Aliza Shevrin on Playing Sholom Alecheim’s Prose Music

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Sholom Aleichem may not be an name you recognize, but chances are you’re familiar with an adaptation of his work: Fiddler on the Roof is based on the novel Tevye the Dairyman, which has just been republished in a new Penguin Classics edition that also includes the novel Motl the Cantor’s Son. Both works have been newly translated from the Yiddish by Aliza Shevrin, who also did a new translation of Wandering Stars—restoring passages that had been cut from the previous English-language version from the 1950s as well as Aleichem’s original ending. With the 150th anniversary of Sholom Aleichem’s birth fast approaching, I wanted to learn more from Shevrin about what had drawn her to this author and his fiction.

I am a performer of Sholom Aleichem. A musician has a score to read and perform from. An actor has a script to read and perform from. In both cases that performer interprets the script or score according to his or her artistic knowledge, background and the precedents of other artists. But he must always follow the original words or notes as written.

And so it is with me. I have Sholom Aleichem’s words, my knowledge of the Yiddish language, one or two former translations, a lifetime of Yiddishkayt and Jewish idioms and history. I slowly, word by word, painstakingly plow through the books and hope to come up with what sounds as if it were written in English but is clearly the work of the author writing in Yiddish.

My husband, also a native Yiddish speaker and himself a poet and novelist, is my in-house editor. My Yiddish is better than his and his English is better than mine. I do the first draft: looking up words in dictionaries, checking with other books and Yiddish speakers, etc. We then go over what I have done, sentence for sentence, to make sure I haven’t missed a nuance or have misinterpreted a word. We do this several times as I put in corrections on the computer where I have done the first translation head-on. Then he reads each chapter aloud, while I scan the Yiddish to make sure it sounds the way I want it to. This is how the final book evolves.

I must say it gives me great creative pleasure. I am a frustrated actress and this provides me with a bit of narcissistic gratification as well as the hope that readers will learn more of Sholom Aleichem’s writings and the times he writes about.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York in a Yiddish-speaking family. Not unlike Latino families today, my family were recent immigrants to America, as were all my relatives and neighbors. In addition to public schools, I attended after-school secular Jewish schools taught in Yiddish till the age of 15. (Actually, I didn’t speak English until I went to kindergarten.)

I first translated several short stories and a novel of Isaac Bashevis Singer in the late 1960s which were published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I decided to go back to school (I went to Cornell before marrying and having a family) while living in Kansas and received a master’s degree in Social Work. I had jobs in that field for ten years while in Ann Arbor where I now reside.

We used to have—and still have—in Ann Arbor a Yiddish Club where members read something aloud at monthly meetings. For my turn one month, I read a Sholom Aleichem short story for children. I was amazed and moved by the reaction. We laughed, we cried, we sighed. This triggered off the intense desire to translate and try to publish a volume of short stories, preferably around the Jewish holidays. That book, A Treasury of Sholom Aleichem Children’s Stories, is still in print and has sold over 18,000 copies. More novels and volumes of stories followed published by various trade and university presses and Wandering Stars, Tevye the Dairyman, and Motl the Cantor’s Son are my ninth, tenth and eleventh published translations.

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5 February 2009 | in translation |