How the Europe Island Festival works with “chamber” languages: The history of Hebrew and Yiddish

Today we will be talking about literature and translation. It is especially gratifying to be discussing all this via the example of a young, very ambitious, and successful festival called Europe Island, which is held in Vinnytsia. Anna Vovchenko, the Program Director, is in our studio.

Iryna Slavinska: Today we will be talking about literature in the Hebrew and Yiddish languages. This is a complicated story. Are there people in our country who can read in them, narrate, and translate them into Ukrainian? In order to explain what Europe Island is to our listeners, I will ask you to talk a bit about this festival. You work with literature in which languages?

Anna Vovchenko: The Europe Island Festival was first held in 2018, and it has taken place two times. It is devoted to works of literature that are created by so-called “chamber” languages, those that are not widely known in the world and outside its autochthonous territories, which in our space are somewhat disdainfully called “small” languages. We believe that there are no “small” languages; there is no language in which one cannot express oneself on a great and important topic.

Iryna Slavinska: As the well-known joke, goes, “You simply don’t know how to cook them.”

Anna Vovchenko: Precisely. In fact, one of the countries which are not quite broadly represented in the literary sense in Ukraine—this is being corrected, fortunately—is Israel and its formative languages, Hebrew and Yiddish. The Jewish part of the first edition of the festival was devoted to the Hebrew language and contemporary Israeli literature; the second edition showcased the Yiddish language.

Iryna Slavinska: Before we dive into a conversation about literature in Hebrew and Yiddish, we can talk a bit about the other languages that are represented at the festival.

Anna Vovchenko: This year we worked with Romanian; Belarusian (both this year and last year); and Polish, which is difficult to call inadequately represented in Ukraine. Nevertheless, there is always something to discover in Polish literature, just like in Czech; that language was also represented at our festival.

Iryna Slavinska: To what extent is the public—both local Vinnytsia residents and guests visiting from other cities or countries—ready to work with these “chamber” works of literature? On the one hand, there is Polish literature, which is widely translated into Ukrainian. There are individual authors, quite a lot of whose texts have been published in our country and with which you can get acquainted sequentially. At the same time, there are texts, languages, and authors with very few translations or none. From my experience as a moderator, I know how difficult it is to communicate with authors whose books the public has not been able to read.

Anna Vovchenko: We focus intentionally on authors who are little known in Ukraine because it is gratifying for us to reveal something new to the Ukrainian public. In fact, our work with such authors goes a bit easier than with well-known ones because a terra incognitа offers the broadest possible space for dialogue and maneuver, both conversational and discursive.

Iryna Slavinska: What about the maneuver for reading, if the public cannot read these books in the Ukrainian language—or can it?

Anna Vovchenko: Maybe. Translations are provided for foreign authors who speak languages that are incomprehensible in Ukraine, like Romanian or Croatian, or even German.

Iryna Slavinska: These are translations that are published in small brochures?

Anna Vovchenko: No, they are shown on screen during the readings, so it’s very interactive.

Iryna Slavinska: Incidentally, this reminds me of contemporary opera. You go to the opera of any country; you listen to an aria in any language …

Anna Vovchenko: …usually in the original language.

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, but on screen you have its translation done in the language of the country in which you are seeing and listening to this opera.

Anna Vovchenko: In my view, this is the ideal variant, although I know that in Ukraine there are adepts of both translated arias and of performances in the translated language. Maksym Strikha consistently champions this idea. But I will dare to disagree with him. Nothing can replace the sound of the living language.

Iryna Slavinska: One can joke here: if the pronunciation isn’t too bad. Nevertheless, there are languages that are quite difficult to sing in or to speak, if you don’t know them.

Anna Vovchenko: French, for example.

Iryna Slavinska: I think that even Italian may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But I suggest that we continue talking about literature. We are now slowly approaching our discussion of works in Yiddish and Hebrew, in the context of their presence at the Europe Island Festival. The literatures in these two languages constitute very different strata.

Anna Vovchenko: Precisely. I would say that they are different in the same way as differing degrees of Israel’s interactions with the world, the self-awareness of the Jewish people, and the existence of this state in the world.

Iryna Slavinska: I remember my acquaintance with a staff member of the Sholem Aleichem Museum in Tel Aviv, which offers Yiddish language courses. He mentioned that until recently there were very few people in this city who were prepared to learn Yiddish and work with it, both researchers—literary specialists and linguists—and the ordinary public. It took a long time, for example, for the descendants of those who once spoke Yiddish to establish some contact with this culture. Is there something similar happening with literature written in this language?

Anna Vovchenko: Unfortunately, I am not a researcher of this literature, but I see that interest in this topic is growing. That’s one of the reasons why we included it in our festival. For a long time, we have been aware of the need to express more deeply the ties between Ukrainian and Jewish literature and the cultural traditions on the territory of Ukraine. This topic has really been gaining momentum recently, even in our national literature, not just in the scholarly sphere or research dimension, but also in the sphere of belles-lettres; even regarding those authors who have nothing in common with Judaica. For example, would Sofia Andrukhovych’s novel Felix Austria have been written without the Jewish tradition, without stable ties between Ukrainians and Jews on the territory of Ukraine, no matter how difficult they have been?

