Ukrainian-Jewish literary contacts, contemporary translations from the Yiddish, and new research: Results of the Odesa conference

Today our talk is taking place in connection with a conference that took place recently in Odesa and which was devoted to the topic of Ukrainian-Jewish relations and Ukrainian-Jewish literary contacts. Our guest is Oleksandra Uralova, who is a research associate of the Center for Research on the History and Culture of East European Jewry, a translator, and member of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies.

Iryna Slavinska: I will begin with some basic questions about the conference in Odesa. Please explain the concept of Ukrainian-Jewish literary contacts to our listeners and readers.

Oleksandra Uralova: First of all, this conference can be accessed partially by logging onto the website of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies, where a video has been uploaded. Speaking of Ukrainian-Jewish contacts, I have to say that when you and I met two years ago and were talking about my translation of Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem (later another, quite good, translation of this work by Oksana Shcherba was published), this was a certain precedent. Today we can talk about something completely different. After this conference, I gained a better understanding of Jewish literature in the Ukrainian context, as well as of Ukrainian literature in the Jewish one; that this is a small part of a huge process. Some people say that it started taking place in the fifteenth century when Jewish texts were still being translated into Old Slavonic with Belarusian and Ukrainian elements. Others say that it began with translations from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when, for example, Ivan Franko was translating from the Yiddish.

Iryna Slavinska: I remind those who are interested in this topic that I talked with the researcher Olena Huseinova about Jewish contexts in the works of Lesia Ukrainka as well.

Oleksandra Uralova: In fact, when we are talking about the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, about our distinguished male and female writers, it is worth mentioning that they, being left-wingers (socialists), strived for the unification of various peoples. There’s a reason why Franko wrote his poem Moses, translated Barzel and Rosenfeld, etc. Later, in the 1930s, an absolutely incredible thing appears, the Kobzar in a Yiddish translation by [Dovid] Hofshteyn (it was recently reissued by the Dukh i Litera Publishers; it’s a bilingual edition). It is very interesting and gratifying to hear how Shevchenko sounds in Yiddish. Now it is readily understood that there is nothing strange about this.

Iryna Slavinska: One way or another, the bearers of various languages and various cultures lived in cities, and it would be strange if no exchange were taking place at least in the form of translation. This is natural. Returning to the conference, perhaps the conference included reflections on the so-called “dark side” of Ukrainian-Jewish contacts; on antisemitic or Ukrainophobic theses.

Oleksandra Uralova: Of course, there were panels at the conference devoted to the images of Ukrainians and Jews in their respective literatures; both positive and negative. But we’ll get to this gradually. I really like the name of the conference: “Wherever Jews will be—That is the Land of Israel.” This is a quotation from the text In Edenia, a City of the Future by Kalmen Zingman, or Ben-Ya‘akov (his pseudonym); about Kharkiv in the 1930s, which was written in Kharkiv during the First World War. This is a utopian novella, from where this phrase is taken. It does not mean that someone will come and conquer someone’s lands, but that “wherever they will be, there they will be able to build their utopian country.” Of course, in 1918 and 1919 there is still no State of Israel, and things are not going very smoothly in the Ukrainian National Republic. Despite everything, Kharkiv and the Ukrainian territories become a salvation for Jewish thinkers, scholars, and politicians, but also for ordinary people, who are hiding in Ukraine from the problems that were brought on by the First World War. It is Kharkiv, in which Ukrainians and Jews are living amicably next to each other.

Iryna Slavinska: In other words, this is a kind of universal, inclusive space where everyone feels good.

Oleksandra Uralova: Absolutely. A space where cures for aging, for cancer, and the like have already been discovered. Incidentally, a translation of this book can be found in the academic publication of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies; it’s called Judaica Ukrainica. It has existed since 2012. In fact, our country has the youngest Jewish Studies association in Europe, but we have been putting out this periodical since the beginning of its existence. Among other things, it publishes scholarly articles on various topics, including collaboration between Ukrainians and Jews, which are based on various sources, including literary ones. In general, utopian works written by Jewish writers are not unprecedented, especially in the early twentieth century. These are stories about how a people yearns to find its country and fantasizes on the topic of what it might be like. But what is interesting is that some of these texts were written in the Ukrainian lands in conditions where the Ukrainian people were also aspiring to have their own state and were also constructing some utopias or more realistic pictures. Another topic is the interaction between writers, translators, and theater figures; the collaboration between Jewish theaters in Kyiv, for example, the most famous one, GOSET, and Les Kurbas’s theater. At the moment we have a unique possibility to discover those facts once again, thanks, by the way, to this conference. It took place on 25–26 September [2019], on the eve of the Jewish New Year, in Odesa, where, just like in Kyiv, there was a very fruitful space for collaboration between Ukrainian and Jewish thinkers and artists. This was the third annual conference of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies. The first one, in 2017, was dedicated to the centennial of the Revolution.

