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Lost in translation (of Agnon)
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Lost in translation (of Agnon)

Rabbi Jeffrey Saks in Agnon’s library, in Agnon House, surrounded by Agnon’s books.
Rabbi Jeffrey Saks in Agnon’s library, in Agnon House, surrounded by Agnon’s books.

When Rabbi Jeffrey Saks delivers a lecture next week about the writings of S. Y. Agnon at Princeton University, he’ll be honoring the wishes of the late Rabbi James S. Diamond, as expressed in the last email Diamond ever wrote to Saks.

A little background on Agnon’s biography and literary development is necessary to understand the significance of that email:

Although Agnon started publishing his writing at 14, he decided not to republish or anthologize any stories written prior to his aliyah in 1908 at age 20, aside from three short stories, all of which were revised before later republication. Those stories are available in archives and in their original places of publication. But then Saks discovered in the Agnon archive held at the National Library in Jerusalem a story written and published in 1907, “Ir ha-Metim” (“City of the Dead”), that had appeared in a short-lived, relatively unknown newspaper called HaEt.

“I came upon it and showed it to Jim because it is the raw material that [Agnon] would, over the next 60 years, be playing with,” Saks said. “You can almost see the DNA of the stories he would be writing and rewriting for the rest of his life, including a large amount of source material that would go into his magnum opus, ‘A City in Its Fullness.’”

Even so, “I was skeptical of whether it was significant,” he said, and it took an email from Diamond encouraging Saks to study the previously unknown story and explain its meaning to change his mind. Then, in March of 2013, Diamond was killed after being hit by a speeding car. “It was the last email I got from him, and I tried to execute his last will and testament.”

Saks, the director of research at Agnon House in Jerusalem, a museum and cultural center in the home where Agnon lived for much of his time in Israel, will deliver the last of five annual lectures in Diamond’s memory on Oct. 18. The title of his lecture is “From ‘A City of the Dead’ to ‘A City in Its Fullness’: Evolving Depictions of Buczacz in the Long Arc of S. Y. Agnon’s Writing.” (Agnon grew up in the Ukrainian city of Buczacz.) Saks is also founding director of Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions (ATID).

Rabbi Jeffrey Saks leading a tour in S. Y. Agnon’s hometown of Buczacz, holding a translation of the author’s “A City in Its Fullness,” which has this dedication: “In memory of James S. Diamond, z”l, genial master.”

Originally from Roselle in Union County, Saks now lives in Efrat, Israel, in the same neighborhood as Diamond’s son, Etan. When the elder Diamond and Saks met in 2011 in Efrat through Etan, they had already known of each other through the world of S. Y. Agnon scholarship. “We really hit it off, despite the differences in our ages and backgrounds,” Saks told NJJN via FaceTime. “We quickly became very close friends, in the truest Jewish sense of chevruta — a friendship that comes out of debating ideas, wrestling with texts, and studying with each other.”

In a separate project started before Diamond’s death, he, Saks, and Alan Mintz collaborated on a volume in a 15-volume series of new and annotated translations of Agnon’s work for the Agnon Library at the Toby Press. Saks is the series editor. The three men were working on Agnon’s “A City in Its Fullness,” which had been published posthumously in 1973. Agnon died in 1970. “It is a literary monument to his hometown of Buczacz, then in western Ukraine, the furthest eastern reaches of Austro-Hungarian literature,” Saks said. “It is literature but it tells the story of the town, spanning 350-plus years of the town’s history as told through the imaginative perspective of Agnon’s stories.”

Diamond was responsible for translating the stories of Buczacz, Saks was preparing the annotations, and Mintz was writing the critical introduction. At the time of his death, Diamond, the director of the Center for Jewish Life — Hillel at Princeton University from 1995 to 2003, had made it through about a third of the work. “Thanks to Judy [Diamond’s wife], we found drafts of the major stories, which I was able to complete,” Saks said.

Although Saks considers this book as being “among Agnon’s most important volumes,” it got little attention when it was published. For one thing, it was released on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, and the nation was distracted. Second, by then Israeli fiction had gone in a different direction. “People were no longer interested in reading about the shtetl and the Old World. They wanted to read stories that documented the Sabra experience,” Saks said. Luckily, Saks said, the last decade has seen “renewed interest” in Agnon.

Translating the works of Agnon requires a deep knowledge of the author’s various writing styles — from pietistic accounts and retellings of chasidic stories to “tales so shockingly modern that when [Agnon] began to publish, people compared him to Franz Kafka and everything in between,” Saks said.

But a second requirement of accurately translating Agnon is the ability to read between the lines. Agnon’s work, Saks said, is “chock-full of intertextual references, wordplays, and allusions to the entirety of Jewish writing and literature that came before him.” This ranges, he said, “from the Bible through rabbinic literature, Talmud and midrash, medieval Hebrew literature and poetry, chasidic literature, literature of the Jewish Enlightenment, and the authors who were contemporary up to Agnon’s arrival — taking the entirety of the Jewish bookshelf and distilling it and recasting it in the mode of modern literature.”

Rabbi James S. Diamond

Diamond, who trained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary and later earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Indiana University, was perfectly suited to the task. Said Saks, “In order to properly translate Agnon, you need to be conversant in all of that source material, and Jim was. Even translators who are very fine stylists and produce extraordinarily readable texts will often lose nuances or mistranslate something.”

Saks first became interested in Agnon in his early teens when his grandmother, “who was not even traditional, let alone religious, but the most cultured woman,” gave him a copy of Agnon’s “Twenty-One Stories.”

“I was something of a bookish kid and was very enchanted by Agnon at first exposure,” he said. Although Agnon’s intertextual references were lost on him, he said, “I could sense that he was saying something about the condition of the Jewish world in modernity and the transition that the Jewish world had undergone in his lifetime, from traditional to modern, from the Old World of European Jewry to, for him, the New World in the Land of Israel, and the tension between these divisions.”

Saks was ordained by Yeshiva University and made aliyah in 1994. Once his Hebrew was good enough, he said, “I got it in my head that I could read the whole collected works [of Agnon] — 23 volumes.” At the same time, he audited some university courses that “rounded out my reading of the critical literature on Agnon,” and lo and behold, “I became recognized as one of the experts on Agnon.”

“Improbably, this American Orthodox rabbi became something of an expert on Israel’s greatest modern-Hebrew author,” said Saks, “a curiosity that Agnon himself would have been
amused by.”

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