The Arty Semite

A Maccabee Among Translators

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Wikimedia Commons

The great poet Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) also produced translations that helped re-energize Modern Hebrew. Bialik’s renditions of Friedrich Schiller’s 1804 drama “Wilhelm Tell” and Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” are examples, as detailed in “The Russian Jewish Diaspora and European Culture, 1917-1937.”

Yet Bialik’s “Quixote” was unfaithful to the original, according to an essay by Marianna Prigozhina. Working from an abridged Russian translation of Cervantes’ masterpiece — he could not read Spanish — Bialik cut the novel by over one-half, removing dozens of chapters. Still, he deeply admired the original. In a letter to a friend, Bialik stated: “I read this humorous masterpiece [“Don Quixote”] in Russian when I first came to Odessa as a teenage yeshiva boy, trying to become a poet. I was living in poverty in Odessa, and the book had enthralled me… Dostoyevsky made me weep and Cervantes made me laugh. I alternated between laughing and crying.”

Even so, as Prigozhina explains, the laughter is left out of Bialik’s abridgment, whose highly serious protagonist is a “man of the book.” By presenting a self-portrait of Quixote as a tragic hero, Bialik presented what Prigozhina calls an “exquisite judaization of a foreign classic.” In it, the servant Sancho Panza vows to obey his master “as well as he observes Shabbat.” Panza further swears by “Elohim” and worries about getting tossed in jail until the “return of Elijah (Eliyahu),” all expressions not in Cervantes. No less idealistic and redolent of Yiddishkeit was Bialik’s translation of Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell,” as an essay by Anat Feinberg in “The Russian Jewish Diaspora and European Culture” reminds us. In a memoir, Bialik’s widow Mania recalled that he translated Schiller’s Swiss nationalist play in Odessa during the Russian civil war, and one night Bialik paused in his labors and suddenly cried: “I want to go to Eretz Israel!”

The critic Ya‘akov Fichmann observed that Bialik’s version of Schiller, which adds allusions to the blinding of Samson and the siege of Jericho, imitates biblical syntax so closely that the “Orient triumphed over the Occident.” Yet Schiller’s call for freedom resonated with Jewish readers who saw Wilhelm Tell and his cohorts as folkloric versions of the Maccabees. In a 1909 letter Bialik, a sort of Maccabee among translators, termed a good translation an “artistic act more complicated than an act of composition…a good translator has to be first of all a complete artist.” This Bialik certainly was.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: translations, Don Quixote, Chaim Bialik, Cervantes

Find us on Facebook!
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach!
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.