Benjamin Harshav, 1928 – 2015

A quick note of gratitude and appreciation on the occasion of Benjamin Harshav’s passing. These last four months, as blog followers will know, I have poured myself into learning something about Yiddish poetry. It’s been a kind of crash survey course.

One real treasure that helped me in this endeavor was Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Amazingly cheap at 20 dollars, this massive paperback treats only seven poets, but does so in great depth and breadth, so that you get a strong sense of their poetic voices and, even better, of how those voices changed over their careers. The book also has historical essays and supplementary material (such as the “Introspectivist Manifesto”) that provide the reader with crucial background information, both generally when it comes to the history of Yiddish poetry in America in historical context, and especially when it comes to the In-Zikh movement.

The two poets in this anthology whose work I’ve looked at most intently so far are A. Leyeles and Yankev Glatshteyn. Some of the translations of these poets not only render the sense of the poems. They swing. Of course, it’s not possible to match the sonic qualities of these poems fully, nor to come up with equivalents for many of the neologisms or word plays. But there is a kind of gleeful vernacular that comes through loud and clear in the English renderings that make you want to dig into the Yiddish. And somehow in Glatshteyn’s later heartbroken elegaic poems, the space, the pauses, are communicated.  I recommend this book in the strongest terms.

I am of course unable to evaluate the full range of Benjamin Harshav’s contributions. I will say that his other book about Yiddish poetry, Sing, Stranger (also in collaboration with Barbara Harshav), a massive, 700+ page book of English renderings of Yiddish poems, was more of a mixed pleasure. First, it does not give sources for the original Yiddish poems, creating a real burden on a reader who would like to have their translations side-by-side with the originals. Second, of all those pages, only 45 are devoted to the poems of women. Even of those, a third were originally Kathryn Hellerstein’s translations of Malka Heyfets-Tussman, or are based closely on them. By 2006, when this book was published, there was no longer any excuse for this token coverage. But these complaints are in the context of great, possibly unequaled gifts that the Harshavs have given English readers of Yiddish poetry, both in the quantity and the quality of their translations.

On my future reading list are The Meaning of Yiddish, and Language in a Time of Revolution. I understand that I’ve only peeked at one corner of his written work. But if the only thing Benjamin Harshav ever did was to publish American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, I would be grateful forever.

Here’s a link to the page Stanford University Press, where you can buy the book:

http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=7658

I learned of his passing yesterday from the facebook page, “Yiddiskayt”.  I’m sure much fuller and more informed appreciations of his life and accomplishments are on the way.

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One thought on “Benjamin Harshav, 1928 – 2015

  1. Didn’t realize til your note that he had died. She and my husband were at UCLA at the same time to some extent. And they had fun reliving that set of memories… For a tumultuous term she was president of the Assoc. of Lit. Translators of America. Fun and knowledgeable person, who had much to do with the utility etc of the book. L

    Like

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