
of the swamp
we thought she was ready
to leave with the herons.

You could see her standing
Very still.

The day the herons left
she stayed. The next day she woke as a girl
all right, but she began being a HERON!
She took long steps, slowly, as if she was
walking in water, hunting in water.
This is true, and she did this
making heron noises.

AND had thin sticks
tied out from her feet
to make heron tracks.

This went away
the next morning. Everyone
was happy she would no longer
go sleep in the water reeds.

This was the first time we saw someone
do this, so we named her
not to forget it.

(from, “Woke Into Heron” published in The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians, gathered and translated by Howard A. Norman, Stonehill Publishing, 1976)

Heron Dream Drawing by Beth Thielen, c.2012

blue heron in flight, LA River, May 2012
photo: L. Steinman

After Pina (for Wim Wenders)

Posted in Art and Culture, Dance, Poetry with tags , , , , on January 21, 2012 by Louise Steinman

Balancing branches
on his shoulders,
a man stacking
chairs, three
stories high.
Slide on water, swim
for your life.
Leap for joy, generosity.
Sacrifice.
Why this
yearning?

I wanted
to give her
lightness.
I forgot I was shy.
My fragility
was my strength.
She told me to dance
for love.

He wears demon ears,
sits in the last seat.
She stomps
the pillow.
They thrust hips,
buttocks bulge
through shiny dresses.
Little dog nips his nimble
tapping heels.

Ah to be old.
Ah to be young.
Words can only
evoke. That’s where
dance
comes in
again. At the edge
of
a cliff.
Very carefully, two floors
up…from the icy
windowsill,
the Traveler enters.

Dance, dance, or
else we are lost.

Under the flyway
on top of the glacier
restrained by a rope
showered
with dirt.
Where
does this yearning
come from?

O woman in the red
billowy dress,
dance for me.

Dance, dance,
or else we
are lost.

In the forest,
at the bottom
of the lake
in the mine shaft
hundreds of feet
below
the ground.
Tap chest
three times, nod
your head.
Give in
to gravity,
resist
hold back. Unwrap
embrace
spring up
again.

Dance, dance,
or else
we are lost.

January 14, 2012
-Louise Steinman

Yizkor Bucher (The Glatstein Chronicles)

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Literature, Poetry, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2011 by Louise Steinman

[published in the Los Angeles Review of Books]

27th Jun 2011

Louise Steinman

Spring in Gościeradzu by Leon Wyczółkowski

Jacob Glatstein
The Glatstein Chronicles
Translated by Maier Deshell and Norbert Guterman
Edited by Ruth R. Wisse
Yale University Press, November 2010. 432 pp.

On my trip to Poland this past winter, I brought the perfect book as my traveling companion. The Glatstein Chronicles was written in 1934, after the author, celebrated American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, was summoned home from New York to his dying mother’s bedside in Lublin, Poland. Recently retranslated, edited, and published in English by Yale University Press, the poet’s travel narrative is both first-rate reportage and a fever dream of Europe on the brink of disaster.

Glatstein (named “Yash” as the book’s narrator) travels back to the Old Country by trans-Atlantic steamer. “The ship seemed to be carrying me back to my childhood,” he writes, “as though we were sailing back in time.” His is a half-forgotten, mythical childhood, where, “in the center of the synagogue, the fearful shadow of a hanging lamp swayed back and forth, like a body dangling from a rope.” These sometimes ominous, sometimes joyous memories are both interruption and counterpoint to Yash’s encounters with an international cast of characters as he crosses the ocean and travels across Europe by train.

As I picked at bland fare on the Lufthansa flight from Los Angeles to Munich, I savored Glatstein’s Eastern European culinary metaphors: a man “chooses his words as if he were sorting chickpeas, and rejecting the inferior ones,” a head is propped on a man’s neck “like a cabbage,” and a pair of eyes are “cloudy like herring milt.”

One of the ship’s passengers lauds Yash for being such a great listener. “You have golden ears,” he says. “Your ears are worth a million dollars.” I resolved to follow his example. The pale young man with spiky dark hair next to me had asked me to wake him up when dinner was served. After nudging him awake at dinnertime, I listened to his tale and learned he was traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria, to the bedside of his sick mother. A journey of return. I was returning as well — if it’s possible to return to a place where one has never lived. I was returning to the little town of Radomsko, Poland, where my grandparents were born. After six visits, I’m practically an honorary citizen of this homely but heimish town in the hinterlands between Częstochowa and Łódź.

On the second or third morning of his ocean crossing, Yash learns of alarming news from the ship’s paper. Hitler has purged his paramilitary force and murdered its leader, Ernst Röhm, along with at least 60 of his associates. It is the Night of Long Knives. Yash’s buoyant mood is shattered. He goes in search of fellow Jews, certain they will understand what Hitler’s grab for power bodes for their brethren.

The first passenger he buttonholes “stops in his tracks like a stunned rooster.” It’s not the news, however, that alarms him: “‘How did you know I was Jewish?’ he asked, as if some misfortune had befallen him.” The stunned rooster then admits that he is indeed Jewish, but “not one of those common Polish Jews. I’m Dutch.” Yash also embarrasses the single Jew among four stalwart young Bolsheviks traveling home to the workers’ motherland, by blurting out the compliment “Yevreyskaya golova, a Jewish head!” As the others smile in discomfort, his new comrade apologizes for Yash’s use of an expression “that was a relic from tsarist days.”

Why have we never heard of Jacob Glatstein, a modernist whose prose is as mordantly humorous as Philip Roth, as eerie as Kafka, as weighty as Bellow? The answer is obvious: Glatstein wrote in Yiddish, and as Ruth Wisse, the editor of this volume, reminds us, “to a writer, language is fate.” Though he published more than six hundred essays in the New York socialist-Zionist weekly Yiddisher Kempfer and won the most prestigious prize for Yiddish literature (for this very work), the fate of Glatstein’s oeuvre was inextricably bound to the dire fate of the speakers of his language.

Over the last several years of research for my own book about Poland’s Jewish past (and present), I’ve been increasingly impressed by the profound consequences of that severed link to the vital language of Glatstein’s poetry and prose, to the language in which my grandparents conversed, joked, and read. I grew up knowing nothing about the Polish town my mother’s family came from, imagining it as some kind of Dogpatch. Before my first trip there, I Googled its name and came up with a 600-page memory book, the Radomsk Yizkor. I was astonished.

The memorial books (yizkor bukher) were all written in the wake of the Shoah, and few of them were translated from the original Yiddish and Hebrew. This is one of the main reasons why descendants of Polish Jews — who, like me, aren’t versed in those languages — have been cut off from our ancestral past, our Polish-Jewish cultural patrimony. Translations from Yiddish to English now make it possible to reconnect with a lost history, both personal and literary. The Radomsk Yizkor offered tantalizing fragments of stories, which I have been fleshing out by using archival research and interviewing Jewish survivors and Polish rescuers.

Now I can at least imagine a prewar evening at the famous meeting hall of the Warsaw Literary Union at Tłomackie 13, where, on any given afternoon, I might have seen the aesthete Yosef Heftman eating marinated herring, the essayist J.M. Neuman drinking tea with challah, or the poet Y. Segalowitch sitting in a corner with a “literary supplement” (as the young women who attached themselves to the writers were called).

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LISTEN to Jacob Glatstein reading his poem, “Goodnight, World” (thank you Kostek Gebert for pointing me here…)

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