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Translating by Ear: Creating Voice & Language in Boris Sandler’s “Nomansland, AZ”

By Sebastian Schulman

Sebastian Schulman’s translation of an excerpt of Boris Sandler’s Nomansland, AZ appeared in the September 2016 feature: Contemporary Yiddish Literature on Three Continents.

As a literary translator, I am all ears. By this, I mean that in order to translate a text I need to hear it aloud and get the sounds and voices of the narrator, the protagonist, and all the characters buzzing around in my head before I can put their words down on paper. This means that I can often be heard loudly reciting a text in its original language over and over, and then again, repeatedly declaiming in English until I get a given work’s cadences and rhythms and its gestures and emotions down right. As I veer in the direction of the theatrical at times, I’m often reminded of Bill Johnston’s metaphor of translation as “performance” that he spoke about on this very blog a few years back.

Given this penchant for translating literature with knowable, “audible” characters, it should come as no surprise that I was drawn to Boris Sandler’s wild and raucous Yiddish-language novel Nomansland, AZ, a chapter of which appeared in the September 2016 issue of Words without Borders. The driving force behind this book is Eddie Hoffman, a traveling salesman who narrates a series of bizarre encounters in the Middle of Nowhere, USA. It’s a voice that mixes the casual air of a native Brooklynite; the gruff and glum heave-ho of waning, middle-aged masculinity; and the sly, ironic tone of a wily entrepreneur. Playing around with all these elements, I settled into a style, mimicking out loud at my desk the way Eddie might tell the story if he had been sitting right next to me.

Having a sense of how the narrator might speak in any situation turned out to be a vital way of getting around some of the more complicated passages in the translation of this chapter. At one point in the text, for example, the Elder of Nomansland makes an obscene gesture known as “giving a fig” to the crowd. The fig—shoving the tip of one’s thumb between the index and forefinger of a clenched fist—is the Eastern European equivalent of what “giving the finger” is in the United States: an efficient and effective way to tell someone to buzz off. In the Yiddish original, the author doesn’t need to explain any of this to the reader, but in translation, the anglophone reader needs to be clued in through Eddie’s narration. With his voice firmly planted in my ear, I was able to add that bit of explanation seamlessly into the rest of the text.

The most challenging and intriguing task in the chapter, though, was rendering the other characters’ voices. Here I couldn’t rely on my regular routine of noisy recitation because the characters in question weren’t speaking Yiddish or English, but a third language that neither I, nor anybody else for that matter, had ever heard spoken before. This was Nomanish, the mangled half-Yiddish hybrid that the citizens of Nomansland, to Eddie’s great surprise, use as their vernacular. In fashioning this new language, the author creates a highly-Germanized Yiddish, taking what’s sometimes known disparagingly as daytshmerish—a Yiddish that’s just a bit too Deutsch-sounding—and brings it to its logical, over-the-top conclusion. The new language sounds farcical, archaic, and hopelessly highfalutin, yet is still immediately comprehensible to the Yiddish reader, if she or he is willing to sound things out, at least in the beginning of the novel.

The new language sounds farcical, archaic, and hopelessly highfalutin, yet is still immediately comprehensible to the Yiddish reader.

The task of forging this same linguistic novelty in English is a very daunting feat for the translator to say the least. Most difficult of all, Nomanish had to be something beyond a gag. The language is used throughout the novel and needs to be plausible as a full linguistic system in and of itself, yet still easily accessible to the English reader. In my attempt to recreate Nomanish, I turned first to nadsat, the Russified cockney slang of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. In that universe, however, Slavicized words and phrases are dropped within a somewhat standard English and, in some editions, accompanied by a glossary, the context guiding the reader toward the meanings behind the new lexicon. And so I turned toward another dystopia for inspiration, the cult classic Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, a novel written entirely in an imaginary and extraordinarily corrupted English that is spoken, so the novel tells us, a thousand years from now after a civilization-ending nuclear catastrophe. Yet this example seemed too much. The use of invented language in Nomansland, AZ is somewhere in the perplexing middle of this spectrum. In my translation, Eddie Hoffman speaks and narrates in a perfectly normal, if idiosyncratic English. It’s only when others speak that they we see Nomanish on the page.

To work my way toward a fresh, English-friendly version of Nomanish, I used an approach similar to what David Shook describes in a recent essay in Asymptote on translating a poem written by Paraguayan writer Jorge Canese in a corrupted mishmash of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a pseudo-Italian. Like Shook, I began by pulling the bits of Nomanish apart and stripping them down to smooth, understandable, clear, and potentially quite boring English phrases. Then I recombined the words, bending them to fit the rules of a Yiddish-esque syntax, throwing in a generous helping of fairly recognizable Germanisms, and spelling just about everything according to the phonetics of the official transliteration system (Yiddish is generally written with Hebrew characters) of the venerable YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. The result is, I hope, a full-throated lengvitsh, in which the characters can be understood by English readers while still speaking, singing, questioning, praising, joking, or insulting one another and their “unexpected guest” in their native tongue.

From the page to my vocal cords and back to the page again, translating by ear requires less the booming voice of the actor and more the careful listening of the ethnographer. Like the ethnographer, the translator acts as a conduit, capturing every nuance of language and timbre, to make legible and, indeed, audible another culture for an outside audience. Putting the words of characters and other cultures in our ears, we let their voices be heard anew.


Published Oct 11, 2016   Copyright 2016 Sebastian Schulman

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