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Found in Translation: Cynthia Ozick

A new, Spanish-language anthology has fans rejoicing—and maybe the author, too

Rikki Novetsky
July 17, 2015

For devoted Cynthia Ozick followers, news has been slow. The legendary Jewish writer is 87, and while she hasn’t retired like Philip Roth, victories are slim if you’re an Ozick devotee who craves for more.

In May, Ozick penned a cover story in the New York Times Sunday Book Review about Harold Bloom’s new book The Daemon Knows. The piece proved (other than her devotion to Bloom) that octogenarian Ozick maintains her brilliance. She quotes Jewish and English literary texts with ease. She wears her genius casually, and somehow the ideas she’s been repeating for 50 years are still fun to read—the rabbis versus the Kabbalists; Judaism and its edicts versus classical myth and its magic.

But the happiest Cynthia Ozick fans right now aren’t Times readers—rather, it’s a Spanish-speaking literary crowd that has previously lacked access to her stories.

Lumen, a Spanish division of Penguin Random House, recently published a 736-page hardcover anthology of Ozick’s short stories, which seems to be a tribute to her. (The cover design features a close-up of her iconic circular glasses.) The translator is Eugenia Vazquez Nacarino, who has also done translation work for Ozick’s literary idol Henry James.

This is the first time many of her earlier stories, such as “The Pagan Rabbi,” will be accessible to Spanish-speaking audiences. Her previous Spanish translations include later works: the novels The Puttermesser Papers (1997) and Foreign Bodies (2011). 

But maybe it’s not just Ozick fans that will rejoice from this new translation, but also Ozick herself: There is a kind of poetic justice that her stories are finding a new literary canon to join.

Over the course of May, June, and July, the new Ozick collection has been glowingly reviewed by several Spanish publications, such as El Cultural, Cordoba, and El Periódico de Aragón. This week, a review of the anthology was featured in Argentinian newspaper Página/12. It begins: “Por fin se publican en castellano los relatos de Cynthia Ozick,” or ”finally the time has come for Cynthia Ozick.” It then declares that the party is now located in the library, where Ozick can mingle on the shelves with Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow.

The most meaningful reviews, perhaps, are those that claim that Ozick has been precisely what Spanish society has been missing for some time. Take this excerpt from a review of Ozick’s new Spanish-language anthology in El Periódico de Aragón:

Como nos quejamos a menudo de la frivolidad con que se apilan las novedades sin ton ni son en las mesas de las librerías, es obligado señalar aquí que a veces las editoriales cumplen todavía con rigor la función cultural que les corresponde: la publicación de este libro ya era casi una urgencia. Acaban de poner en nuestras manos un mundo entero resumido en una veintena de cuentos que ocupan más de setecientas páginas. Un mundo entero y una manera de mirarlo.

A translation: “While we regularly complain about the frivolity with which new things are heaped without rhyme or reason upon bookstore tables, it’s necessary to mention here that sometimes publishers still rigorously fulfill their cultural function: publication of this book was nearly an urgency. They just put in our hands a whole world summarized in a score of stories that occupy more than 700 pages. A whole world, and a way of looking at it.”

This new translation of Ozick’s own stories is apropos for a writer who was obsessed with the implications of translation and language choice. In “Preface to Bloodshed,” Ozick’s introductory essay to the collection Bloodshed & Three Novellas, she argues that English is an inherently Christian language, and cannot accommodate the themes she wishes to relate in her uniquely Jewish fiction. Of course she has no other choice but to write in her mother tongue: “What is English language (and its poetry) if not my passion, my blood, my life? … Still, though English is my everything, now and then I feel cramped by it.” Harold Bloom, in his introduction to his critical collection Cynthia Ozick, swiftly dismisses Ozick’s concerns with English writing: “The English language she calls Christian is no more Christian that it is Jewish or Buddhist.”

In Ozick’s short story “Envy; Or Yiddish in America,” she writes about Hershel Edelshtein, an aging Yiddish poet seeking a translator so he can enter mainstream American culture. Perhaps Ozick would now smile at the letter Edelshtein receives upon being rejected by a translator he attempts to hire: “Though your poetry may well be the quality you claim for it, practically, reputation must precede translation.”

Perhaps Ozick’s own “Enviada; o el Yiddish en America,” included in her Cuentos reunidos proves just that.

Rikki Novetsky is TK BIO.