“To Sing Away the Darkest Days” Norbert Hirschhorn (Holland Park Press) – poetry review

To Sing Away the Darkest Days Nobert Hirschhorn book coverSubtitled “Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs”, this collection is from a five year project where Norbert Hirschhorn sourced over a thousand songs and translated a selection of them into English. Most available translations are very literal and somewhat stilted. Norbert Hirschhorn’s aim was to capture the rich idioms and cadence from the original in the translation. Helpfully the book comes in two sections, the first is the re-imagined poems and the second gives the original Yiddish with a literal translation and web links to either the song or publication as appropriate. Yiddish doesn’t use capitals but initial capitals have been used to follow convention.

I always appreciate seeing the original alongside a translation (whether literal or a more free ‘in the spirit of’ translation) as, even if I don’t know the original language, I can usually see sound patterns or get a sense of rhythm and line length. Full marks to Holland Park Press for doing so because, for reasons of costs and/or space, it’s easier to leave out the originals. It’s also a mark of confidence since readers who do know the original language can compare the translation with the original.

If I take three stanzas of “The Little Stove”, in Yiddish:

Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek,
Azoy zog ikh aykh on,
Ver s’vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre,
Der bakumt a fon.

Az ir vet, kinder, elter vern,
Vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
Vifl in di osysyes lign trern
In vifl geveyn.

Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn,
Oysgemutshet zayn,
Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn,
Kukt in zey arayn!

The literal translation is:

Learn, children, with great eagerness,
This is what I tell you:
Who is the fastest of you to learn Hebrew,
He receives a flag.

As you, children, get older,
You will yourselves understand,
How many tears lie in these letters
And how much weeping.

As you, children, haul the burden of exile,
Become exhausted,
You will derive strength from these letters
So look into them!

Even without knowing any Yiddish, it’s possible to see that in the translation, the rhymes have gone and the rhythms aren’t those of a song and that’s before the clumsiness of some of the English expressions are considered. Norbert Hirschhorn re-imagines the ending as:

…                   Nu, what else do our people
.              Need? Say it, say it again. As you drag
.                             the weight of exile, you,
.                                       my treasures, will be

dispirited, you’ll be plagued, but
.                   courage comes through Aleph-Beys, so
.                         say those letters, say them again. When you
.                                 grow up, my dears, you’ll learn how these

letters fetch sorrow, fetch tears.

The re-imagined version frees itself from the constraints of the original rhyme scheme and rhythms but better conveys the irony of urging children to learnt their history whilst knowing that knowledge will become a necessary burden. It takes a knowledge of the past to understand the present. Rather than use the generic “children”, Norbert Hirschhorn uses first “my treasures” and then “my dears”, the latter creating an internal rhyme with “tears”, personalising the song. However he changes the tone of the original, which ends on an exhortation to children to learn Hebrew, to a downbeat, regretful end so the re-imaging falls away.

A complete song and re-imaging gives a better feel of what Norbert Hirschhorn is aiming to achieve. “A Yiddish Divorce” in the original Yiddish is:

Tunk I brent a fayer
In shtiln tsorn, blas,
An umet oyfn der hayzl
An unmet oyfn gas.

Der vint, der vint, der beyzer,
Er rayst mit beyz gefil;
Do klapt imer shtarker
Do klapt imer shtil.

– Gut-ovnt, shvester Dvoyre,
Mayn kumen iz nisht gut.
Dayn man fun Amerike
Shikt dir op a get.

Er vil dikh nit kenen,
Er vil dikh nit visn;
Day man fun Amerike
Shikt dir op a get.

The literal translation is:

A fire burns dimly
In silent rage, white.
Sorrow lies upon the house
And there is sorrow in the street.

The wind, the wind, the angry wind,
It tears us with angry feeling;
Here it blows strongly,
Here it blows quietly.

Good evening sister Deborah –
My coming is not good.
Your husband sends from America
A divorce for you.

He doesn’t want to know you,
He doesn’t want to acknowledge you.
Your husband from America
Is sending you a divorce.

Norbert Hirschhorn’s version again moves away from the original rhythms and structure although the two main stanzas use the simple rhyme scheme present in the early stanzas of the original:

The bitterest wind torments a street.

.          Good evening sister –
.          I bring you bad news.
.          Your husband in America
.          says for you, he no longer has use.

The lacerating wind penetrates a house.

.          He no longer wants to know you.
.          Here is paper, from his own pen:
.          Your husband in America
.          says You are permitted to all men.

An icicle wind impales a heart.

Three children do cartwheels
out in the yard.

The stanzas surrounded by wind have a singular tone of the bitterness of rejection, cutting out the rage and sorrow in the original. However, the three children create an additional poignancy as they suggest a longer marriage and the tumble of cartwheels suggests the coming whirlwind of divorce. All versions acknowledge the unfairness of being on the receiving end of a unilateral decision: the wife is not being asked for a separation but being told she’s rejected. The only duff notes are in the use of “bitterest” and “lacerating” to describe the wind: I don’t think they’re necessary. For me, “The wind torments a street” is stronger than “the bitterest wind torments a street” because the unbalancing of stresses focuses attention on “torments” in the former.

Overall I do think Norbert Hirschhorn’s re-imagings do add to the original songs, offering a new way of looking at them. Just like a good cover version of a favourite song enables listeners to hear something new in the original. These covers demonstrate that care and attention has been made not only to the meanings of the originals but also the phrasing and cadences. He is right to have the confidence of publishing his re-imagings alongside the originals and literal translations.

“To Sing Away the Darkest Days” is available from Holland Park Press