I spent last week in New York and am now convinced that the city’s nickname is well earned: it never sleeps. My trip had too many highlights to list, including visits to the ballet and to the Guggenheim, a stimulating discussion about the legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and a hastily arranged reunion with my dear friend and collaborator Irina Mashinski. Each of these deserves a post of its own, but so far only one event has inspired me to sit down and write something. On Monday night, Jenny took me to see a production of Fiddler on the Roof — in Yiddish! The book and lyrics are a dazzlingly inventive back-translation, by Shraga Friedman (1924-1970), into the language of the stories on which the musical was based. I don’t doubt for a moment that Sholem Aleichem, Tevye’s creator, would have kvelled over Friedman’s work, which Peter Filichia discusses in detail here. I have only one bone to pick with Filichia’s analysis: he calls Friedman’s task “unenviable,” whereas I would characterize it as irresistible. It’s precisely the kind of challenge that often keeps me up at night. Here is a preview of the production:
The performance we saw was very moving, for many reasons. It made me reflect again on the contrast between the world of the shtetl, which is tragically vacated at the end of the musical, and that of urban Jewry, which I know and love. My mind drifted back to the myth of Old Odessa — the land of Isaac Babel, Yakov Yadov, and the anonymous composers of peppery criminal ballads like “Surka.” And so I sat down to translate another of those ballads, about a beer joint on Deribasovskaya Street. It was written in the early 1920s, to fit the melody of Ángel Villoldo’s (1861-1919) immortal tango “El Choclo,” which was very popular in pre-Revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union. You’ll find the original lyrics here and my translation below, followed by clips of the Russian song (in a different variant) performed by the beguiling Strongilla Irtlach (1902-1983) and of “El Choclo” performed by Orquesta Típica Victor.
The emphasis in Deribasovskaya is on the first “a” (Deribásovskaya), and I’ve indicated the correct emphases in the other foreign names below, when they first occur, with accents over the vowels. (Oh, and there is a connection with Sholem Aleichem, thanks to the mention of Odessa’s legendary Café Fanconi in the eighth stanza. See here.)
A joint sprang up on Deribasovskaya Street
where all Odessa’s thieves and crooks would meet.
You’d see Marúsya, Véra, Ráya there for sure,
accompanied by Kóstya the Procurer —
three demi-virgins and a handsome-looking joe,
who’d travel out of town to beg for dough,
returning to Odessa in a Ford,
sporting a suit as natty as a lord’s.
Well, Róza from the slums came in one night,
looking as lovely as an ancient sybarite,
and Kostya, Roza’s faithful, life-long mate,
approached her when the hour was getting late.
Gripping her toches like a handle in a tram,
he said: “My darling Roza, little lamb,
I ask you kindly — no, I simply beg you
to join me on the floor for one last tango.”
But then Arónchik came and asked Roza to dance.
To us, he might as well have been from France.
His invitation was as gallant as all hell —
and the Procurer got a look from him as well…
Although our Roza didn’t care to dance no more
(she was already plenty sweaty from before),
she glanced up at Aronchik and smiled back —
well, Kostya the Procurer blew his stack.
He spoke to Aron in a manner most refined:
“You’d better moor at Vera’s dock, if you don’t mind —
lest your poor mother come to harm some day,”
then donned his Panama straw hat and walked away.
All this was heard by billiard-marker Mónya,
whose spine had snapped a cue once at Fanconi’s —
he was the bastard son of Aunty Pésya,
а famous madam in our beautiful Odessa.
He swaggered over like a pelican,
waving a flickblade like a little fan,
and spoke to Aron as the poets do:
“I’d keep my portraits safe, if I were you.”
But our Aronchik got all fired up
and smashed a bottle over Mónchik’s kop.
They poked the waiter in the toches with a fork
and then the farewell tango was uncorked.
No, none of this looked much like Buenos Aires,
bystanders getting punched and all the tsuris.
They tossed us out, we landed on our rumps —
me with a shiner and my buddy with a lump.
A beer joint closed on Deribasovskaya Street.
Where do Odessa’s thieves and crooks now meet?
Where are our girls — Marusya, Raya, Roza —
and Kostya the Procurer? No one knows…