Home > Translation > Mary: A Yiddish poem by Anna Margolin

Mary: A Yiddish poem by Anna Margolin

January 28, 2011

translated by Lawrence Rosenwald

Anna Margolin (pen name of Rosa Lebnsboym) was born in Russia in 1887 and died in the United States in 1952. She published only one volume of poems in her lifetime, in 1929. It includes a seven-poem sequence titled “Mary,” Margolin’s imaginative exploration of the sensibility of the mother of Jesus; below are all but the fifth poem in the sequence. Some, e.g. “Mary’s Prayer,” are in psalm-like free verse, the rhythm carefully worked out (the translator’s challenge is of course hearing and rendering those rhythms). Other poems combine free verse with intermittent rhymes, which provide a sort of punctuation, an ordering of sections within the poem (“Mary and the Priest” for example). The last poem, “Mary and Death,” is the only one consistently in couplets, though even here the rhythm and line-length vary. All of this is characteristic of Margolin, whose work moves back and forth between free verse and highly regular and rhymed verse. A recent reviewer described her poetry as “sensual, jarring, plainspoken, and hard, the record of a soul in direct contact with the streets of 1920s New York.”

Note: Yiddish does not use capital letters. These transliterations do, both for proper names and indicate the beginnings of sentences. The original Yiddish texts are not numbered;the numbers are added only for convenience.


I: Vos vilstu, Mari?

Vos vilstu, Mari?

Efsher a kind zol likhtik drimlen in mayn shoys.
Di tife shtume ovntn in shtrengn hoyz
aleyn. Pamelekh vanderndik.
Alts vartndik und vartndik.
Un zol mayn libe zayn tsum man, vos libt mikh nit,
shtil un vi fartsveyflung groys.

Vos vilstu, Mari?

Ikh volt gevolt di fis farvortslt in der erd,
aleyn shteyn in der mit fun toyik-heln feld.
Es geyt di zun durch mir vi durch a yunger velt,
dos rayfn un der duft fun drimlendikn feld.
Un plutsem yogt zikh on a breyter vilder regn
un shlogt un kusht mikh tumeldik un shver,
a shturem vi an odler kumt gefloygn,
zinkt shrayendik in mir un boygt mikh hin un her.
Bin ikh a mentsh, a blits, der umru fun di vegn,
oder di shvartse krekhtsndike erd?
Ikh veys nit mer. Mit trernshvere oygn
gib ikh zikh op der zun, dem vint un regn.

Ober vos vilstu, Mari?

I: What do you want, Mary?

What do you want, Mary?

Maybe a child brightly asleep on my lap,
in the deep and silent evenings, in the strict house
alone. Slowly wandering.
Everything waiting and waiting.
For my love to go to the man who does not love me,
silently and huge as despair.

What do you want, Mary?

To root my feet in the earth,
to stand alone in the dew-bright field,
the sun passing through me as through a young world,
the blooming and scent of the dozing field.
And suddenly a broad wild rain
pursues me, strikes me, kisses me, loud and heavy.
A storm like an eagle comes flying,
sinks into me with loud cries, bends me this way and that.
Am I human, am I lightning, the unrest of the roads
or the black, groaning earth?
I do not know any more. Tears heavy in my eyes
I yield to the sun, the wind and rain.

But what do you want, Mary?


II: Maris tefila

Got, hakhnoedik un shtum zaynen di vegn.
Durkh fayer fun zind un fun trern
firn zu dir ale vegn.

Ikh hob fun libe geboyt dir a nest
und fun shtilkeyt a templ.

Ikh bin dayn hiterin, dinst un gelibte,
und dayn ponem hob ikh keynmol nit gezen.

Und ikh lig oyfn rand fun der velt,
un du geyst finster durch mir vi di sho fun toyt,
geyst vi a breyte blitsndike shvert.

II: Mary’s Tefila

Lord, these roads are plain and still.
But roads that pass through fire of sin and tears
still lead to you.

I have built you a nest of love,
a temple of silence.

I am your guardian, handmaiden, and beloved;
and I have never seen your face.

And I lie at the edge of the world,
and you go darkly through me like the hour of death,
like a broad and glittering sword.


