Yes, but Is It Still Funny in English? Translating Jewish Comedy

Jeremy Dauber

Translation is absolutely vital to Jewish comedy. It is also absolutely deadly to it.

Let's begin with the obvious: the vicissitudes of Jewish multilingualism, historically speaking, allow for the development of a strong and broad stream of comedy based on wit and wordplay centered around translation. Whether this be the Yiddish glosses Tevye the dairyman puts on the Hebrew snatches of liturgy he quotes— glosses that are not literal translations, but ironic commentary of the highest order —or jokes rendering the whole world subject to the scrim of Jewish linguistic perspective (Why did the Jews settle in Poland? Because when they arrived, they said po-lin, here we stay), Jews were able to constantly create comedy around translatability. And if we move slightly into the realm of translation as metaphor, rather than glossing, the floodgates open wide: whether it's translating the Jew as stereotype for a mass culture audience, like Woody Allen or Mel Brooks, or rendering a Jewish voice previously heard most pungently in a Jewish language into a non-Jewish one (one could almost imagine, for example, a small line at the bottom of the title page of Portnoy's Complaint noting it had been translated from the original Yiddish).

But, of course, the humor of Jewish translation also encompassed its flip side, untranslatability. Part of the joke was about the aggression of making sure others didn't get it: whether it be the Borscht Belt comics who slipped into Yiddish for their punch lines, twitting the young acculturated for the benefit of their parents, or the elite writers of the Jewish Enlightenment, hinging their satirical points on a subtle misreading of Proverbs that would have gone over the head of almost all their readers. In each of these cases, providing an effective translation, via footnote or whispering to your partner in the seat next to you, ruins the joke's effect, its vitality—and yes, textual comedy can be vital, too; as long as you're in the life-world where those texts deeply matter.

But, of course, many of them don't matter anymore. Comedy has the dubious distinction of staling quickly: if satire is indeed what closes on Saturday night, then what of the satire of the Enlightenment, whose battles, at least for most of us and our readers, have been largely over and done with for many years? (If you want to take the position that these battles are far from over, there are plenty of other cases to choose from: the anti-idolatry satire of the biblical prophets, which has successfully translated the notion of idol worship from a complex milieu of pagan spirituality to the spectacle of a bunch of morons worshipping sticks and stones.) And so any translation is by definition doomed to failure, lacking, as it must, the urgency and vitality that gave that comedy its punch, its effect: and without that, what is it?

(I won't even dwell on the banal, but crucial, difficulties in rendering the actual material itself in translation: the risk of failing to find equivalently comically resonant equivalents, and the humility any of us feel at trying to do so with texts produced by masters of the comic form. I suspect I'm not the only one who's looked at a translation they've produced and said this, or the equivalent: "Well, it's funny . . . but it's not Sholem Aleichem funny." I mean this both in terms of quality and in terms of rendering the particular style and sensibility of that author. It's a deflating, if perhaps inevitable, feeling, and to keep myself—and perhaps my readers—from feeling too bad, I'm going to move on.)

We can even suggest that the history of the reception of some works of Jewish comedy is a history of mistranslation—if we take that word to refer to properties of form and genre, not just content—and here's where we as scholars are put on notice. If the book of Jonah is, as numerous scholars suggest, a parody of the prophetic mission, rather than an account of one itself, then its placement in the Yom Kippur liturgy would have occasioned snickers and guffaws quite different from those originally intended by its authors. The processes we engage in of reverential treatment of our past—whether it be the sacralizing tendencies of traditionally minded Jews toward canonizing every text or the sacralizing tendencies of scholars to impute deep meaning to every statement—may be dangerous to the spirit of play that capers at the heart of comedy. Translation, in short, is, in the academy at least, a serious enterprise, as it should be; and it's hard to be deeply serious and keep your sense of humor about you.

Hard, but not impossible; and our field has been blessed with a wide variety of academics, translators, and academic translators who are attuned to the lively play of language in Jewish texts and who do their utmost to fight against these literary and scholarly entropies. (Call it Larry David's Fourth Law of Thermodynamics: absent outside effort, everything, in the end, approaches being unfunny.) But if a common theme in a translation issue is both translation's necessity and its dangers, comedy seems to illuminate that more than much else.

There's a famous, perhaps the famous, Jewish joke—it's the one told by Olsvanger at the beginning of his iconic joke collection, Royte Pomerantsn—about the number of times different people, including a Jew, laugh when you tell them a joke. But I'm not going to tell it here. For one thing, it takes too long to set up. And then I'd have to explain it. And I'd probably have to say something about how it appears in different variants . . .

Translating jokes is hard, is what I'm saying. That's my point.

Still glad we're doing it, though. It's better than the alternative.