date, Isaac Bashevis Singer is one of twenty-three winners of the Nobel Prize
for literature published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He had the right
publisher, but finding the right translator was a trickier proposition.
Evidently, it helped if they were women. The ambiguous relationships Singer
shared with his translators are explored in Asaf Galay & Shaul Betser’s The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer (trailer here), which screens
during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.
was a prolific writer, trained to produce regular installments of serialized
novels in Yiddish newspapers like The
Forward. However, he was also keenly aware of his place in the literary
canon and the importance of quality English translations for international recognition,
most definitely including the Nobel Prize. Consequently, he was rather hands-on
when it came to worker with his various translators. Since they largely tended
to be women, he also enjoyed their company. In just what way varied from
translator to translator.
such translators survived to reminisce about Singer and each had a different
relationship with the Yiddish writer. By all accounts, it is safe to say his
wife Alma was a very tolerant woman. Yet, arguably Muses’ biggest scoop is its analysis of the translations
themselves, suggesting Singer consciously watered down some of the earthier
elements of his work for English readers, in order to make it more respectably
for the literary establishment.
Muses captures the
unlikely intersection of the established New York cultural world and the
remnants of Singer’s Old World Yiddish universe. It is highly literate and
deliberately targeted to an elite audience, bless its heart. There is a bit of
an attempt to survey Singers oeuvre, but it assigns wildly uneven weights to
respective works. Probably Yentl, the
short story and subsequent Broadway play gets disproportionate attention
because it was later adapted for the big screen by Barbra Streisand, (a name
that will be unfamiliar to younger readers but was once relatively famous for
covering show tunes).
you have read Singer, Muses will be a
fascinating but respectful glimpse into his authorial business. It is mostly
quite wry, but it has its wistful moments, including a quiet little revelation
of a conclusion that perfectly caps the film. Respectfully recommended for well-read
audiences, The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer screens twice
this Wednesday (1/14), as part of the 2015 NYJFF.
Labels: Documentary, Isaac Bashevis Singer, NYJFF '15