INTERNATIONAL TRANSLATION DAY featured interview with Rachel Mines, translator of ‘The Rivals and Other Stories’

Cover for The Rivals and Other Stories by Jonah Rosenfeld, translated by Rachel Mines

Today in honor of International Translation Day the Syracuse University Press would like to introduce you to ‘The Rivals and Other Stories’ translator Rachel Mines, a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow and recently retired teacher in the English Department at Langara College in Vancouver, Canada.

SUP: ‘The Rivals and Other Stories’ has been called “a hidden treasure of modern Yiddish literature” what can you tell us about the author Jonah Rosenfeld?

RM: Jonah Rosenfeld was a prolific and popular writer in his time, but because he wrote exclusively in Yiddish and was hardly ever translated, he has virtually vanished from the American literary canon. Rosenfeld deserves to be put back on the map because so many of his stories are relevant today – and not only for Jewish readers.

Rosenfeld was born in 1881 into a poor family in Chartorysk, Volhynia, in the Russian Empire. His first years were tragic. When he was 13 years old, his parents died and his brothers sent him to Odessa to learn a trade. He was apprenticed to a lathe operator. According to his autobiography, he was abused and his teenage years were miserable.

Perhaps seeking an outlet for his feelings, Rosenfeld began writing in his early 20s. He published his first story in 1904 and his first collection of short stories appeared five years later. In 1921, Rosenfeld emigrated to New York City, where he became a major literary contributor to the leading Yiddish newspaper, the Forverts. He was known as a psychological writer, an author who dove deep into his characters’ psyches to explore their subconscious feelings and urges.

 SUP: This work has been called an original contribution to the art of Yiddish short fiction in English translation.What drew you to the field of translating Yiddish works?

RM: I was raised by Yiddish-speaking parents, but I wasn’t much interested in the language or literature until about 15 years ago, when I met my mother’s cousin, who had survived the Holocaust and was living in Latvia. I got inspired to return to Yiddish so I could speak with Bella in her own language. Eventually I decided I wanted to take my studies further. As a literature teacher, I came to realize that Yiddish literature in translation could be taught in the classroom – even to students like my own, who weren’t necessarily Jewish. So translating seemed like the next logical step.

I also wanted to contribute to scholarship in general. Yiddish literature (and other texts in Yiddish) are not accessible to the great majority of scholars and researchers. Therefore, we can’t even start to address topics such as the place of Jonah Rosenfeld – to take just one example – in the American literary canon. Many fields of Yiddish writing are still waiting to be explored, but the works need to be translated first.

SUP: The Yiddish Book Center has uncovered over a million books originally written in Yiddish. Can you tell our readers what drew you to Jonah Rosenfeld’s short fiction?

RM: Some years ago, I was looking online for short stories I could read to practice my Yiddish. I found two of Jonah Rosenfeld’s stories on the Mendele website (https://sites.google.com/site/mendeledervaylik/library). I was so impressed that I decided to translate them, just for fun and to practice my Yiddish. Later on, I found that the English translations had already been published in Howe and Greenberg’s A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, but by then I was hooked on both Rosenfeld and Yiddish translation.

So what exactly impressed me about Rosenfeld’s stories? I’d have to say, first and foremost, it’s his psychological insights. He’s not entirely alone in that: other authors of his time were psychologically astute and wrote compelling character studies. But Rosenfeld went a bit beyond, in that his stories are like Greek tragedies. His protagonists fail in their quests for love, belonging, and security, not because of external forces, but because of internal, self-defeating habits of thought that they may not be consciously aware of. Rosenfeld isn’t the only author to use this psychological approach in fiction, but he does so consistently and, to my mind, very believably.

SUP: How are Jonah Rosenfeld’s stories different from the idealized portraits of shtetl life written by Rosenfeld’s peers at the time?

RM: First, I’d like to say that not all of Rosenfeld’s peers were writing idealized portraits of shtetl life, although some were – perhaps as a nostalgic response to emigration to the US and other countries. Naturally people missed the communities and traditions they’d left behind and wrote sentimental stories, plays, and songs about them. Also, there is a tendency among those of us who never experienced pre-Holocaust Jewish culture to sentimentalize our ancestors’ way of life – “Fiddler on the Roof” is an obvious example. However, as more and more Yiddish literature is being translated and published nowadays, we can see that many authors, like Rosenfeld, present a more nuanced and challenging perspective on prewar Jewish life.

Having said that, I do think most of Rosenfeld’s stories are different from many of those his contemporaries wrote.

First, Rosenfeld’s stories typically focus on an individual who does not have the support of family, friends, community, or traditions and is often at odds – even in open conflict – with them. His characters are typically those who are socially marginalized, such as women, children, older people, immigrants, and others who are alienated and impoverished: financially, socially, and spiritually. They are solitary individuals who struggle, almost always unsuccessfully, to build bridges between themselves and the hostile, rapidly changing world around them.

In our time of social and physical isolation, fragmenting communities, and rapid social change, Rosenfeld’s stories have a particular resonance.

SUP: Jonah Rosenfeld was a major literary figure of his time. Why do you feel his stories about loneliness, social anxiety, and longing for meaningful relationships are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in the 1920’s?

RM: What’s not relevant about loneliness, social anxiety and the longing for satisfying relationships – not to mention male-female relationships, generational conflict, immigration, culture clash, child and spousal abuse, abortion, suicide, and prejudice? These are obviously deeply meaningful human issues that, 100 years after Rosenfeld’s stories were written, we grapple with today. We are struggling with the concept of impending, frightening change even more than ever.

