“The Greenhorn Cousin”
To the Editor:
I recognize poetic license. I appreciate Jacob Sloan’s various literary skills [“Reflections on a Memoir,” January]. However, I must express my wonder at his translation of “A khaleriya oyf Kolumbuses medina!” as “A pox on Columbia, the gem of the ocean!” I would translate it as “A plague [cholera] on Columbus’s country!”
As a staunch, long-time (forty years) reader of COMMENTARY, I refuse to consider the only reason that comes to mind for this deceptive transmutation of the extract from “The Greenhorn Cousin”: a resistance to entertain any severe criticism of the U.S. That surely sounds far-fetched; so would Mr. Sloan please explain?
Jacob Sloan writes:
I can understand Nahum Ravel’s “wonder” at my free translation of a line from a popular Yiddish song of some sixty years ago. Yiddish is notorious as a language where things are not always what they seem: where irony and sentimentality often walk hand in hand, and resentful anger follows fast behind pain. Such is the case with this song.
The author begins by describing the beauty and vivacity of his young immigrant greenhorn cousin when she first arrives in America’s Promised Land (“She was lovely as gold; her cheeks were like red oranges; she had feet that invite to the dance”). But soon, alas, after a few years of toil in a sweatshop, she loses both looks and high spirits.
Hence the melancholy imprecation (“a pox on”) directed at the supposed Golden Land discovered to universal jubilation by Columbus, as celebrated in the proud patriotic hymn “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” My translation tried to convey the mockery as well as the rue.
I do agree with Mr. Ravel that to interpret my paraphrase as an attempt to deflect “severe criticism” of the United States would be far-fetched. The intention was quite the contrary. But I am grateful to him for his kind comment on my “literary skills.”
In Israel Kugler’s letter in the April issue, the first sentence on p. 4 should read: “And during the campaign itself, aside from rightly recalling his earlier support for the Chrysler bailout, Mondale made no mention of the concept so closely associated with Hubert Humphrey—full employment. . . .”—ED.