Intricate Tasks: Language and Intentio in the Writings of I. L. Peretz

Sheila Skaff, University of Michigan

A native of Zamość, Isaac Leib Peretz was raised in the three languages in which he would later write: the Polish of correspondence and legal matters; the Hebrew of his religious education; and the Yiddish of his kheyder and his home. His attempts at poetic expression in the former languages proved only mildly successful, while his stories and essays written in the latter have prompted his designation as the father of modern Yiddish literature. How does a modern artist and ethnographer approach writing in an unofficial language? In a brief and complex 1910 essay entitled “What Our Literature Needs,” Peretz defined the task of the Yiddish writer as one of simultaneous acceptance and denial of translation. “To find the heart, the essence of Jewishness in all places and times, in all parts of this scattered, dispersed yet universal people; to find the soul and see it illuminated with the prophetic dream of the future—this is the task of the Jewish artist.” For Peretz, universal art is reliant upon universal humanity, which is in turn reliant upon a return to the Hebrew Bible and to a divine presence, the Shekina, as explored in the Lurianic mythology of the Kabbalah. Peretz, a literary polyglot, approaches the intricacies of after-Babel multilingualism in a means strikingly akin to Walter Benjamin’s approach thirteen years later in “The Task of the Translator.” To read these texts together helps to shed light on the role of translation in the formation of a modern literary consciousness; to look at the specificity of Yiddish and Polish in this context offers insight into its formation in Eastern Europe. Though in the peak of his career he ceased writing but love letters in Polish, the dialogs that Peretz created in his Yiddish stories are often staged with Polish phrases and syntax, and the nuances of the Polish language are translated into Yiddish. How does literary trilingualism surface in his texts? How does it reflect upon the notion of translation advocated in “What Our Literature Needs”? What is the significance of the striking similarities between Peretz and Benjamin, who most likely had no contact with each other? By examining Peretz’s views on modernity and Yiddishkeyt at the beginning of the twentieth century, this paper analyzes the role of translation in the shaping of a modern literary language.