Recovering Worlds: On Mireille Gansel’s “Soul House”

By Shoshana OlidortApril 20, 2024

Recovering Worlds: On Mireille Gansel’s “Soul House”

Soul House by Mireille Gansel

“WHAT IF TO TRANSLATE was to look for lost words,” asks Mireille Gansel in a line from her genre-defying Soul House (2023), a meditation on poetry and translation as forms of hospitality, translated from the French by Joan Seliger Sidney. I misread this line at first, mistaking “words” for “worlds,” then wondered whether it couldn’t work both ways. Might the search for words really be a search for worlds, for a world or a house—like the spiritual dwelling invoked by the title—“filled with voices which enchant you—and with words which speak a soul language”? Gansel’s book, a bilingual collection of prose poems of varying lengths—some just a few lines in all, others spanning several pages—posits “words as shelter” while seeking “to make a word habitable.” Again, the slippage between word and world—as if to suggest that translation and poetry, in trying to make words habitable, also aim to increase the habitability of our world, or allow us to find or create hospitable words/worlds.

A poet, translator, and translation theorist, Gansel was born in 1940 to refugees who spoke a mix of languages, including German, Yiddish, and Hungarian. In her 2017 book Translation as Transhumance (translated from the French by Ros Schwartz), Gansel, who translates from German and Vietnamese, wrote of translation that it “became the clay from which I would fashion my own interior language.” For Gansel, what translation seeks out is both her interiority, or soul language, and also the external realities—linguistic and geographic—history would have us forget.

I think of my own work as a translator from Hebrew and Yiddish. What words/worlds am I seeking to evoke or manifest in the process of translating from these languages that were interwoven in my childhood and formed the fabric of my Hasidic upbringing in Brooklyn in the 1980s and ’90s? I left the Hasidic world and way of life nearly two decades ago, yet these languages remain embedded in me, my cultural and linguistic DNA, and I wonder whether there isn’t some part of me that is hoping, through translation, to bring back a version of the world that was, for a time, my only world, my only home, even a soul house of sorts.

I recently assigned my students in a course on Jewish stories and storytelling Pearl Gluck’s documentary Divan (2004), about her journey to locate and recover a family heirloom left behind in Hungary—the titular divan upon which, according to family lore, a string of Hasidic rebbes had rested their weary bodies when they stayed, as guests, in the family home. The film follows the ex-Hasidic Gluck across the Atlantic on her quest for the elusive couch that is itself a metaphor for the lost world of her Hasidic childhood, which she hopes, if not exactly to recover, to somehow reclaim and reimagine from her position as a secular woman with deep, abiding ties to her Hasidic family and roots.

My own attempts at reclamation involve something less tangible—a kind of transgressive word/world-play that recalls Gansel’s notion of translation as an act of smuggling words across borders, as if in defiance of laws that preclude hospitality, habitability even. As the writer and translator Lauren Elkin writes of Gansel, she “is not only a shepherd with a flock, but a smuggler, slipping language past the guards.” For Gansel, those borders and border guards are more than mere metaphor. Indeed, Gansel’s translations from German chafe against the impositions of the Berlin Wall and seek to “bridge the abyss created in the German language by the barbed-wire fences and watchtowers of history”; writing about her translations from Vietnamese, Gansel has said she was attempting “to confront McNamara’s declaration that the US would ‘bomb ’em back to the stone age’ with the testimony of a culture that was several thousand years old.”

The borders that my translations seek to break through are those that were inculcated in me from a young age and that were aimed at separating Jew from non-Jew, the devout from the secular, and sacred languages and texts from their profane counterparts. I chose to translate “First We’ll Speak Many Words About God,” a long poem by the contemporary Israeli poet Almog Behar, in part because of its refusal of the borders separating the divine from humankind. The poem opens with the speaker giving voice to a desire to “disavow existence / and give it another chance,” and later posits: “We are a little of god / and he is a little of us.”

For Gansel, translation makes possible the disavowal of existing borders and seeks to give our world “another chance.” But not all translation is motivated by a desire for openness. Indeed, while translation was ubiquitous in the Hasidic world of my youth, its driving force there was decidedly reactionary, based largely on fears of attrition. This might explain the peculiar method of Bible instruction deployed in Bais Rivkah—the all-girls’ school I attended from kindergarten through 12th grade—and in similar schools across the country and around the globe. Beginning in first grade, when each student received her own copy of the book of Genesis, we would read the Hebrew verses aloud, chanting each phrase, and then, prompted by the teacher, recite its corresponding Yiddish equivalent. Like many ultra-Orthodox schools, Bais Rivkah was modeled after the traditional Jewish schools—or “kheyders”of the prewar Eastern European shtetl in which Hebrew Bible was taught via “taytsh,” or translation into Yiddish, then the lingua franca among Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.

While Yiddish remains the spoken language in many Hasidic communities, this was not the case for the Chabad Hasidic community in which I was raised. Though Yiddish was ever-present, the language spoken among many of our grandparents, the language of instruction in the boys’ school, and perhaps most significantly, the language in which the Rebbe—the revered spiritual leader of our community and its thousands of satellites across the globe—delivered weekly sermons, only a few of my peers grew up speaking Yiddish as a first or even second language. The decision to translate from biblical Hebrew into Yiddish, both languages few of us spoke or understood with any degree of fluency, thus involved a kind of doubling down on the fundamental incomprehensibility of the sacred tongue, which could only be captured, if at all, in a language we could not understand. The conundrums surrounding translation and the question of translatability are familiar to anyone who has ever had to contend with the incommensurability of language, who knows that if the act of translation is always necessarily also an act of betrayal—a betrayal, that is, of the “original,” whether language, author, or text—so, too, the refusal to translate amounts to a betrayal, of potential readers, of a text that will never see the light of day, of a language that might have been meaningfully enriched, expanded, pushed against its own limits.

