Yiddish scholar Ilan Stavans joins City of Asylum’s literary festival
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Translator's visionStavans takes a thoughtful approach to language and meaning

Yiddish scholar Ilan Stavans joins City of Asylum’s literary festival

"Judaism is a language in a culture that thrives in the games of languages."

Ilan Stavans will speak at the City of Asylum's International Literary Festival. Photo by Kevin Gutting.
Ilan Stavans will speak at the City of Asylum's International Literary Festival. Photo by Kevin Gutting.

Ilan Stavans, 60, grew up resentful of the fact that his family spoke Yiddish at home.

The writer, who identifies as a Mexican Jew, descends from eastern European Yiddish-speaking ancestors, immigrants from Poland and the Ukraine. Unable to immigrate to the United States in the 1920s and ‘30s due to quotas, his family first moved to Latin America before settling in Mexico.

As a boy, he grew up speaking Spanish outside of the home and Yiddish in his Jewish community.

Stavans, who has translated poetry from Hebrew and Yiddish among other languages, will appear virtually as part of the City of Asylum’s first International Literary Festival on Sunday, May 16, at 5 p.m. Poet and editor Matthew Zapruder will serve as moderator.

“I didn’t see the practical side of learning Yiddish — there were other languages that would have enabled me to live in a modern world,” Stavans told the Chronicle. “Years later, when I left Mexico and began to be interested in literature and translation, I realized how important that had been for me and how much it defined me.”

He was also influenced, he said, by members of the Mexican Sephardic Jewish community who had left the Ottoman Empire and spoke Ladino in their new country.

Stavans will discuss both his background and “Selected Translations: Poems 2000-2020,” his newest collection published as part of the Pitt Poetry Series by the University of Pittsburgh Press. It includes works translated from Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Georgian, Ladino and several other languages. And, it also includes several pieces translated from English into Spanish, a rarity in an English poetry collection.

While Yiddish had become less common in United States when Stavans was a child, it still had its place, he said.

“As my American cousins would say, ‘Our grandparents would use Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand,’” said Stavans, co-editor of the book, “How Yiddish Changed America and America Changed Yiddish.”

Stavans said he typically speaks in Spanish, but thinks in whatever language he’s working in at the time.

When he translates, Stavans works to recreate the work as truthfully as possible without being handcuffed by the literal meaning, he said.

“I want to be able to bring the poem and feel comfortable in its new house, with its own music, its own rhythms, its own metabolism,” said Stavans, a professor of humanities and Latin American Culture at Amherst College. “I want to convey what the author said but don’t want to feel imprisoned to put everything in exactly where it was — every comma that was there, etc.”

Judaism, he said, “is a language in a culture that thrives in the games of languages, in the comings and goings of language. I think the history of the Jews is really the history of the many diasporas we have lived.”

Throughout history, Jews have spoken more than 2,300 languages, Stavans said, adding that American Jews typically speak fewer languages than did their ancestors who lived under Greek occupation, in the Ottoman Empire or in Eastern Europe.
Stavans’ newest book, “Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction,” examines the history of Jewish literature in the Diaspora from 1492 to the present day. It is slated to be published in late July,

Stavans has found special meaning in the story of the Tower of Babel: Generations later, Jews took what was to be a punishment and turned it into an advantage, he said.

“For me, speaking more than one language in translation is about being an outsider and an insider at the same time,” he said. “You live in a language, but you can also see it from the outside and vice versa.”

Zapruder called Stavans “a public intellectual.”

“He’s a worldly person who has traveled everywhere and written and translated and understands the world. He’s speaking to the world. I don’t think he’s only speaking to Jewish or Latino culture.”

The Literary Festival is unique because it focuses on translation and international authors, said City of Asylum Director of Programs Abby Lembersky.

“I’m excited about all of the programs,” Lembersky said, noting several of the upcoming Zoom sessions taking place May 12-21, including an event with Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018; her translator, Jennifer Croft; and Japanese author Mieko Kawakami.

More information about the International Literary Festival can be found at alphabetcity.org/litfest21. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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