Iryna Slavinska: Now I will ask about the progress of the conference that we are discussing. All similar professional meetings are an occasion to see “one’s own people” and see who is working with you in one field, even if you don’t agree with each other about certain scholarly areas. As of 2019, can one say that the number of Jewish Studies researchers, especially those who specialize in literature and translation, has grown? Or the reverse: do you see the same old people once a year?

Oleksandra Uralova: We also talked about this at the conference. The number of male and female researchers has grown precisely in Eastern Europe. In the West, meanwhile, the Humanities in universities are experiencing a crisis; departments are closing, etc. But I think that people in the Humanities still have a lot to say. Today the number of publications has grown, and people themselves have become more interested in studying contacts between the Slavic and Jewish peoples, languages, and the historical periods that are generally tangential to this.

Iryna Slavinska: The development of contemporary scholarship also has an impact on this. I remember that a few months ago in this studio I spoke with the young researcher Daryna Podhornova , who also works in Jewish Studies, but her topic is women, especially Jewish women, in Kyiv. In my opinion, this is a fine example of how the development of Gender Studies can be used productively even in a conservative, at first glance, field as Jewish Studies.

Oleksandra Uralova: When the roundtable was held at the conference, we translators (representing Poland, Belarus, Czechia, Israel, Lithuania, and Ukraine) talked about whom, in fact, we are doing all this for and who is doing it. For example, an anthology came out recently in Poland, devoted mostly to women’s voices in Jewish literature. This was very interesting. At the present time, I am involved in compiling an anthology of Jewish prose in Eastern Europe translated into Ukrainian, and at the moment we have few women’s names. This bothered me a bit. It cannot be that women did not write anything. For example, right now people are hearing about Debora Vogel, an original poet who spoke Polish, then she learned the language of her ancestors and wrote very interesting poems in it during the early part of the twentieth century. A few years ago, Jurko Prochasko translated her works. I strongly advise you to read them. This is unusual poetry, both for those who love the classical iamb and trochee and those who love American poetry.

Iryna Slavinska: In the second part of our conversation we have reached the topic of translation. Let’s talk about translations from the Yiddish into Slavic languages; it’s most interesting to begin with Ukrainian ones. Are translations from the Yiddish being done today into Ukrainian?

Oleksandra Uralova: This is a rhetorical question because quite a few of these translations are being done now and were done earlier. In Kyiv, there is the RoLit building, where [Dovid] Hofshteyn lived cheek by jowl with [Pavlo] Tychyna, [Itsik] Kipnis, and [Maksym] Rylsky. These people were translating each other’s work. The 1920s and 1930s were extraordinarily productive. Later in history, however, there were the Executed Renaissance, the case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, the so-called Doctors’ Plot, the trials of the Boichukists, and this developmental direction turns into a thin, dotted line that to a certain degree revives once Ukraine becomes independent. Then [Bulat] Okudzhava and the Ukrainian bards are being translated into Yiddish, while the works (for example, of Perets Markish, who is also tangential to Kyiv) are translated into Ukrainian by Valeriia Bohuslavska. Now that the first Certificate and Master’s program in Jewish Studies have been introduced in Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and people are getting a chance to study the Jewish history of culture, daily life, literature, and language on the academic level, interest is growing gradually. Right now, we have programs in Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and the Ukrainian Catholic University and Ostrih Academy offer Jewish Studies.

Iryna Slavinska: How should one work with translations from the Yiddish, remembering the current stereotype that Yiddish is a dead language?

Oleksandra Uralova: That’s an interesting question, and we also discussed it during the roundtable. It was attended by the Polish scholar and translator Joanna Lisek, Siarhei Shchupa, a representative of Minsk and Prague (he has done translations from the Yiddish into Belarusian, but in that country  he has no state support for such activity, that’s why his translations were published in Prague), my colleague Oksana Shcherba, and I, and Mordechai Yushkovsky from the International Yiddish Center of the World Jewish Congress. We talked about the fact that Yiddish is not a dead language and that interest in it is growing. For example, Dr. Yushkovsky said that thousands of people come to him in Israel who are initially interested in this topic as heritage. Then they discover the layer of literature (Yiddish absorbed many traditions, and modern literature in this language began in the nineteenth century, the times of Twain, Dickens, Gogol—all of them exerted their influence). At the same, we have a target audience in Ukraine. A lot of people realize that if you restrict yourself exclusively to Ukrainian authors…

Iryna Slavinska: or exclusively Hebrew-language Israeli authors…

Oleksandra Uralova: Yes, precisely. This pushes a large body of literature away from us.