III: Mari un der prister

Mari, bizt a bekher mit opfervayn,
a tsart-farrundikter bekher mit vayn
oyf a farvistn mizbeakh.
A prister
mit shlanke langzame hent
hoybt oyf hoykh dem krishtolenem bekher.
Un es tsitert dayn lebn un brent
in zayne oygn, in zayne hent
un vil in glik ekstatishn un shvern
teshmetert vern.
Mari, Mari,
bald vet mit a hel geveyn
dayn lebn zikh tsebrekhn,
un farbn vet dayn toyt
dem toytn shteyn
heys un royt.
Un es veln shmeykhlen di fargesene geter
heys un royt.

III: Mary and the Priest

Mary, you are a cup of offering-wine,
a delicately rounded cup of wine
on a ruined altar.
A priest
with slender, slowly-moving hands
raises the crystal cup,
your life trembles and flames in brands
of fire in his eyes and in his hands.
And seeks to be shattered in this
ecstatic, heavy bliss.
Mary, Mary:
soon your life will break apart
in bright sobbing;
and when you are dead
you will color the dead stone
hot and red.
And the forgotten gods will smile
hot and red.


IV: Eynzame Mari

Tsvishn mentshn iz zi
vi in midber geven,
flegt zi murmlen aleyn
ir nomen: “Mari.”

Un gevezn Mari
un oykh gelibter man:
“vi durkh heysn tuman,
her ikh dayn kol,
ze ikh dayn shotn,”
flegt zi murmlen amol
unter ir otem.

Un bletern veykh
dos glik dos oysgetrakhte,
un vern plutsem bleykh
fun zelbstfarakhtung.

IV: Mary Alone

Among people, she was
like someone in a wilderness,
would be by herself
and murmur her name: “Mary.”

And was Mary
and also beloved husband:
“as through a burning mist,
I hear your voice,
see your shadow,”
she would murmur
under her breath.

And gently page through
the fate devised for her,
and turn suddenly pale
from self-loathing.


VI: Mari vil zayn a betlerin

Zayn a betlerin.
Vi fun a shif, vos zinkt,
varfn ale oytsres oyfn vint:
di last fun dayn libe un last fun di freydn,
un az ikh aleyn zol mer zikh nit derkonen –
oykh mayn gutn tsi mayn shlekhtn nomen.

Zayn a betlerin.
Shtum zikh sharn iber groye trotuarn,
vi der shvartser shotn fun ale hele lebns,
un far geshenkte groshn
koyfn zikh tsum shpiln
a vanzinikn kholem un a shtiln,
vos knoylt zikh zilberik in roykh fun opium.
Eynshlofn in gas unter der zun,
vi in feld a mider zang,
vi a tseflikte blum,
vos iz farvelkt un umreyn,
un dokh getlekh,
un hot nokh alts a por sheyne zeydene bletlekh.
Un oyfloykhtn mit krankn likht fun a lamtern,
zikh oysviklen fun der shtumer groyer nakht,
vi a nepl fun nepl, vi a nakht fun der nakht.
Vern a gebet un vern a flam.
Zikh avekshenken tsertlekh, brenendik un groyzam.
Un umgliklakh.
Un geyn azoy mit farvunderte oygn
durch groyse soydesdike teg un nekht
tsum hoykhn gerikht,
tsum shmertslakhn likht,
tsu zikh.

VI: Mary wants to go begging

To be a beggar,
the way on a sinking ship
the treasures are thrown to the wind:
the burden of your love, the burden of joy,
till I myself do not know who I am —
not even my good or evil name.

To be a beggar,
to shuffle along the gray sidewalks
like the black shadow of all bright lives,
and with the pennies I’m given
to buy a crazy silent dream
to play with,
coiling all silvery in opium smoke.
To fall asleep on the street beneath the sun
like a weary song in the fields,
or like a plucked flower
withered and stained
but divine
with a few still pretty, silken petals left.
To shine with the sickly light from a lantern,
to unwrap myself from the quiet gray night
like a mist from mist, a night from night.
To become a prayer and become a flame.
To give myself away, tender and burning and cruel.
And to be alone
as only kings and beggars are alone.
And unlucky.
And to go along this way with wondering eyes
through long secret days and nights
to the high court,
to the painful light,


VII: Mari un der toyt

S’hot mari zikh gezegnt mitn likhtikn hoyz,
far di vent zikh geneygt un geneygt un aroys.

