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The Translator Relay: Helen Mintz

By Words Without Borders

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every other month. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For January’s installment, Ellen Cassedy passed the baton to Helen Mintz, who translates from Yiddish.


What is your connection to the language you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

The dominant language of my childhood Montreal home was English, but Yiddish circulated noisily in the shadows, waiting for either of my parents, both Yiddish speakers, to punctuate an experience of high emotion; to comment on and likely denigrate some aspect of the society around us, usually in an ironic, humorous tone; to share something they wanted to keep from my sister and me; or to speak about the body and particularly about the pleasures of the body. The Yiddish language was also closely tied, in my childhood and adolescent mind, to progressive politics and to a transgressive lifestyle that held great allure to me. And my mother supported the rich Yiddish cultural and intellectual life that flourished in Montreal. So in my early years, it always seemed that everything of significance was expressed in Yiddish. This was a great motivation for me to learn the language, especially to learn to understand it.

At the same time, the Yiddish language was tied to loss and tragedy. I can’t remember not knowing about the Holocaust, not understanding that Yiddish speakers and the Yiddish language had been subjected to a genocidal attack. As a young adult I began to understand the Soviet assault against Jews, Yiddish culture, and the Yiddish language.

Like Ellen Cassedy, Yiddish translating friend and colleague, translating from Yiddish has always felt to me like sacred work. I am reconnecting with the language, the emotional atmosphere, the intonations and gestures of my parents, my grandparents, and those who came before them. I am contributing to bringing brutally silenced voices into the English-speaking world.

In 2018, with the rise of right-wing governments in Canada—Quebec and Ontario, the two provinces in the country with the largest population base, now have governments whose signature activities involve the violation of the rights of minorities—the United States, and a number of countries in Europe and other parts of the world, the work of mid- and late-twentieth-century Yiddish writers is frighteningly relevant to our time. The threat of totalitarianism and fascism is very real right now. What can writers directly affected by the fascist and totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century teach us? What is the lived experience of being specifically targeted? What is the human race’s breadth of possibility for hatred and violence? How did the Yiddish writers maintain creative vitality, humor, compassion, and love in the face of unimaginable brutality? How did they rebuild their lives?

What has remained constant for me is the simple joy of hearing the sounds of Yiddish, and, when I push past my resistance, the unexpected pleasure of moving the sounds and syllables of the language through my body and out into the open air.


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

I agree with Ellen Cassedy that, despite widespread popular opinion to the contrary, it’s “babkes” that “Yiddish is less translatable than other languages.” However, there are certainly challenges in translating from Yiddish, as there are with translating from any language. For me, one of the challenges with Yiddish is conveying the nuance of religious and cultural practice.

To give a concrete example: the story “Tamare di Hoykhe” (Tall Tamara) by Abraham Karpinowitz takes places in Vilna (present-day Vilnius) between an unspecified time in the mid-1930s and 1941. In the story, the narrator refers to Elinke, the infant son of the prostitute Black Leyke, as “her kaddish.” When I translated the story in 2016, I defined the term in a section entitled “notes” at the back of the book. The definition reads: “Kaddish is a prayer recited daily for a year following the death of a close relative and on the anniversary of that death. Traditionally, this prayer was recited only by males. The son who is expected to say the prayer is sometimes referred to as the parent’s kaddish.”

At the simplest level, the term “kaddish” describes Black Leyke’s expectations for her son’s behavior after her death. As a reader, I responded with scepticism to the idea of Elinke as his mother’s kaddish. The contemporary ironic use of the term “kaddish” to describe offspring who are unlikely to say the kaddish came to mind. “What are the chances,” I wondered, “of the son of a prostitute feeling sufficiently connected to Judaism to carry through on saying the prayer in the prescribed way?” I also wondered whether Elinke would even have the option of saying kaddish. Between 90 and 95 percent of Vilna Jews were murdered during the German occupation of the city. “What are the chances,” I wondered, “of Elinke actually surviving his mother to say the mourner’s kaddish? Isn’t it more likely that they will both be shot and buried in the pits at Ponar along with the majority of Vilna’s Jews?”

