J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

NYJFF ’15: The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer

To 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.

Singer 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.

Nine 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).

If 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.

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