Dan Ben-Amos on translating Nathan Alterman

Dan Ben-Amos

on translating Nathan Alterman

The poem was published in Hebrew in the newspaper Davar (March 9, 1945) and was included in subsequent editions of Alterman’s collected poems. The speaker in this poetic monologue is Menakhem Mendl, the protagonist of the epistolary novel The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyn-Sheyndl, by Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Yakov Rabinovitz [1859–1916]), published in 1892–1913. The latest English translation is published together with a book about another figure from Sholem Aleichem’s fictional gallery who is mentioned in the poem, “The Letters of Menakhen-Mendl and Motl, the Cantor’s Son,” translated by Hillel Halkin (New Yiddish Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). Uncle Pinye is also a character in this book. Stempenyu, the gifted fiddler, is the hero of Sholem Aleichem’s first novel that was published in Yiddish in 1888, and its latest English translation is by Hanna Berman (Stempenyu: A Yiddish Romance, [Brooklyn: Melville, 2007]). Topeleh Tuturitu is the child who narrates the tale “The Flag” in Sholem Aleichem’s stories for children, published in English as A Treasury of Sholom Aleichem Children’s Stories, translated by Aliza Shervin (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996). Tevye is Tevye the Dairyman of Fiddler on the Roof fame, whose story was published first as Tevye and his Daughters in 1894, and later in English translation as Tevye’s Daughters, translated by Frances Butwin (New York: Crown, 1949).

about the author

Nathan Alterman (1910–1970) was one of the leading Hebrew poets of the twentieth century. He was awarded major literary prizes in Israel: in 1946 and 1967 he received the Tchernichovsky Prize for translating classical French plays into Hebrew, in 1947 the Ruppin Literary Prize for his second book of poems, in 1957 the Bialik Prize for Literature, and in 1968 the highest Israeli prize for literature, the Israel Prize. He became a cultural literary monument, and in 2011 the State of Israel printed his portrait on its currency.

Alterman began publishing topical poems in July 1934 at the age of twenty-four in Davar and, later, in the leading newspaper Ha-Aretz. During eight years with Ha-Aretz, he wrote about three hundred poems. In 1942, he returned to Davar, where he continued to publish his topical poetry. Until 1965, Alterman’s work at Davar was commentary in prose. In addition to his topical poetry, he published several volumes of lyrical poems, wrote poems for the theater (many of them became popular songs), translated classical plays, and wrote four plays, which were produced in Israel.

about the translator

Dan Ben-Amos teaches folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. He earned his BA in literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and his doctorate degree in folklore from Indiana University. Among his books are Sweet Words, Folklore in Context, Folklore Concepts, and the edited volumes of Folktales of the Jews, Folklore Genres, Folklore: Performance and Communication (with Kenneth S. Goldstein), Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity (with Liliane Weissberg), and The Diary: The Epic of Everyday Life (with Batsheva Ben-Amos). His translations of Alterman’s poems appeared in Jewish Review of Books and Moment.