Iryna Slavinska: The novel Felix Austria was widely discussed when it came out, and soon its film adaptation will be released under the title of Viddana [The Devoted Woman]. So, we will be able to see with our very own eyes whether the filmmakers included this intercultural component, which is represented in the novel, if not through culinary aspects, then via direct dialogue. We have now touched on the topic of Yiddish-language literature and connections with the Ukrainian context. I will ask again: When we speak about work with Yiddish-language literature at the Europe Island Festival, are we talking about old literature? Do any contemporary works exist in this language?

Anna Vovchenko: As far as I know, contemporary texts are no longer being written in this language. Jewish and Israeli literature is now being created in Hebrew, and it has references to a different context:  the existence of Jews in the world and their national self-awareness. But Yiddish-language literature was created on the entire territory of Central and Eastern Europe. This year our festival featured a whole array of events devoted to the Yiddish language in Europe. We talked about whether it could have been the way it is now, if not for Yiddish-language literature, if not for the European tradition that subsequently coalesced into modern-day Israel, which welcomed and continues to welcome very different people from various corners of the world. If not for this European commonality, would contemporary Israel and Israeli literature be the way they are or different, even though they are created in a different language?

Iryna Slavinska: And what was the answer?

Anna Vovchenko: Probably not. Without origins, there are no outcomes.

Iryna Slavinska: For the purpose of establishing context, let’s reflect briefly on how this legacy of Yiddish can nourish contemporary Israeli literature written in Hebrew. Clearly, we will not be able to delve deeply into this topic, but how, for example, does the European tradition, which was created in Yiddish, among other languages, influence Hebrew-language literature today?

Anna Vovchenko: The Yiddish tradition differed depending on the region of residence and the context in which speakers lived. I would even hazard to say that there exist several Yiddish literatures and several corpora in which this language existed. Awareness of this diversity is one of the cornerstones of the existence of modern Israel and Hebrew-language literature. The European component brought a lot of attention to the Other. In a nutshell, this is probably the main thing.

Iryna Slavinska: Shifting to the other component present at the Europe Island Festival, Hebrew-language literature, I would like to ask about how you worked with this. What writers did you invite? As a translator, I am always interested in translation.

Anna Vovchenko: The wonderful writer Bella Shaier was featured at our festival. Incidentally, she comes from Chernivtsi, and she was in Ukraine in 2018, the first time since she emigrated as a child forty years ago. Even though she possesses only childhood memories of the city, Chernivtsi is presented quite substantially in her short stories. It is always a big deal when you meet someone who could be you but did not become you in a certain sense. It is also a good opportunity to see who you might have become if your fate had been a little different.

Bella is an Israeli author. She made her debut late, after nearly fifty years. Before then she worked as a programmer, but she did her Master’s in literature. She began writing short stories and is now at work completing her first novel. Her debut collection contains eight short stories that partly concern modern-day Israel and partly Ukraine, as well as the author’s life prior to emigration. One of her works was even filmed; we saw it during the author meet-and-greet with Bella. It is very interesting to see how the Ukrainian material—the short story was written in this language—was transposed to contemporary Israel, where it is filmed. The action takes place in the émigré milieu in order to explain the difference between cultural codes. But there is another interesting aspect to the question of encountering the Other. Bella has been translated by the wonderful poet and children’s writer Anna Khromova, who also immigrated to Israel from Kyiv ten years ago. She read her mature poems at our festival, and it was very interesting to see how the authorial voice of Anna as a poet is changing after her contact with another culture and literature. From another angle, it looks at her Ukrainian identity and the reality present in her poetry.

Iryna Slavinska: In this context, it occurs to me that in many cases quite a few authors who work in the Yiddish language are working with a non-native language. After all, Israel is home not only to those who were born there; the process of emigration from countries is constant. People of various ages and experiences come here from a variety of countries. I think that this is a challenge for a person who works with words. In making a decision about moving, you may end up in a situation where you are not just in the space of a different language and you study it, but all around you are people who are speaking to you in an acquired, non-native language.

Anna Vovchenko: …which is gradually becoming a native language and gradually referenced. Hebrew was revived and created anew. In Israel it is very interesting to see how these Hebrew elements are interwoven into the mother tongue of a person who, outside the public space, speaks Ukrainian or some other language, and how an absolutely new patois [surzhyk] is emerging; I really love it. At first glance, it is incomprehensible but very lively. For me personally it would be interesting to see whether it appears in Hebrew-language literature and how translators of other languages coped with this challenge.

Iryna Slavinska: Again, different literatures from diverse countries written in other languages can be a unique window into something that could not be conceived and described in Ukrainian. I am formulating this very crudely but, if we accept this idea, what kind of world could the literatures in Yiddish and Hebrew be revealed if these works came out in Ukrainian? We have already mentioned one topic: contact with the Other.

Anna Vovchenko: With the Other but at the same time with one of your own. Yiddish contains innumerable borrowings from the Ukrainian language. The headliner at this year’s festival was the Belarusian-Jewish author Moyshe Kulbak, who wrote in Yiddish and taught for quite a long time. He sounds very organic in Belarusian translation, like a component of Belarusian literature. Therefore, reading these texts in translation is very interesting because you get to know not only the Other but yourself. You have a chance to speak with a person in a mirror opposite you.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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