I just picked up the December 15, 2005 issue of the NYRB, which is so fat (it’s a Holiday Issue) that I still haven’t finished it, and continued with Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Last Minstrel, a review of a biography of the novelist Henry Roth, whose famous Call It Sleep I own but have not read. I just reached the following passage, which discusses what I think a brilliant decision about representing immigrant speech:

With even bolder ingenuity, in order to confound further any facile assumptions about which culture is the “mainstream” for the novel’s troubled people, the young Roth had the original idea of representing the Schearls’ Yiddish speech not as it sounds to the American reader (awkward, halting, foreign), but as it sounds to the speaker: natural, even idealized—a pure English that is often poetic (“The sweet chill has dulled,” the mother tells her son. “Lips for me… must always be cool as the water that wet them”), and never less than beautifully proper (“Love, marriage, whatever one calls it, does that to one, makes one uncertain, wary. One wants to appear better than one is”). Even the awful father speaks in the cadences of one of the Prophets: “She’s jesting with the angel of death!” he snarls at one point, threatening his wife’s rebellious sister…
It is only when Roth’s characters speak English that we’re made brutally aware of how awkwardly “foreign” they still in fact are, how helpless they are in this new world. Confronted with an Irish policeman after her son has got lost, this same eloquent mother is reduced to a stiff, mechanical stutter: “Herr—Mister. Ve—er—ve go?”
Listening to these different registers of speech, it is hard for readers not to feel that Roth’s Yiddish-speakers are also the “last minstrels” of their particular linguistic music, and it is only too clear that a profound emotion moved Roth as a young writer to commemorate them.

And now, of course, I want to read the book.


  1. Michael Farris says

    “never less than beautifully proper (“Love, marriage, whatever one calls it, does that to one, makes one uncertain, wary. One wants to appear better than one is””
    There’s a fine line between ‘beautifully proper’ and ‘stilted’ and that quote with all those ‘one’s crosses it for me, it’s almost unbearable.
    I do like the idea of making the immigrants well-spoken, even eloquent in their own language and reduced to stammering in the alien host language.
    For what it’s worth, something similar was done on Lost with Jin, who was shown as a complex and interesting character in Korean, which the other castaways totally miss for a long time. I also like how once or twice they blurred the speech of the other castaways when they’re trying to tell him something to show what it sounded like to him.

  2. A brilliant idea indeed, but not an original one: Abraham Cahan was doing the same thing a generation before. In Yekl (1896), the Yiddish dialogue is represented by English — not ordinary English, but English infused with the metaphors of Yiddish; whereas English dialogue is given in conventional dialect representation (rather different in those days than today, and clearly influenced by conventional comic German-American dialect). Even the English loanwords in the speakers’ Yiddish are given in the same comic dialect style, and in italics to boot.

  3. I suspected it might not be original with him—thanks for the further example.

  4. Another example of this, though it’s an artifact of translation, is 4 Immigrants, an early manga (some say the earliest manga). In the original, the Japanese characters speak Japanese, but all English dialog is broken, whether its spoken by Americans or Japanese. In the translation, the Japanese is rendered into perfect English while the original English text is left as is. Not only is the language crude, but the hand-lettered original English text is contrasted with the typewritten translated Japanese. It makes for a very interesting effect.

  5. I wonder did the Yiddish speakers really think of how they spoke as being ‘never less than beautifully proper.’ I don’t get the impression that German-speakers feel that way today, in general, and I suspect that then and there the Yiddish speakers’ attitudes were similar.

  6. The opposite technique was employed by Anzia Yezierska in much of her work, most notably the novel Bread Givers; she represented Yiddish by writing English heavy with calques from Yiddish; as a modernist and admirer of Gertrude Stein, Yezierska produced a distinct linguistic defamiliarization through this technique. Sadly, her achievement is almost unknown, as most scholars and critics mistook the dialogue and narration as representing the broken English of Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Or so I argued, at least, in a term paper once.

  7. Maxim Afanasiev says

    But wouldn’t this — i.e. the original example from a book by Roth — present a particular occurence of what could be called representing a different language by changing style? Then this wouldn’t be a too infrequent occurrence in literature, would it? Hemingway’s spaniards come to mind as an example… Does a specific term for this exist? What is interesting is that, with Roth, as far as I could understand from the fragment, the trick is used to better describe the mind set of the speakers, rather than the language they speak.
    Actually, Yddish speakers as represented by other writers, most notably, I.B. Singer, seemed to be acutely sensitive to nuances of Yddish (e.g. the particular dialect or accent – Polish, German, Lithuanian, etc. – is invariably mentioned when introducing a new character). This would place the “never less than beautifully proper” of Roth’s characters in a context, but also make one wonder what particular dialect was the Yiddish they spoke (I haven’t read Roth’s book).

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