The Arty Semite

A Maccabee Among Translators

By Benjamin Ivry

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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.


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