Reading in Translation

Close Encounters in the Capital of Yiddishland: Vilna My Vilna by Abraham Karpinowitz, translated from the Yiddish by Helen Mintz

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Reviewed by Ellen Cassedy

Prostitutes, thieves, racketeers, and gangsters populate the short stories of Abraham Karpinowitz. But as translator Helen Mintz points out, the main character in his work is the city itself. “Vilna” to the Jews, “Wilno” to the Poles, “Vilnius” to the Lithuanians, it was a polyglot city, the site of multiple “crossings” of cultural divides. The fifteen stories in Vilna My Vilna, selected from three Karpinowitz collections published in 1967, 1981, and 1993, preserve for posterity a place where people from different walks of life rubbed elbows. The book includes a foreword by Justin Cammy, an introduction by Mintz, illustrations, maps, a bibliography, and a supremely helpful glossary that contains not only terms but information about places, customs, and historical figures and events.

Karpinowitz (1913-2004) grew up in the city during its heyday as “the capital of Yiddishland.” (Today, it’s the capital of Lithuania.) As a hub of Jewish scholarship, politics, and cultural life, it boasted 60,000 speakers of Yiddish, the Germanic tongue written in Hebrew characters. Karpinowitz left the city in 1937 and spent the war years in the Soviet Union. By the time he returned seven years later, more than 90% of Vilna’s Jews had been murdered. The city was bereft of Jews – “Vilna without Vilna,” as he put it. He settled in Israel, which was not a friendly environment for a Yiddish writer. In the early years of the new nation, Yiddish was denigrated as a language of oppression and shame. Nonetheless, Karpinowitz and others, not only in Israel but around the globe, continued to write in the language that once resounded in alleys, kitchens, and meeting halls on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bringing prewar Vilna back to life on the page was Karpinowitz’s goal – his “sacred duty,” in Justin Cammy’s words (ix). His subject was not the scholars and rabbis who had made the city famous. Instead, he shined his light on the likes of Tevke the Tapeworm, Orke the Lucky Seven, Shmuel the Organ Grinder’s Twin, Tall Tamara, and Itzik the Hare. He brought to his task a finely tuned ear for slang, an eye for evocative detail, a talent for blending fact and fiction, and an abiding affection.

Karpinowitz’s style is one-of-a-kind. As Mintz writes, “Karpinowitz’s stories include extensive vocabulary and grammatical syntax that are not to be found in Yiddish dictionaries or texts on Yiddish grammar” (9). His colorful characters speak a language designed to elude and exclude – a challenge for Mintz and also, no doubt, for those who previously translated Karpinowitz into Hebrew, Polish, Russian, German, and Lithuanian. To deal with the difficulties posed by the text, Mintz travelled to Vilnius and plumbed the linguistic memories of elderly Yiddish-speakers. She also enrolled as a fellow in the translation program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

As all translators know, capturing the literal meaning of a word or a phrase is not even half the battle. Mintz had to make clear to her English-language readers that Karpinowitz was writing in a patois, a coded in-group language, and to render that code in a way that was naturally colloquial without being inappropriately trendy. No easy job. The saying “seykhl darf men zukhn in teler,” for example, literally means “wisdom must be sought on the plate.” Mintz renders it thus: “If you want to know what matters most, look at what’s sitting on the dinner plate” (60). These are not words you’re likely ever to hear anyone actually say, but they’re satisfying on the page. In another example, a fishwife named Ruzshke “hot gelernt bolek mit a yidene” – literally, “Ruzshke was teaching a harsh lesson to a Jewish woman.” Mintz’s translation: “Ruzshke was giving a housewife what for” (54). Today, no English-speaker would talk about “giving someone what for,” but here, by perfectly conveying the flavor of yesterday’s colloquial speech, it seems just right.

Especially piquant are Karpinowitz’s accounts of interactions between members of the intelligentsia – including actual historical figures – and denizens of the underworld. Tall Tamara, a prostitute with a strong sense of ethics, is a fervent reader of romantic novels and stories by the eminent I. L. Peretz. She seeks out audiences with librarians for suggestions as to what to read. And in 1941, she behaves with striking dignity at the killing field of Ponar. Berke, a small-time thief, credits his elementary school principal with teaching him the three R’s that enable him to survive: “If we, hooligans that we were, left the school knowing how to write a letter from prison or give an accounting to a fence, we had only our teacher Mr. Ayzikov to thank” (82).

In “The Folklorist,” a linguist named Rubinshteyn visits the fish market in search of curses and other earthy expressions. (Karpinowitz himself used to do the same thing.)  He finds plenty of material:

An umbrella should open in your stomach.

They should call a doctor for you in an emergency, and when he arrives, they should tell him he’s no longer needed. (67)

May they carry you and sing. (58)

Rubinshteyn takes a special shine to one of the fishwives, Chana-Merka. Will romance flower between the linguist and his research subject?  The two sit together in the park. Alas, Chana-Merka is disappointed. “Anyone else would have put an arm around her shoulder or tried something even naughtier. But Rubinshteyn was only worried about one thing: how to keep track of what she was saying so he didn’t forget even the tiniest word” (60).

As sketched by Karpinowitz, the underworld has its own sense of ethics and even its own rabbi. “Vladek,” a particularly pungent tale, takes place in the late 1930’s, when anti-Semitism was on the rise in the city. Berke (Jewish) and Vladek (not) pursue various illegal schemes together and wind up in prison. Then Vladek decides to go straight. How?  For the first time in his life, he manages to bring in a steady salary – by joining the toughs who get paid to warn customers not to shop at Jewish stores. Berke is crushed. “I’d recruited Vladek into the profession and made something of him,” he says. “And after all that, he went and joined the hooligans” (86). But that’s not the end of this complex tale. Vladek goes on to surprise his friend again by helping him escape from the ghetto, at great cost to himself. The twists and turns of the story confound the reader’s expectations, offering a deeply textured portrait of a world that is no more.

Karpinowitz, Abraham. Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz. Tr. Helen Mintz. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2016.

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