Iryna Slavinska: There is also an immense layer of history. During the first part of our conversation, we mentioned that artistic circles not only coexisted but also, to a great degree, formed a single milieu and even lived in the same building.

Oleksandra Uralova: At the conference, we also discussed the continued existence of Yiddish; at present, its new lexicon is being formulated.

Iryna Slavinska: What does this mean?

Oleksandra Uralova: Let’s say there are journals, including online ones, that are devoted to Yiddish. Every week they publish new words, numerous articles about Yiddish, in other words, the contemporary language. This is a language in which the word “gender,” for example, is being introduced today. If a lexicon that can describe gender questions and a person’s self-identification appears in a language, this is not a dead language, and this is not a language of restricted religious communities. This is a language of people who are communicating about relevant topics.

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, after all, Yiddish as a spoken language that is used on the street can continue this development quite naturally. And during the process of translating texts from the Yiddish into the Ukrainian language, is a new vocabulary also being created in our language?

Oleksandra Uralova: To a certain degree, yes. Mostly these are questions of correct borrowing, particularly the translation of Hebraisms. We know that Yiddish absorbed much Hebrew context; everything that is connected with holidays, religious rites, books, and food. Are we supposed to translate this as it was spoken here; do we transliterate it from the Yiddish into Ukrainian (which has already absorbed some things)?

Iryna Slavinska: Let’s list a few examples.

Oleksandra Uralova: In Hebrew, there is a word designating the concepts of “punishment” and “ulcer”; it is pronounced as makkah (with the stress on the last syllable). In Yiddish, it was transformed into makeh (with the stress on the first syllable). In villages, when people sometimes stand on opposite sides of the street, quarreling and swearing at each other, they brandish their fists and say makeh. This expression has become very well established in the Ukrainian language, and now we tell each other, “Here’s a fist with makeh for you.” So, such details are also encountered. But in translation work, these are still mostly Hebraisms that the Ukrainian reader does not encounter in daily life. They can be transliterated. You can create footnotes, retaining the Hebrew version. Some things can be generally paraphrased. But to a certain degree, these facts and realities nevertheless have to be explained. Incidentally, here I should mention that the roundtable on translation was dedicated to the late Natalia Ryndiuk, a translator, academic, and teacher of Yiddish, who together with Tetiana Batanova translated the above-mentioned work Edenia into Ukrainian. At one time she was my academic supervisor on the translation of Tevye, and I had the great honor, together with the deceased’s family, to receive the Martin Feller and Zhanna Kovba Award instituted by the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies. Another prize was awarded for research in the archives of southern Ukraine to Yukhym Melamed, and for me it is also an honor to be among such names, especially considering that there were representatives of seven countries at the conference: Israel, the U.S., Canada, Poland, Germany, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, and they discussed mostly Ukraine. We also raised this topic during the roundtable. For example, in our country translations are not always supported by the Ministry of Culture. However, the recently created Ukrainian Cultural Fund has begun to do this. At the same time, there is Belarus, where there is no such support whatsoever, even though it is one of two countries where Yiddish was a state language. Unlike the Ukrainian National Republic, where it existed for a few years, in the Belarusian SSR it lasted for decades if I remember correctly.

Iryna Slavinska: This is truly a very important heritage. Unfortunately, we have to wrap up our conversation. To conclude, I would like to ask you to give some advice to our listeners about what to read. Maybe some brilliant translations that we did not mention, perhaps some studies?

Oleksandra Uralova: The first thing that I would recommend is a work by the Canadian professor Myroslav Shkandrij, which is devoted to Ukrainian-Jewish literary contacts (it was also recently issued by the Dukh i Litera Publishers). The second is the translation of the Kobzar; you can purchase the bilingual edition; I think it’s worth owning. The third—and I will be pleased if my translation of Tevye the Dairyman or that of my colleague, Oksana Shcherba, ends up on somebody’s bookshelf. And the fourth is the periodical Judaica Ukrainica, the “mouthpiece” of the Ukrainian Association for Judaic Studies. It publishes new texts all the time. This year you can read a themed issue containing materials from the above-mentioned conference. This issue also describes the books that our readers have still not been able to read or to purchase, but they are already somewhere, and you can find out about them. This is a huge world. It is getting bigger, and I am very happy about this.

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.
NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.