Translator's notes

Ballad of the Times

By Itzik Manger

Itsik Manger (1901 – 1969) was one of the most gifted and popular Yiddish poets of the twentieth century. Despite the post-Holocaust depletion in the numbers of Yiddish speakers and readers, his writing has continued to be read, studied, performed and translated since his death. He also wrote prose, literary essays and drama, and created dialogue and lyrics for Yiddish films. 

Manger’s life mirrors the political and cultural upheaval which confronted his generation of East European Jews. Born in Czernowitz when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he witnessed its becoming part of a Greater Romania in 1918. Like many Yiddish writers, Manger was drawn to Warsaw’s flourishing Yiddish culture and he moved to Poland in 1928 where he remained for a decade. He spent two years in France from where he unsuccessfully tired to reach Palestine and the United State. He arrived in England in 1940 and remained there until 1951. Then followed a further ten years in the United States and several years in Israel prior to his death in 1969.

Many Yiddish writers made their first literary attempts in languages other than Yiddish: Manger’s earliest poems, at the age of fifteen, were in German. He soon switched to Yiddish, his native tongue, and thereby began to inhabit a rich cultural world which transgressed any national or geographical boundaries. Despite the conscious choice to immerse himself in a Yiddish expression, Manger maintained links with other non-Yiddish writers and translated German and Romanian poets into Yiddish. His own poetry was translated into German (Alfred Magula-Sperber, Rosa Auslender) and other languages. For a long period he gathered folk songs of many cultures which he ‘re-composed’ rather than translated.

Manger’s years in Poland were his most productive; he wrote and published more there than in any subsequent period. Like many Yiddish writers at the time, he gave lectures and readings. In Poland, Manger felt he ‘belonged’ as a Yiddish poet to a dynamic Yiddish-speaking people.

Throughout his youth, Manger identified with the marginalised and the dispossessed. From the time of his departure to France and beyond, his life was one of displacement and exile. His sense of homelessness intensified and contributed to a particular psychological or existential condition, evident in his writing. Displacement and radical change, so frequently implicit in modern Yiddish writing, was often expressed as an identification with the past or as a rebellion against it. Manger’s writing sought to find meaning at a particular moment in the history of a culture in which both the past and present combined.

Manger’s particular skill as a poet lay in his ability to construct deceptively simple verse, often in a folk style. He drew material from Jewish and Yiddish religious and folk culture, often employing colloquial language and simple song metres. More than any other Yiddish poet, he concentrated on the ballad. By the twentieth century, the ballad may have seemed to be an archaic choice for a modern poet. Manger felt that Yiddish culture lacked this genre and he attempted to reverse this deficiency. He knew folk and literary ballads from many cultures and was conversant with world literature. His own penchant for storytelling and for the dramatic was compatible with ballad writing. Ballads, with their focus on a tragic event, were a suitable conduit for Manger’s exploration of the tragic in life.

Manger’s earlier ballads are more closely linked to traditional European folk ballads and to German literary ballads in particular. Many of his ballads adopt a traditional form; but he rapidly subverts it to serve his own ends. He often shifts between the impersonal narration of the traditional ballad and the more personal lyric voice of the modern poet. As conditions worsened for Jews in the 1930s, Manger consciously discarded ‘foreign’ influences in his writing in favour of retreating into a Jewish expression. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he rarely wrote ballads. He announced that as life itself was creating ballads, he was switching over to the sonnet.

The war in Europe and Manger’s attempts to reach safety marked a turning point in his life and career. His arrival in London was marred by the homelessness he had endured since leaving Poland and by a struggle for survival. His partner in Poland, the writer and journalist Rachel Auerbach, had remained in Warsaw; he did not know the whereabouts of his father, brother and sister in Romania. 