Rosenfeld’s psychological insights are also relevant today. The author was an intuitive psychologist, and many of his stories stand up well to current theories of human thought and behavior. For example, the protagonist of “The Rivals” is a classic malignant narcissist. It’s interesting to note that the story was first published in 1909, several years before Otto Rank’s and Sigmund Freud’s theories of narcissism came out. So despite his characters living in a social, historical, and political milieu that’s different from ours in many regards, their actions and reactions are deeply human and understandable to the modern reader.

 SUP: You selected 19 stories for this book. What make these stories important?

RM: We’ve already talked about Rosenfeld’s themes of social alienation and his psychological insights. To take a somewhat different perspective on the importance of his work, I want to focus on readers.

I’ve taught both business and academic writing, and I know one of the most important things for a writer to consider is the reader. Even before I started putting together the collection, I wondered who its readers would be. Because I’ve been teaching undergraduate literature courses for many years, I decided I wanted the stories to be read by students, and not necessarily just Jewish students. So I chose stories that I thought would work well in the classroom: stories that would be of interest to students and instructors and that would be teachable in terms of their themes, characters, symbols, imagery, and so on.

Eventually, after gathering my courage a bit, I taught a number of the stories in the collection to my students at Langara College. None, or almost none, are Jewish. Many are immigrants or international students from South and Central America, India, China, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. A number of students are themselves struggling with the issues that Rosenfeld’s stories address.

Students LOVED the stories! They commented on Rosenfeld’s understanding of women, marveled that these 100-year-old stories were so relevant to their lives, wanted to know more about Yiddish and Jewish culture, and wondered where they could find similar stories. Some students confided to me that Rosenfeld’s stories had helped them understand their own family dynamics better. Occasionally I found it difficult to cover the points I wanted to make in class because the students were so eager to discuss the stories that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise!

SUP: What makes this book a must-read for fans of Yiddish literature and Jewish culture?

RM: Let me sum up: First, Jonah Rosenfeld’s stories address many concerns that are deeply relevant to us today. Second, his psychological insight into his characters make the stories quirky, interesting, and relatable. Third, for those teachers among us, the stories are fun to teach, meaningful to students, and lend themselves to assignments that are hard to plagiarize.

SUP: Of course, in this collection we’re not reading Jonah Rosenfeld’s original words, which were Yiddish, but your translation of them. What was the most challenging thing about translating these stories?

RM: All translators struggle with various elements of language: vocabulary, register (formal versus informal), idioms, word order, and so on. When translating Rosenfeld, I was also dealing with ideas relating to Jewish culture and religion. “Shabbes,” for instance, obviously means Saturday, but the connotations run much deeper in a Jewish religious or cultural context. So how to translate the word? That’s just one small example. Another problem I ran into repeatedly has do with simple matters of daily life that were very different 100 years ago than today. For example, in one story, a character drives his wife to the doctor’s office “in his own car.” Most people didn’t have their own cars at that time, so “own” implies a certain degree of wealth and social status. But times have changed, and now the phrase looks a bit strange.

And then there’s that paragraph in “Francisco” in which the main character does a quick repair job on a samovar. Not being intimately familiar with samovars (let alone broken ones), I had to figure out what was going on in that passage, which required hours of research – thank you, Google! – before I could even begin to translate it.

SUP: If you could turn back time and sit down for a cup of coffee with Jonah Rosenfeld, what’s the first question you would ask him?

RM: Mr. Rosenfeld, how do you fix a samovar?

No seriously … I think it’d be, “What were your literary influences?” What fiction did Rosenfeld read? As an author who wrote about the subconscious, was he familiar with Freud? To what degree did his own life and experiences influence his dark view of human nature?

I should add here that, at least according to what I’ve read, Rosenfeld’s contemporaries did not see him as a dark, gloomy person. They described him as melancholy at times (who isn’t?), but also as humorous, friendly, and good-natured.

SUP: Which is your favorite story in the book and why?

RM: I like all the stories, but one that stands out for me is “Here’s the Story.” Here the author takes a different approach. The main character is a stand-in for Rosenfeld himself – a writer of Yiddish stories on a reading tour in some non-specified eastern European shtetl. There he’s introduced to a “shegetz,” a gentile who is fluent in Yiddish, loves Yiddish literature, and becomes Rosenfeld’s rival in a love interest. In this rare departure, a comedy (though not without its darker elements), the author explores Jewish-Christian relationships, class relationships within the shtetl community, and attitudes towards Yiddish language and literature. It’s a peek into shtetl life – a prewar Jewish society many of us never imagined.

SUP: Your dedication to the preservation of Jewish history is evident with the publication of this book. You’ve also created the website  https://shtetlshkud.com/ dedicated to a once-vibrant and thriving Jewish community in Lithuania . Can you tell us more about this site?

RM: Feel free to click on the link and take a quick tour! But here’s some background. My father, a Holocaust survivor, was born and raised in Skuodas, Lithuania. He rarely talked about his youth or family there. Over 25 years after his death, my brother and I first visited Skuodas, after which I’ve been back several times and have made – and continue to make – friends and connections among the citizens. Many of have them shared their stories of the prewar Jewish community. Assembling all of the information I could possibly find, I attempted, on this website, to “recreate” the prewar Jewish community as a memorial and also as a place for other Skuodas descendants to find out about their ancestral town and families.

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