For much of his career, Isaac Bashevis Singer carefully supervised the translation of his works from Yiddish to English, handpicking the translators and sometimes making significant changes in acknowledgment of his two very different audiences. But Singer first came to be known to the English-speaking public thanks to a 1953 translation over which he had no say whatsoever, done by Saul Bellow with the assistance of the Yiddish poet Eliezer Greenberg, of his short story “Gimple the Fool.” Julian Levinson reviews a new, stand-alone edition of the story, with an old-new translation:
The new, “definitive” edition contains Singer’s original Yiddish text together with Bellow’s version, alongside a new translation by David Stromberg and, remarkably, Singer himself. As Stromberg explains in the afterword, in 2006 he came upon a journal containing a dramatization of the story that Singer had produced in English in the YIVO archives. The play contained about 60 percent of the original story, and eventually, Stromberg realized that he could use Singer’s text as the basis for a new and more faithful translation of “Gimpl tam.” It is not clear precisely which parts of the new translation belong to Singer and which to Stromberg, but the results read smoothly, without any obvious seams.
Bellow knew full well that “Gimple the Simple” would be a more faithful translation of the story’s title—as the titular protagonist himself observes, he isn’t so much a fool as someone easily fooled—but wished to avoid the infelicitous rhyme. Levinson explains:
Tam, which entered Yiddish from biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, carries a range of meanings from innocent to guileless. In the Bible, both Jacob and Job—rather different characters, to be sure—are described by the word. Those familiar with the haggadah will recall that the third of the four sons who inquire about the seder is called tam, which is rendered in most English haggadahs as “simple.” Thus, Stromberg establishes a connection between Singer’s protagonist and this third son who asks his sincere, childlike question at every Passover seder.