Jan/Feb 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Joachim Neugroschel

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Joachim Neugroschel is the winner of three PEN Translation Awards, and the 1994 French-American Translation Prize. He was born in Vienna, Austria, and grew up in New York City. After graduating from Columbia University with a degree in English and Comparative Literature, he moved to Paris and then Berlin. He returned to New York six years later where his career as a translator flourished. He has translated the works of great writers from the past Moliere, Maupasssant, Proust, Kaflka, Mann, and present day authors such as Tahar Ben Jelloun. His credits include 200 titles.  Joachim Neugroschel is well known for his translation of works of Yiddish literature.

Neugroschel's Yiddish titles include Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and the Occult, the Shtetl (Overlook Press, 1997), No Star Too Beautiful: Yiddish Stories from 1382 to the Present (Norton and Co., 2004), and The Shadows of Berlin (City Lights, 2005), a collection of stories by Dovid Bergelson, considered to be one of the best Soviet Yiddish writers of the 20th century.

Yiddish literature can be seen as a three-legged stool: hard, homey and supported by its three "grandfathers." There is the corrosive anticlerical satirist who called himself Mendele Mokher Sforim (Mendele the Book Seller); the self-invented, deceptively artless and universally beloved folk author Sholem Aleichem; and the Warsaw writer of Hasidic allegories I.L. Peretz. But there was once a fourth, or rather the promise of a fourth: Dovid Bergelson (1884-1952).
       ­The Nation

Yiddish literature the body of written works produced in the Yiddish language of Ashkenazic Jewry (central and eastern European Jews and their descendants).
       —Encyclopædia Britannica


EG       Did you grow up with Yiddish speakers?

JN       My father was a Yiddish poet well known in the Yiddish world. He didn't speak Yiddish at home because of my mother.

EG       Did your mother object?

JN       My mother understood Yiddish. She felt the Yiddish world in New York was too provincial. I did not grow up hearing it spoken.

EG       Where did you learn Yiddish?

JN       I taught Yiddish to myself in the 70's. I read a translation of Singer that was so terrible I felt duty bound to write a better one.

EG       Is there a Yiddish revival in the US today?

JN       I keep hearing this, but it is not true. Yiddish was doomed in both America and Europe. American Jews are very assimilated; in Europe most Yiddish speakers were killed.

Many Jews are drawn to Yiddish out of sentimental nostalgia, but most Jews know nothing about Jewish culture especially language. When you look at them and tell them there are thirty Jewish languages, about half of which are spoken today, their eyes glaze over.

EG       What are the languages? Do they all have written literature?

JN       Judaeo-Berber is one language. It is mainly a spoken language. Any writing is mostly done in Judaeo-Aramaic. You can look this up on the Internet.

EG       How did you become a translator?

JN       After I graduated from Columbia, I lived in Berlin. I translated two books into German, and when I returned to the states, I sent my resume to publishers. There was a good response that's continued to this day.

EG       What were those two books?

JN       Robert Murphy's A Diplomat Among Warriors and a book by Norberg Schultz about city planning and architecture.

EG       You translate a lot of eastern European literature.

JN       It's a wide open field, and I felt a duty to translate the works because I am a good translator. Most Yiddish translators are not very good.

EG       You translate books from French, German and Italian. How did you learn these languages?

JN       I mostly taught myself except for German, which is my native tongue. I had French in junior high school and studied it in college. I also translated several books from Russian.

EG       Can you define Yiddish Literature in other than the dictionary definition in the introduction to this interview?

JN       I really can't. It is too vast an undertaking to be easily defined. I can say this: the earliest Yiddish literature was documented in 1382. Yiddish writers from then until now have written about all facets of life. Syracuse University Press recently published a book by Chava Rosenfarb, a concentration camp survivor and contemporary Yiddish writer. In my anthology of Yiddish stories from 1382 until the present, I included one of her stories.

EG       What interested you about Bergelson?

JN       He is a very fine writer. He sounds like a fusion of a cantor and Virginia Woolfe. His writing is lyrical.

EG       When did he write The Shadows of Berlin?

