[from In geveb]
The very first seminar on Yiddish literature that I took in graduate school was called “Yiddish Modernisms in Eastern Europe Between the Two World Wars.” I wrote a seminar paper on Moyshe Kulbak’s poem “Vilne,” and thank goodness, because here I am don’t-ask-how-many years later writing my dissertation, in part, about concepts of place in Kulbak’s writing. I still have my copy of the poem from that course, absolutely covered in notes and definitions of Yiddish words and cultural concepts I learned from reading that poem. Maybe this was the first time I read the word “Bund” in Yiddish? And I distinctly remember learning about the cultural beliefs associated with water carriers from the poem. A great poem like “Vilne” is always something of an iceberg, its total mass and weight and meaning and power invisible at first sight, its larger shape only becoming perceptible with careful investigation. But it becomes all the more iceberg-like from the position in which I and many young readers and potential translators of Yiddish find themselves: learning a foreign language and culture, especially given the extra challenges of immersing oneself in the many layers of Yiddish culture that inform any one work of literature. By extra challenges I mean the extreme disruptions to Yiddish cultural continuity given the many upheavals and catastrophes Yiddish underwent in the twentieth century: the disruptions of World War I, emigration, pressure to assimilate, World War II, Stalinism. Not only is the poem an iceberg, hiding most of its mass, but so much of the culture, the material history, the contexts of the poem are hidden from us as well, requiring real dedication from the reader and so much more so from the translator to understand.
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