If I translated the story now, I would omit the glossary definition which is, in its simplicity, inaccurate, and leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not she wants to turn to Google or some other source for help. Readers who seek clarification of the term will receive a fuller definition than the one provided in the glossary. More importantly, not everything can be easily and readily repackaged in the English language. In the journey from one country to another, from one time period to another, from one language to another, there will be uncertainties, confusions, losses. Not every street corner sports a Hilton Hotel. With emigration, the solid ground under one’s feet shifts. Things get left behind.

We never know the fate of what we cannot take with us; we never know the trajectory of a term. Until October 2018, the word kaddish was unknown to most non-Jewish (and many Jewish) readers of English. But the murder of eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27 changed that. On November 2, the Friday after the murders, untold numbers of people saw the banner headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: the first line of the mourner’s kaddish, written in Hebrew letters. That same evening, the mourner’s kaddish, recited by Cantor Azi Schwartz of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, was broadcast on the NBC Nightly News.

This series of events leaves me with many questions. What can the kaddish mourning prayer teach about public consolation in grief? About the commitment, in grief, both to life itself and to the sacred? The prayer does not talk about death, but rather about the sanctity of God. Among other things, saying kaddish daily, in community, keeps a person tethered to the world of the living.

How long will the word “kaddish” remain in the minds of English speakers? When hatred and violence are nurtured through word and deed from the very highest level of power in the county where the Tree of Life Synagogue murders were enacted, is there a price paid if words like “kaddish” become, once again, solely the private vocabulary of religiously observant Jews? How do these questions affect my translation practice?


Do you have any translating rituals? 

I approach each translation project first as a reader, breathing deeply to stay open to the surface and underground meanings of the work and to my own responses. I listen closely to the musical expression of the language, to its beat and cadence. I find out what I can about the author, this individual with whom I will be intimately involved.

Then I sometimes just get to work. Bum on the chair, text and dictionaries at hand, pencils sharpened, monitor cleaned, a warm cup of tea, determination to stay put for a specified period of time.

I try, however, to hold off on the immediate dive into the text while I summon others to accompany me on the translation journey: the author (in some of my best translation moments, I’ve felt like I’m channeling the writer, like he’s—interesting that my authors so far have all been male—thinking through my mind, moving my fingers on the keyboard); the Yiddish writers whose work I love, particularly those who’ve already accompanied me into English; my parents and grandparents. I feel myself being held by their spirits. I remind myself that I am part of a continuum, that I am not alone. Not alone in body, not alone in time.

The first English-language draft is sloppy and full of holes, but I try to stay connected with the musical quality of the language. In further drafts, I edit and refine, edit and refine, edit and refine. I seek help from friends and colleagues, particularly those whose Yiddish language skills and knowledge of the Jewish religion are stronger than mine. When I get stuck, I turn to those I’ve summoned. “Nu. Nu?” Sometimes they help; sometimes they don’t. Eventually I discipline myself to put the Yiddish away (I’ve been known to give it to a friend for safe keeping, far from my own eyes) and do another edit. I try to make myself return to the Yiddish for one final go-through.


Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

I have many metaphors:

I am a magician, pulling a rabbit out of a stiff black top hat. (I love how a page of Yiddish text, written in the Hebrew alphabet, looks entirely different than a page of English text, written in the Roman alphabet.)

I am dancing, the perfect follower, ever sensitive to my partner’s lead but adding my own personal style, my own embellishments.

I am a jazz trumpeter, my eyes on the score in front of me, aware of its openings, the other musicians, the particular energy and rhythm of the audience.

I am rowing a boat from one shore to the next. Sometimes the boat is solid and light weight, skimming quickly across the water. At other times it springs a leak and I fear I’ll drown, far from either shore.

I am a time traveler, my senses alert, my feet planted solidly on the ground of a long-ago world.

I am developing personal relationships with the author and with the characters. What form will these relationships take?

And I am wondering why I need a metaphor at all. I am a woman doing my best to bring the essence of a work of literature written in the Yiddish language in a specific time period to a contemporary English-reading audience.


Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

I am completing a second collection of translations of Abraham Karpinowitz’s Vilna stories and short memoirs about the lives of the underclass and about the author’s father’s Yiddish theater during the 1930s. Working on this volume feels like spending time with an old, beloved friend. Karpinowitz’s stories and memoirs continue to move and inspire me.

I am also at the beginning of a project to select and translate stories from Melech Ravitch’s three-volume memoir, Dos Mayse-bukh fun Mayn Lebn (The Storybook of My Life), with the objective of producing a single English-language volume. It is an enormous privilege to bring the work of such an accomplished, poetic, and nuanced writer to an English-speaking audience. Although little known outside the world of Jewish literature because he is scarcely translated, Ravitch was a towering figure of modern Yiddish letters and culture. He was a poet, essayist, playwright, educator, and cultural activist. Born in 1893 in the town (shtetl) of Redim (Radymno) in Eastern Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he served in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I; was at the epicenter of the vibrant Yiddish literary world in Warsaw during the ’30s; edited various important Yiddish literary journals; traveled extensively, living at various points on five continents; and died in Montreal in 1976. In his memoir, Ravitch challenges widely held views about Jewish life at the time, communicating his involvement with significant historical and cultural events through small, sensual details and a wry, frequently self-depreciating wit.

I am collaborating on this project with Lazer Lederhendler. It is a privilege and a joy to collaborate with someone with such extensive experience with literary translation. I love how Lazer rejects the easy and completely adequate solution, delving deep for a more complex and fluent rendering of the Yiddish. Though we’re only at the beginning of the project, I’ve already seen my translation practice develop and deepen.


(Ellen’s question for you:) You’re a performance artist, transforming some of the riches of a lost Eastern European Jewish culture into theatrical form. How does that work intersect with your work as a translator?

That’s a great question. In the late 1980s, I began creating and performing one-woman shows that straddled storytelling and theatrical performance. I was searching for an answer to the questions: What is the culture that was destroyed by the Holocaust? What was the taste and smell of daily lived experience? What was women’s lived experience in that culture? I adapted and performed memoirs, poems, and excerpts from essays, novels, and short stories. Much of the material I was performing had been translated from Yiddish. At a certain point, I ran out of translated material that captivated me, and so I began, with my limited Yiddish reading vocabulary, to do my own translation.

With my first translation, I knew that I had found my true home. The translation process felt natural: like performance, it felt physically embedded in my body, right. Translation provides me with a direct channel to the voices of Jews from various countries in Eastern Europe—a direct answer to the questions that defined my performance work. Also, the life of a translator is far more suited to my introverted personality than the intense face-to-face, body-to-body, energetic-field-to-energetic-field human interaction involved in performance. I also like the anonymity, the invisibility, the opportunity to stand behind the writer that translation falsely affords.

I hope that the attunement to the sounds and cadences of the spoken word and the experience of language moving through the pulsating body that characterizes performance strengthens and enriches my translation work.

I also enjoy donning my performance hat from time to time to dramatize the work I’ve translated.

Postscript: I would like to thank the many teachers and colleagues who have so kindly and wisely supported me on my journey as a translator from Yiddish.


Helen Mintz’s translation of Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz (Syracuse University Press, 2016) won the 2016 J. I. Segal Award for Translation and the 2016 Canadian Jewish Literary Prize for Yiddish, and received honorable mention for the 2017 Sophie Brody Award. She was a 2014 translation fellow with the Yiddish Book Center. Her translations have appeared in In geveb,, and Pakn Treger. She is presently completing a second collection of Karpinowitz translations and working with Lazer Lederhendler on a single-volume translation of Melech Ravitch’s Dos Mayse-Bukh fun Mayn Lebn (The Storybook of My Life).

Mintz has toured four one-woman shows in Canada, the United States, Germany, and Lithuania, sharing stories of Jewish women’s experience past and present. Her one-woman show, The Beginning of the Poem, about the Yiddish poet Rokhl Korn, inaugurated the Stolpersteine Project in Heusenstamm, Germany. Her original versions of traditional Jewish stories have been published in Chosen Tales (ed. Peninnah Schram, Jason Aronson Inc., 1995) and broadcast on radio and television, and have been told by many other tellers. 

Published Jan 8, 2019   Copyright 2019 Words Without Borders

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