To mark the 100th anniversary this year of Isaac Bashevis Singer's birth, the Library of America recently published all his English short stories in three volumes. Isn't it incongruous for a Yiddish writer to be admitted to the American canon, alongside Poe, Twain and Emerson?
The nationality of an author's work is defined by a combination of his life, his writings and his audience. Singer was a Yiddish writer in Poland who had already published a novel and translated All Quiet on the Western Front and The Magic Mountain to Yiddish when he came to the United States, in 1935. Here he wrote stories and journalism for Yiddish periodicals, most frequently for Forverts, until his second novel, The Family Moskat, was translated in 1950.
His first story in English, "Gimpel the Fool," appeared in Partisan Review in 1953, and others soon followed in magazines from Playboy to Commentary. During the last 35 years of his life, Singer, an American citizen, collaborated in translating his Yiddish writings into English. These final authorial revisions are the authoritative versions of the stories that now have been collected. The English versions of his stories as well as his life qualify Singer and his works as American. If his collected Yiddish stories are ever published by a Library of Poland or a Library of Ashkenazic Jewry, that honor also will be justified; but the English stories are American.
How did Singer become an important American writer? Nowadays, Americans aren't much interested in reading translated fiction, but during the 1950s Americans -- and not only Jews -- read Singer's stories about Jews from Poland and were impressed.
Why? Reviews from that time suggest that people enjoyed Singer's work both in spite of misunderstandings and because of them. An early reviewer of his novel, The Slave, wrote, "Mr. Singer's accounts of demons, werewolves, vampires, dibbuks ... are fine.... Nevertheless, the necessities of his allegory, its folk-story simplicity, insure that The Slave always seems a little unreal and very far away ... not the kind of fictional life that readers can easily share vicariously."
Looking for realism and finding extravagant magic, readers suspended their disbelief in demons by redefining Singer as either a naive primitive or a folklorist. What they thought was simplicity, naivete and exoticism was instead the strangeness of non-naturalistic devices. When Singer's worlds became more familiar, and "magical realism" appeared in the work of other writers, readers could recognize the demons as externalized desires and objectified possibilities.
Translation overcame much of the foreignness, but at the cost of suppressing the intellectual vitality of the original. Saul Bellow's glittering translation of "Gimpel the Fool" launched Singer's English career, but many passages in the work, as well as the title, suppressed its linguistic playfulness, allusions, biblical typology and much of the social satire. A Yiddish thesaurus offers a column and a half of near-synonyms for "fool," implying that a treasury of nuanced derogatory nicknames was as useful to the Jewish small town, the shtetl, as numerous words for snow are to Eskimos, and vocabulary for minute discriminations among camels is to Arabic.
From all possible fools, Singer chose, not the common Yiddish and German term, Narr, but the Hebrew Tawm, like the "simple son" at the Passover celebration who must be taught simply and directly about the holiday. More precisely, a Tawm can be credulous, literal-minded, a dupe, or a simpleton. Lacking guile, he is easy to gull.
The Hebrew word sends the Yiddish reader shuttling between various well-known biblical passages, about Noah, a righteous and "blameless" man for his time, and about young Jacob, called Tawm, "a mild man," the opposite of his outdoorsman brother, Esau, who "knew all about hunting." This allusive play is a characteristic pleasure of Yiddish literature that all translation of Singer flattens into merely referential English.
English Singer is, deliberately, "dumbed down." Thankfully, Bellow saved us from "Simple Gimpel." "Gimpel the Fool" presents a person, not saintly, who simply lacks the selfishness and free-floating malice that everyone else in the small town expresses through pranks, gossip and demeaning nicknames.
Translation of Singer also suppresses reference to his literary and cultural models, a combination of Jewish literatures --biblical and later Hebrew, and Yiddish that included both Hasidic storytelling and recent realists -- with the European literature that Yiddish readers read: Maupassant and Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Hugo, Jules Verne and Anatole France.