Un avek in der nakht, vi men geyt in a wald,
vu gots otem iz nont un s’shrekt yede geshtalt.

Di nakht hot geleygt zikh veykh oyf ir vey,
geleygt zikh vi shvartser, vi lashtsender shney.

Un gegangen nokh ir zaynen freylakh un bunt
betler un shiker un vagabund.

Vi troyerike feygl, krank farlibt,
hobn kalikes nokhgehipt.

Un kretzike hobn farshemte genent
und zikh di vundn farshtelt mit di hent.

Un foroys iz gegangen farbenkterheyt
der yingling toyt mit der tunkeler fleyt.

VII: Mary and Death

Mary said good-bye to the shining house, and bent
low to the walls, bent low again, and went

away in the night, as in a wood, where you are near
the breath of God, and in each shadow there is fear.

Gently the night lay down upon her woe
like black, caressing snow.

Right after her a rabble comes
of drunks and bums.

Behind them hopped along
cripples, like birds in lovesick song;

pressing close came shamefaced bands
of lepers, hiding their wounds with their hands.

And Death, a young man full of longing, played
on his dark flute, at the head of the long parade.

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Lawrence Rosenwald is the Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of English at Wellesley College. He has published scholarly and literary translations from Latin, French, Italian, German, and Yiddish, and a number of essays on translation theory, in particular on Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig’s German translation of the Hebrew Bible. His most recent book is a study of American literary multilingualism, called Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2008.

  1. January 31, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    These are lovely, both in original form and translation.

  2. January 31, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Thanks for these translations!

    For those who would like to see the original Yiddish:

  3. January 31, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I have some questions about the translation choices. These are meant not as criticism but for my own edification.

    II: Maris Tefila
    Got, hakhnoedik un shtum zaynen di vegn.
    Durkh fayer fun zind un fun trern
    firn zu dir ale vegn.

    II: Mary’s Tefila
    Lord, these roads are plain and still.
    But roads that pass through fire of sin and tears
    still lead to you.

    [Some comments: why Tefila and not Prayer in the translation of the title? “Hakhnoedik” means “submissive” – why “plain”? Also, why “Lord” and not “God”?]

    Part VII
    Un kretzike hobn farshemte genent
    und zikh di vundn farshtelt mit di hent.

    pressing close came shamefaced bands
    of lepers, showing their wounds with their hands.

    [My comment: perhaps better “hiding their wounds with their hands”? “Farshtelt” means “blocked, hid.”]

  4. Lawrence Rosenwald
    February 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    As I wrote Zackary Berger in a personal communication, I’m grateful for his comments on my translations; respectful and intense scrutiny of this sort is just what the enterprise of translating Yiddish needs, and doesn’t get enough of. I’ll respond to his comments as best I can.
    1) “Mary’s Tefila” rather than “Mary’s Prayer” – it’s true, I left the word “tefila” untranslated. I thought about translating it. I kept “tefila” because, at least in my reading, Margolin’s poems have a fragile but vital relationship to Jewish tradition. I mean, here’s Margolin writing about the mother of Jesus, so in some sense she’s outside Jewish tradition altogether. But at crucial moments – as here, in calling Mary’s prayer by the Hebrew and not the German word (gebet), she holds onto that tradition. Maybe that’s not enough of a reason for retaining the Yiddish word rather than translating it, but that at any rate was my motive for the choice I made.

    2) Hakhnoedik
    Weinreich gives “servile, humble, meek, abject”; Niborski/Vaisbrot gives “docile, humble, soumis.” The issue for me was figuring out the meaning of the word as an adjective modifying “roads.” I couldn’t see, in these dictionary meanings, what would make sense in that context. I chose “plain” for a couple of reasons. First, it overlaps somewhat with “humble” – “plain” in the sense of unspecial, ordinary, unadorned. “Her humble attire,” “her plain attire” might refer to the same garment. Second, it made sense in relation to roads. Maybe I had in mind the prophetic verses that Handel set: “the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.”
    It’s possible, though, that I simply lacked the nerve to follow Margolin more faithfully: “these roads are submissive and still.” I’d need to take some time to wrap my mind around that, but maybe I could.

