Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub are the translators of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel. They are the winners of a Translation Prize from the Yiddish Book Center, and they live in the Washington, D.C. area.
Q: How did you end up translating the stories of Blume Lempel, and what drew you to her writing?
Ellen Cassedy: Years ago, when my mother died, I decided to study Yiddish as a memorial to her. Early on, I told my Yiddish teacher I wanted to try my hand at translation. He went straight to his bookshelf and pulled out a volume by Blume Lempel.
Imagine the down-to-earth insights of a Grace Paley mixed with the surrealism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That’s Blume Lempel – an intoxicating blend.
|Yermiyahu Ahron Taub|
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub: Yiddish was a part of the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world in which I was raised. I studied it formally and have been engaged in Yiddish culture since the early 1990s.
Ellen and I met in a Yiddish reading group. We were absolutely astounded by Blume Lempel: a truly unique writer with a dazzling lyrical style, an unparalleled compassion for her characters, a startling diversity of settings, and a daring range of subjects.
Q: Why did Blume Lempel opt to write in Yiddish?
A: Blume Lempel (1907-1999) was born in a small town in Eastern Europe, immigrated to Paris, and then fled to New York just before World War II. Writing in Yiddish enabled her to express her connection to those who had perished in the Holocaust – as she put it, to “speak for those who could no longer speak.”
After World War II, the Yiddish readership declined around the world, and writing in Yiddish could feel isolating. But maybe that very isolation freed Lempel to pursue her own idiosyncratic vision.
Q: What would you say are some of the themes that run through her stories?
A: Women’s lives and women’s points of view are central. Lempel draws on her own life, but also imagines her way into lives far outside her experience. She takes up subjects that other writers considered taboo – abortion, rape, the erotic imaginings of a middle-aged woman, and, of course, in the title story, mother-son incest.
Q: As a writer and translator, what do you see as the skills required for each, and is there some overlap?
EC: A great question! My mother, a writer, always said that “writing begins with taking notice” – noticing what’s going on around you, what’s going on inside you, and of course paying close attention to language.
That’s true of translating too. I love Yiddish, but I find that what’s primary for me as a translator and as a writer is my love of the nooks and crannies of English.
YAT: As a writer, I inhabit the worlds of the characters I create. Sometimes that feels like I'm in control of their creation and destinies, and at other times, I feel more like a medium, or a vehicle for something that is more primary, more essential. But either way, I feel like I know their fates.
As a translator, certainty is more elusive. The goal is to render the words of someone else into a different language. Sometimes as a translator I wonder, "Is this really what the author meant? Have we truly captured the nuances, the true meaning?"
Q: What are you working on now?
EC: I’m translating the work of the Yiddish writer Yenta Mash, who grew up in Eastern Europe not far from Blume Lempel. I’m excited to have won a PEN/Heim translation grant – the first ever for a Yiddish book – to support the translation. I’m looking for a publisher now for this remarkable work.
YAT: A new collection of my poems is currently in the publication process. Six of the poems also have a Yiddish version, which raises all sorts of translation and design challenges.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: We hope readers will approach Oedipus in Brooklyn without preconceived expectations of what fiction should be. Open yourself up to the twists and turns, the possibilities!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Ellen Cassedy, please click here.