Patshkn Zikh

Details, details. When I started out translating one of my grandfather’s children’s books about a year and a half ago, my teacher said translation is all about pitchevkes (פּיטשעווקעס details, or minutia). This is not to be confused with the verb patshkn, which means to scribble, or smear. When I was young, my mother used the word ‘to patshky’ a lot, sometimes in the sense of messing around in an area where one is not very experienced or skilled. So they’re nearly opposites—when you dabble clumsily, you are certainly not attending to every detail. Except that I suspect, particularly when it comes to the reflexive variant of the verb, patshkn zikh (to fuss with or struggle with something), sloppy, amateurish, or unfinished work often takes the form of getting bogged down in the details.

Tuesday was a milestone for me. I finally gave out some of the chapters of my rough translation of Roberts Ventures (The Adventures of Robert) to Yiddish readers for help. I’d finished my first pass of the manuscript a while back. It then took me a long time to type everything, to recheck that I didn’t leave anything out, and to organize the material. I printed out the Yiddish pages, gathered them back into chapters, and highlighted my questions. I did this with a sense of accomplishment, but also mixed feelings. It has taken me too long to get here.

One thing that has been hard for me was the realization that the book as a whole is not great literature. It has many individual virtues. Flashes of poetry sometimes make even offhand descriptions vivid. The author’s depiction of the intellectual development of a young American boy of that era is interesting to me. He revels in Yiddish language and idioms. Politically, he pulls no punches. The themes of wealth disparity and uneven justice are unfortunately as timely a description of society’s problems now as they were then, even if doctrinaire socialism no longer seems like an impoverished teenager’s natural response to those problems.

Translating it has been great— the fulfillment of a lifelong dream actually. I have learned a lot of Yiddish, and also learned a lot about the way my grandfather thought in the thirties, and about how he went about the task of writing a novel for children, set in America two decades earlier. Without any particular effort, working with the text gave me a sense of life in New York 100 years ago. However, it’s heavy-handed or preachy in parts, and formulaic in others, both in the predictability of the plot and in the two-dimensionality of the characters.

So despite its virtues, I don’t know if there is any audience for it at all, apart from the family, or maybe scholars interested in Yiddish or in the history of children’s literature, or both. Today, Roberts Ventures would probably be considered a ‘young adult’ book, but teenagers today seem mostly interested in reading about vampires and zombies, if they read at all. Having started, I am determined to finish it, but my appraisal of its utility does mean I’d prefer to do it quickly than perfectly. I’m asking my helpers to not spend a lot of time over specific word choices in the English version, but to just tell me if I got anything fundamentally wrong. I will still have another pass through to smooth out the English. But I don’t want them to waste too much time, or fuss too much about details.

The theme of fussing over details has come up several times in several ways in the last two days, along with the related questions of speed vs. depth or vs. perfectionism, including speed in dictionary word-finding. Our reading group had taken a break for a couple of weeks. Now my friend E has sent out emails to start organizing for the summer. It looks like we will have enough people, though some will attend sporadically. In E’s email, where she told us to start thinking about what we will want to read, she suggested something easy or with an available English translation, since “we won’t always have David the dictionary whiz.”

This set me off thinking about how proud I am about my ability to find words fast in a Yiddish dictionary, a skill developed by translating 180 pages of a children’s book, initially one word at a time. But on the other hand, how many of these words I look up so efficiently do I actually remember? If it were more of a struggle I would have to hold the word in my mind longer as I searched. Might that be useful? Interestingly, studies show that when students learn new material in a font that is unfamiliar and difficult to read, it sticks better. The struggle helps retention, as does slowing down in general.

And what am I retaining? Certainly not, for example, the genders of the nouns I look up. There is often information about plural or diminutive forms that I don’t even notice. How much do these pitchevkes matter? On Tuesday in class, our teacher took a portion of the class lesson out of reading our Avrom Reyzen story to drill us on masculine, feminine, and neuter adjective endings in the nominative and dative cases. All along I have been interested in learning to read first and foremost. If I were eager to speak or to write in Yiddish, these endings would be crucial in order not to sound like an ignoramus. But the gender of every word adds a lot of detail to vocabulary learning. At first the finite rule system for adjectives— four cases by three genders seems manageable, but throw in a few accommodations for words that end in the letter nun, a vowel change here, a twist for a definite vs. indefinite articles with neuter nouns there, and some other exceptions I’m sure I don’t know about yet… and it feels like a lot.

Here’s another example of an encounter with details that I may or may not need. Yesterday morning, I was glancing at a short story by Sholem Asch. It was in a book titled Anthology of Yiddish Litearture for Young People. I found it a couple of weeks ago for 2 dollars at the Friends of the Tomkins County Library Book Sale. My reading is still very rudimentary, but as I said, I’m quick-fingered with my Beinfeld and Bochner.

So with my limited vocabulary and quick fingers I begin reading about a teenage son who comes home and sits down to read. His mother brings the lamp over for him, offers him tea (which he refuses), then apples (which he silently accepts). Then the son speaks, saying that the hign bes hamedresh has nothing for him to do, no one to study with, and no place for him to learn.