Manger became friends with Margaret Waterhouse (said to be the great-grand daughter of Mary and Percy Shelley) who ran an antiquarian bookshop in Swiss Cottage. She took him in and saw it as her mission to help the Yiddish poet. He communicated with her in English and seriously began to study English language and literature (already in Poland, he was able to recite Shakespeare in English). Manger read his poems in Yiddish to Margaret and to other non-Jewish friends and translated some into English (‘Now I will sing for Margaret / this sad little song / About a Jewish tailor-lad / who rang the evening bells / Ding-dong, Ding-dong…’). He planned an anthology of English poetry in Yiddish translation (from Herrick to Burns) which never materialised. The last volume of his poetry published in London in 1948 as a tribute to his brother Notte, now known to be dead, did not sell well. It was too difficult for most local Yiddish readers.

In London, Manger got to know Yiddish writers and enthusiasts, non-Jewish editors, writers and intellectuals. Arthur Waley began to study Yiddish with the aim of translating Manger’s work into English (Manger’s English was not yet good enough to do that himself). Isaac Deutscher thought that Manger should write a short book on Yiddish literature but could not get the backing. In 1950, at a meeting of the PEN club in Edinburgh, Manger became friends with Dan Davin, who later became Editor of Oxford University Press. They discussed ideas for an Oxford Book of Yiddish Verse, but could not get support for the project. But in 1987, at Davin’s initiative, this became the Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse.

Manger’s poetry published in London reflects the constant movement he underwent during the war and after. It expresses sadness, regret, tragedy and outrage. There are poems and cycles of poems dedicated to all those he loved. During and immediately after the war, Manger was cautious in writing about the Holocaust, although when he did, it was with great impact. I have met several people who recall the following lines spoken by Manger, by way of an assessment of his life up until and including the London period:

‘In Czernowitz geborn / in Varshe gevorn / in London farlorn’
(‘Born in Czernowitz / Became in Warsaw / Lost in London’)

From the time that Manger achieved recognition as a Yiddish poet while still living in Romania, there was never any serious question that he should write in any language other than Yiddish. He had absorbed Yiddish language and culture from home and his reputation as a writer continued to grow during the unprecedented explosion of modern Yiddish culture in the inter-war period. For a generation of Jews who had distanced themselves from the traditional religious observance of their parents and grandparents, secular Yiddish culture was often seen as a way to cultural continuity, autonomy, unity and a broader secular learning; and as an antidote to war and oppression. 

With the dramatic disappearance of Yiddish speakers after the war, Manger (and other Yiddish writers) had to reckon with depleted audiences and a limited readership. Poets responding to the tragic loss of millions of Yiddish speakers came to personify the language itself by describing Yiddish for example, as beautiful, homely, bereft and abandoned. In a sonnet titled ‘Yiddish’, Manger wrote:

Yidish, sheyne yoireshte fun undzer hoyz,
dayn sheynkeyt iz eynzam, dayn eynzamkeyt iz groys,
s’ara vunder vos dayn harts hot nokh nisht geplatst.
(Yiddish, beautiful heiress of our old house,
Your beauty is lonely, your loneliness is vast,
It is a wonder that your heart has not yet burst.)

For a brief period, when Manger’s attempts to reach the USA were unsuccessful and he felt he was being obstructed by the American Yiddish writers, he threatened to sever all ties with Yiddish and never to write in the wretched ‘jargon’ again. When he finally arrived in America in 1951, he was well-received and his lectures and poetry readings were very well-attended. By his own admission, this was to be the most sterile period of his literary career; he wrote and published less than at any other previous time. In 1952 a selection of the poetry taken from all earlier collections was published in New York as one large volume, Lid un balade.

With his final move to Israel in the 1960s, Manger was accorded the recognition which he felt he had for so long been denied and which most closely resembled the reception he had enjoyed in Poland. By this time, he was too ill to actively renew his working life as a poet.

With his regular rhymes and rhythms, Manger can seem a neo-romantic poet, who wrote verse with clear links to folklore and popular culture. And yet he was modern, without being a modernist. Manger’s is a lyrical voice, quietly and disturbingly indignant rather than revolutionary and dissonant. His persona, often at the centre of his poetry, speaks for the outcast and the rebel, but is linked to the past and not to the future.

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