    3) God and Lord
    Yes, the Yiddish text says “Got,” “God.” Why “Lord”? Because as I heard the line, choosing “Lord” had more of what Frost calls “sentence sound,” gave the speaker’s remark a more oral sound, which I thought Margolin wanted. Others might hear it differently, of course. But that’s my motive, at least.

    4) Showing and hiding.
    I think Zackary’s right about this, and if I were in a position to edit my translations, I’d probably change this rendering as he suggests (plus the change doesn’t alter the prosody, which is lovely!).
    I think what happened was that I got an image into my head, not sure exactly how, and couldn’t get it out, maybe a more vulgar image, a more lurid image, than Margolin intended: the lepers showing their wounds felt more in accord with the carnivalesque atmosphere of the last poem than having the lepers hiding their wounds, as lepers would more probably do. But philology has to trump image here; the word means what Zackary says it means.

    Again, my thanks!

  5. February 1, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks to both of you for this very interesting exchange! Such comments really add to the value of publication in this mongrel medium, the web.

    Larry, it is no trouble to make any changes to the translation you want. We’re not opposed to that here, onlike some other publications that feel compelled to make every post-publication change obvious via strikethroughs or noted updates.

    • February 1, 2011 at 5:16 pm

      Change made to the third-from-last line of the translation as suggested, with Lawrence Rosenwald’s blessing, 2/1/2011. Thanks to Zachary Berger for the careful reading.

  6. Alex Cigale
    February 2, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    How privileged I feel, to Lawrence and Zackary, to have helped foster their writerly and scholarly exchange, and how grateful to Beth and Dave for making this journal and commentary what a publication ought to be in the best sense, an opportunity for revision and further development. Cordially and collegially, AC.

  7. February 2, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Larry, I am grateful for the chance to read these poems of Margolin’s (which I had not read before you translated them) – and the added blessing of your translations, which are worthwhile in themselves.

    Your comments on my points 2 and 3 are very reasonable and I have no response.

    With regard to point 1, you write:

    “But at crucial moments – as here, in calling Mary’s prayer by the Hebrew and not the German word (gebet), she holds onto that [Jewish] tradition. Maybe that’s not enough of a reason for retaining the Yiddish word rather than translating it, but that at any rate was my motive for the choice I made.”

    In Yiddish, tefile is the most commonly used word meaning “prayer” – so common that it can be used in an “unmarked” way to refer to the prayer of a Christian or a Buddhist. “Gebet”, paradoxically, I think is more “Jewishly” marked, having as it does the echo of the ivre-taytsh (Yiddish glosses on the Bible text, often more Germanic in etymology*).

    *Larry, I know you know these things — these definitions are for the benefit of the readers who might not know!

  8. February 2, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    I’ll make one more comment: I’ve said far too much already. But, on the whole, I disagree with the idea that Margolin might be “holding onto her Jewish tradition” by using a word as common as tefile – simply because Margolin’s poetry has a lot to do with making possible references in Yiddish poetry that are *not* anchored to Jewish tradition (“kh’bin geven a mol a yingling” etc.).

  9. Lawrence Rosenwald
    February 6, 2011 at 11:02 am

    A colleague and friend of mine, the remarkable Israeli Yiddishist and graphic artist Efrat Gal-Ed, just wrote me to argue that Margolin’s poems are actually much more deeply rooted in Jewish tradition than they’re usually taken to be. I’ll need some time to sort through her arguments, and to figure out to what extent they bear on the specific meaning – for Margolin in particular, that is – of tefile, and then of my choice to retain the word in the English translation. To be continued, then . . .

  10. February 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Indeed – I look forward to continuing. And thanks again for these.

  1. January 29, 2011 at 9:09 am
  2. May 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm
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