The word hig(n) means ‘local’. As usual, I ignore the little markings after the word in the dictionary, but later, since I’ve started thinking about what details I may be missing in looking things up fast, I go back. The word is followed by a tiny pair of words (abbreviations?) which say אַדי־עפּי. This takes me into the rabbit hole of the dictionary’s User’s Guide, to Section 3 on “Morphological Details”, subsection 3.2 on Adjectives, where I am told that this means the adjective can also be nominalized. That is, in addition to phrases like ‘in the local synagogue’, it can also be turned into a noun: ‘The most limited in opportunity for learning is the local’ (where ‘the local synagogue’ or ‘the local one’ is implied, but no pronoun used).

You see? Isn’t it better to just keep reading? Has it improved my life to learn this, or yours to have me share it? I keep reading. He (the boy) tells his mother that he has chatted with the _______ who has given him an _____towards _______ to travel to the Yeshiva.

Actually what it said more specifically was that the דיין had given him an עצה (I know I should remember that word) towards מאקעווע to travel to the Yeshiva. “He will give me a letter to take so that the head of the yeshiva will מקרב זיין…” and so on.

Now I had two choices. I could go on in the story to find out what happens, or I could stop to look up the four words I didn’t know. I already had a basic sense of what’s going on. The scene is set for him to leave home to go study. There are already indirect hints that this is going to be hard for his devoted mother, and that this relationship will be at the crux of the story. I’m not sure why, yet, but already one page in, I sensed that the boy is not telling her everything.

I think about my grandfather at the exact age of the boy in the story. As narrated in the second volume of his memoir, he had come back home to his shtetl from Yeshiva. While there, he had been exposed to secular literature and was riddled with doubts. Now, instead of either returning to school or giving it up, he has chosen to go instead to a more demanding and more Orthodox yeshiva. His dream was to find a way to synthesize Judaism and modernism, but not by watering down either. To do this he first wanted to plunge deeper into the contradiction. Could it be that some part of him was trying to shift towards a more observant atmosphere to inoculate himself against the worst moral dangers of the secular world, not despite, but because he knows that’s where his future will probably take him? Or, on the contrary, is he actually trying to make it easier for himself to break with Judaism by approaching it in its most difficult form? He doesn’t know himself. So how could he explain to his mother why he has chosen this particular path?

Ah, the perils of distraction. At this point I left off my musing and turned to a different task, having neither read further, nor looked up the words.

Beinfeld & Bochner

Beinfeld & Bochner

A Brief but Rambling Note Regarding the Concept of Purity

I have spent my last two days at New York Presbyterian Cornell/Weil Medical Center, where names apparently grow longer and more numerous with time. This courtyard has a large sign saying Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute, and is just outside the David H. Koch Wing. Even the small family waiting room outside the ICU has too long a name for me to remember.

On Tuesday, my mother underwent a (very successful) five-hour-long surgical procedure whose main purpose was to replace her mitral valve. The surgeon put in an organic valve (derived from bovine or porcine tissue) for the valve that was damaged by rheumatic fever over 70 years ago.

Jewish law is often about purity, as the lawmakers understood it. Today, I can no longer globally think of pigs as unclean animals if putting one of their body parts into my mother has the potential to extend her life by more than a decade. From one point of view, you might call ‘unclean’ the specific pathogens that cause disease, such as the bacterium that caused her to get scarlet fever, and subsequently, rheumatic fever all those years ago. Certainly it is good to wash our hands and follow sterile procedures in the hospital to prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. People who eat pork should cook it thoroughly to kill the trichinosis worms that once caused pork to be a risky food choice.

From a more distant view, all growing things have their evolutionary niches, and the concept of clean-ness or dirty-ness becomes a matter of perspective. Among the e coli are helpful gut bacteria and deadly germs. Most people think of molds as icky, but the first lifesaving antibiotics derived from molds. The prohibition against eating pig comes from a hazard that is no longer as relevant as it once was, and was based on mistaking the whole (pig) for the part (worm). Jewish law says you can never be too careful. If a part may be dangerous, ban the whole thing. Interestingly, from recent ideas about how exposure to dirt helps build children’s immune systems, it seems you can be too careful sometimes.

Intellectually, some people are better at analysis, separating or cutting things apart, and others are better at synthesis, seeing the connections or commonalities between things. An interesting distinction I mulled yesterday is between social competence and other kinds of competence. My mother’s surgeon is not a nice person or a good communicator. But he appears to have done an excellent job fixing her heart valve.

These are just some of the ways a mind turns while spending too much time in waiting rooms. It’s a curious thing, making distinctions between the clean and the unclean. And it can be perilous to take that distinction and extend it to other things. In the past, global thinking about physical and moral purity have contributed to misogyny and to homophobia. Similarly, when I walked in to the heart unit, I wanted to walk out again, because the name David H. Koch is icky, and that ickiness attaches to anything that comes into contact with it. But that would be superstitious, wouldn’t it?

A porcine mitral valve

A porcine mitral valve