JN       He didn't. He wrote each individual story, the idea of The Shadows of Berlin as a short story collection was mine.

EG       Did you choose these stories due to love of their language?

JN       No, the selection was based on marketing. It is much easier publishing stories with a "come hither" title.

EG       What do you know about Bergelson's background?

JN       He was from a middle class background, born in the Ukraine. He was an esoteric writer who no one understood, even the Yiddish critics. He toyed with writing in Russian. If he wrote in Russian he would not be on the top of things, more noticed. For this reason, he chose Yiddish.

EG       Berlin in the '20s was known as "Babylon on the Spree." Many Jews who fled pogroms in Russia came to the city. There were writers, artists, criminals, child prostitutes. The city was a haven for the alienated and persecuted until Hitler came into power. Why did Bergelson come to Berlin?

JN       He came to get away from the pogroms in the Ukraine.

EG       Please explain pogroms.

JN       A pogrom is a riot which is created by the government or to which the government turns a blind eye. What did you like about the The Shadows of Berlin?

EG       The interview table is turned—Ha! It gave me a real sense of the city and its inhabitants in that time between wars. There was grotesqueness, a garishness and sadness to the lives of the people and the emotions they felt as in the story "For 12,000 Bucks He Fasts Forty Days: Scenes of Berlin." Here are some excerpts from that story:

At the Crocodile, the huge restaurant near Oranienburger Tor, the walls were sweating. Under a large sealed glass, where you can take three steps to and three steps fro, a waxy, emaciated boy was pacing up and down—the boy who was the talk of every Berlin café and every Berlin home. His sallow cheeks were hollow, his eyes were the two dark holes of a mummy. Tens of thousands of visitors beleaguered the restaurant every day, lining up for hours in the downpour, wearing rubber raincoats, brandishing wet umbrellas, waiting to buy a ticket for a quarter U.S. dollar and be admitted so they could see with their own two eyes. And once admitted they would have a good look at the boy under glass, they would peer at the wax seals, they would read the names of the twelve guards keeping watch to guarantee that the seals weren't touched. And perhaps the visitors would have a stroke of luck and be there at the very moment when the boy felt sick and lost all his strength: he would suddenly slip down and breathe his last...

A few of the spectators deliberately go up to the sealed glass, with a fat piece of sausage in one hand and a chunk of tasty, bitten­off bread in the other hand: they chew with a lot more relish than they feel and they motion to the boy fasting inside the glass that eating is a very good thing.

A few highly intelligent people go over to the sealed enclosure with a cold glass of foaming black beer, and as they pour the last few drops into their mouths, their lip movements let the boy know that the beer is tasty and good; their eyes tell him, "Excellent beer."

EG       Did Bergelson have a religious background? How did he feel about being Jewish?

JN       I don't know.

EG       Who was his audience?

JN       He wrote stories for various magazines. Berlin was a strong Yiddish cultural center in the 20s. There were Yiddish newspapers and publishers. Most Yiddish speaking people didn't understand his writing. His audience was mainly Yiddish speaking intelligentsia in Ukraine and Berlin.

EG       What books did Bergelson write?

JN       He wrote several novels. One is On the Dnieper, an eight hundred page autobiographical novel few have read. His best novel is When All Is Said And Done.

EG       Did Bergelson have a political orientation? He witnessed the civil war, the fall of the Russian Empire, the blood bath in his native Ukraine, the rise of Hitler and the rise of Stalinism.

JN       He had a strong political orientation, very much for the Soviet Union. He returned there to his detriment when the Nazis came to power in Germany and was killed in Stalin's purge of Yiddish writers and artists.

EG       Surrealism emerged in the 1920s. In the introduction to The Shadows of Berlin a mention is made that "For 12,000 Bucks" was influenced by Franz Kafka's "The Hunger Artist," published in 1922. Did surrealism influence Bergelson's style?

JN       One had no choice. No matter how isolated a group, there is an interchange.

EG       What is your favorite story in The Shadows of Berlin?

JN       "Among Refugees."

