Try not to love such a country: The Americanization of Sholom Aleichem's Yiddish text

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Mottel the Cantor's Son (1907, 1916), one of the most popular Yiddish novels of the twentieth century, is a story of emigration. As such, it is preoccupied with cross-cultural, cross-national, inter-religious, and inter-lingual relations. Aspiring to move from one geographical and cultural setting to another - from the poverty-stricken Eastern-European Jewish town to the promisingly rich and excitingly modern "New World" of North America - the characters, and to some extent also their author, Sholom Aleichem, are busy disparaging their former world and idealizing the new. The translation of the novel into English by Tamara Kahana (published 1953) augments this dynamics in its attempt to assimilate the work to the American canon and reduce its Jewishness. Kahana, being both a Jewish immigrant herself and the author's grandchild, is an involved translator. Rather than an act of mediation and communication, her strategy of translation appears to be an act of appropriation, a rewriting whereby the otherness of the source text is erased. At issue here - for all three agencies that deliver Mottel's story to us (the narrator Mot-tel, the authorial voice, and the translator) - is an ideal of identity that involves a break with the past. For Mottel and for Sholom Aleichem this ideal is America and the formation of an assimilated American identity; for Kahana it is a perfectly accessible Americanized story. However, in both the original text and in its translation, this ideal is continually subtly subverted, even as it is strenuously articulated and sought.

Original languageAmerican English
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2007


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