Smuggled Words: Textual Migration and Subversive Assimilation in the Translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer

by Christine Gutman

Debates about the pharmakonic effect of translation on Yiddish inevitably invoke the self-translations of Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, which critics have framed in terms of censorship, rewriting, even de-Judaization.  In this article, I engage with existing scholarship in an attempt to define the relationship between Singer’s Yiddish and English texts as dialogical rather than dialectical.  Using Singer as a case study, I argue that viewing translation out of Yiddish through the prism of its hybridity and differentiating tendencies—known as lehavdl loshn—far from impeding translation, actually reflects and reifies the process of translation, which, like lehavdl loshn, places in proximity dissimilar but mutually contingent terms.  While this article is by no means an exhaustive survey of Singer’s translations, it does provide an entry point to the question of how a reevaluation of Singer’s translations, amidst the resurgence of Yiddish on college campuses and beyond, might eventually open the way for other Yiddish writers to be translated, so that Singer does not remain the definitive representative of a diverse and expansive literary tradition.

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