EG       I also liked that story. For our readers, here is a bit of history about it:

His best Berlin Story "Among Refugees" (1923 ) describes a feckless schizoid Jewish terrorist tracking a pogrom chieftain. The young Jew, although defeatist, was probably suggested by Jewish assassins of pogromists. Indeed fact bore out fiction in 1926 when Sholem Shwartsbard a young Jew in Paris, assassinated Petluria, one of the worst butchers of the pogrom years. The Jew was declared innocent by the French court. —intro to The Shadows of Berlin

Excerpt from "Among Refugees":

Listen, for nearly three weeks now I've been living "with him" here in this city, in a squalid rooming house. I, in room number three. He, in room number five—our doors facing one another. I'm a stranger here. No one knows me. He doesn't know me either. But I know him very well. Sometimes we bump into one another in the corridor. At the entrance there's a worn red doormat- both of us wipe the dust off our boot. You understand—on the very same mat... And then: as he passes, he glances at me. I bolt into my room, and I can still feel his glare right here and here. (The young man quickly smacked both his cheeks.) My eyes dart in the mirror. I wonder what the pogromist saw in me. A sordid young Jew. Sometimes I don't shave for days on end. I gaze with tired blood shot eyes. I'm often pasty, like some-one who's been fasting and fasting. That's all, isn't it? What else can he possibly see in me?

EG       Do you read a whole work before translating? Do you translate the words literally?

JN       I never read a book before translating it. No reason to. I do not translate the words literally. Only a bad translator would translate literally.

EG       In order to not write a literal translation, don't you have to have a sense of an author and their work? How do you capture that uniqueness of an author and transfer it to another language?

JN       You don't have to have a sense of the author's work to translate. I read a page and get the style. It is a question of music and rhythm. It is like being an actor. An actor can take on different roles. A translator takes on different roles.

EG       Does anyone go over your translations before publication?

JN     Yes, often a copy editor. One copy editor changed the words spiral crack to spinal crack. If you get hit in a certain way the crack is spiral.

EG       How do you recognize a good translation?

JN       Just read it. Grammatical blunders are a clue. Example: when it comes to adverbs, first you have place and then time.

"I went to school yesterday." To school is an adverbial phrase of place. Yesterday is an adverb of time. This is correct usage. A phrase such as, "I'm going tomorrow to school," is bad grammar. Poor grammar is obvious in bad translations.

EG       You are taking a little of the mystery of translation away. I don't speak a foreign language; thinking about the art of translation is new to me.

JN       If you don't know a foreign language, you can only judge a translation by its use of English. Think about this. Most of the books you've read are translations.

EG       I never thought of that. When you think of it you are not getting the direct voice of the author. What if Kafka was around today and he knew English, what would he think of your translation of "Metamorphosis"?

JN       He would find it excellent. I've captured the flavor and the quivering of his voice. He would be very grateful to me.

EG       I don't doubt that. Is there another occupation you might like to have pursued?

JN       Movie Star.

EG       Do you read contemporary literature?

JN       I read books that are in the public domain to find books to translate.

EG       How do you decide if you will translate an author into English?

JN       If the publisher pays me enough, I will do the translation.

EG       The bottom line is money. It isn't love of translation?

JN       Sure it is. I get paid for what I love doing.

EG       Do you work with many publishers, and do they contact you, or do you have to send proposals for translations?

JN       Often I am asked to translate a work. Penguin asked me to translate The Nutcracker. I told them the ballet isn't based on the German version but Alexander Dumas's French version. I suggested we put the German and French versions in one volume. So we did. It will be out next fall.

Normally a publisher has a stable of authors. I feel an author should have a stable of publishers. I have about a half dozen publishers I work with including some foreign publishers.

When I have an idea for a translation, I do have to seek the appropriate publisher.

EG      Where can people purchase books in Yiddish?

JN       The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst Massachusetts. They have digitalized 10,000 to 15,000 books.

EG       Have you been there?

JN       No, I don't travel much.

EG       What are you working on now?

JN       I just finished The Golem Book, a translation of the play by Levick, plus a few other stories from a 1909 pamphlet of Golem stories I discovered. My next project is a selection of plays by Austrian playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitlers. The movie Eyes Wide Shut was based on one of his stories.


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