Gansel knows well the risks of translation and of writing itself, which is akin to what she calls “the crazy risk of hospitality,” the risk of “an open door,” of welcoming the other into one’s own “large house of thought,” or seeking shelter in that of another. And yet, she persists in translating, an act she describes, while recalling how she “stumbled” on a single word in a poem by Nelly Sachs, as “digging into the darkest tunnels of the human being.” For Gansel, the goal is to open up “a house for all horizons,” and for the many poets, translators, and thinkers whose words fill this book, a house “to come back to against all odds.” The poem “Nomadic House” begins with a childhood memory of “this first train for Budapest along a torrent of glaciers,” not far from where “the poet Reiner Kunze will find refuge” from the Stasi years later. Czernowitz, the “city and the margins and confines of the Austrian Hungarian empire,” is evoked soon after, and with it the many languages spoken within its borders: “Yiddish German Ukrainian Russian Romanian Ruthenian,” before the city was liquidated of these languages and the “many thinkers and scientists, poets and writers deported, exiled, assassinated […] so many beings ‘declared as Nothingness,’” a quote she attributes to Imre Kertész. Gansel recalls a conversation with Jean Halpérin about the translation of a single word in a poem by Paul Celan, “niemand” (no-man or no one) from the poem “Psaume” (“Psalm”), which gives way to an exchange with the Christian theologian Marc Faessler, who writes of their choice, “no-man” (“l’homme-néantisé” in French): “It brings together Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, and Rilke. This is the reversal of language to prevent its usage by the executioners.” Walking outside that night, Gansel sees “under the stars, stronger than the glacial wind blowing in / from the river, these migrant poems from all languages, these / smuggled words no border can stop.” There is a religious sensibility in Gansel’s devotion to poetry and language, as if they are not creations but creators themselves, or incubators of creativity, of life.

The Hasidic philosophy that shaped my formal and informal religious education prioritized the spiritual and mystical dimensions of existence, emphasizing the supra-semantic qualities of the Hebrew language above any connotative or denotative meaning, beginning with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, through which, we were taught, the world had been brought into being ex nihilo. Hebrew and all its composite parts were thus saturated with meaning that had nothing to do with semantics, and everything to do with the ineffable—that which is indescribable and cannot be put into words. And yet, over and over again, we were instructed to put the ineffable into words, often into words we could not understand.

I recall the rare occasions when our entire school would filter into 770 Eastern Parkway (commonly referred to as 770), the grand synagogue that also served as the world headquarters of Chabad, presided over by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who would speak to us in his signature mix of Yiddish, rabbinic Hebrew, and a smattering of Aramaic. Like most Orthodox synagogues, 770 was gender-segregated; women and girls were relegated to the upstairs balcony section, where we would press our faces into the slight crack between the dark, tinted window and the wooden wall below, in order to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe’s face, to try and make out what it was he was saying. These instances, when girls and women were allowed entry into the main section of the synagogue, were thus especially auspicious. The Rebbe fell ill when I was nine, and he died less than two years later; thus, my memories of these events are scarce, but I remember that we were instructed to wear festive clothing—rather than our regular school uniforms—and that we were given pencil and paper and told to try and capture the Rebbe’s words, the meaning of which entirely escaped me (and, likely, most if not all of my peers). Still, I wrote as told, grasping at straws—a familiar consonant, perhaps a conjunction, capturing what I could, believing, or wanting to believe that, even if I could not locate it, there was meaning in this exercise, and in the words and syllables I was transcribing.

Looking back now, I think that what drew me to poetry and translation were certain resonances between these literary forms and practices and a religious worldview that shaped the person I am today—specifically, this emphasis on the significance of language qua language, the idea that words hold weight even when their meaning is elusive. But if the religious mindset I was raised in vaunted incomprehensibility as an end unto itself—proof, as it were, of the ineffable—my calling as a translator and writer is more in line with Gansel’s impulse to dig deeper, to insist, as Gansel does, that “no word that speaks of what is human is untranslatable.” A found poem of sorts that I wrote after Celan uses multiple existing translations of his “Unlesbarkeit” to form a single poem I titled “Unreadable Quartet,” creating, out of Celan’s words, what Gansel might call “a shared house,” one capable of holding a plurality of voices and the many possible meanings of a single poem.

Gansel has said of her first encounter with the poetry of Bertolt Brecht, that “it saved [her] life.” For Gansel, “that is what poetry is: a human voice that can save you.” And translation too, which she describes as “a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.” As wars rage on, it’s hard to think, now, about either poetry or translation as having the capacity to save anyone. It’s easier to fall back on Auden, to insist that translation, like poetry, “makes nothing happen.” Poetry and translation can’t stop the killing machines of war, or the senseless violence all around us, but they can offer a lifeline—the possibility of reaching, perhaps, as Celan once put it, “an addressable Thou, an addressable reality,” which may constitute the lost word/world that Gansel’s work—and increasingly, it seems to me, my own work, too—is after.

LARB Contributor

Shoshana Olidort is a critic, writer, and translator. Her work has appeared in Asymptote, Electric LiteratureLit Hub, Columbia Journal, The Paris Review Daily, Poetry NorthwestPublic Books, and The Times Literary Supplement, among other outlets. Shoshana holds a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University and is the web editor for the Poetry Foundation.


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