Arts & Culture

Actor Shane Baker on Translating ‘Waiting for Godot’ into Yiddish

“A yid lebt mit bitokhn (a Jew lives with hope). For me, Beckett is all about hope.” Read More

By / September 18, 2014

I recently sat down for an interview with Shane Baker: actor, translator, Executive Director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, bon vivant and all around most unusual Yiddishist I know. The pretext was my writing about the current production of the New Yiddish Rep’s Yiddish-language version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, “Vartn af Godo” (translated by Shane, beautifully directed by Moshe Yassur). The lure was the taco truck parked outside my building at lunchtime.

[FULL DISCLOSURE: Shane has been a dear friend of mine since I ran supertitles on his Yiddish vaudeville show in 2009. He’s playing a Yiddish speaking, dream-interpreting, Brooklyn bookie in my new play. I happen to think he’s a brilliant teacher and interpreter of Yiddish. You can stop reading here if you’re a stickler for scrupulous impartiality.]

Shane and I hadn’t seen each other since the middle of the summer, when he and the other members of the New Yiddish Rep (actors Rafael Goldwaser, Allen Lewis Rickman, and NYR artistic director/actor David Mandelbaum) left for Ireland with Vartn af Godo and I was heading to Klezkanada, the Jewish arts retreat near Montreal.

After playing Vartn af Godo at the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, Shane stayed on in Ireland for a kind of heritage trip (a rare reminder that he isn’t actually Jewish). He came back to North America for Toronto’s Ashkenaz festival, where he performed his riotous neo-vaudeville tribute, “The Big Bupkis!  A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville,” then returned to New York for the current run of Vartn af Godo at Barrow Street Theatre as part of Origin Theater’s 1st Irish Festival.

Shane had been touring the world to great acclaim. I had just premiered a new English-Yiddish play to a crowd of 30 at Klezkanada, in a room whose most prominent acoustic feature was a deafening ventilation hum. We had a lot to catch up on.

Our conversation ranged from deliciously vulgar to intimidatingly erudite within a few bites of taco. When I asked him whether he got in touch with his roots in Ireland, I was treated to a story far too filthy for Jewcy. With great regret, I steered him away from vaudeville and back to the avant-garde Waiting for Godot. Why translate it to Yiddish? I asked. When I had gone to see it a few nights before, it was clear how many Yiddish speakers were in the house just from where the laughs were.

“I wanted to translate Waiting for Godot, and we staged the play, all in line with the great Yiddishist dream—I think first set out ‘shvarts af vays’ [in black and white] by Ber Borochov—that the world’s greatest works must be translated into Yiddish in order to nurture the language, just as works in Yiddish must be translated into the world languages in order to show people what we have,” he said.

A task like translating Beckett brings up the deepest existential questions for new Yiddish art. For whom is this new translation? Is it for translator, audience, or both? There’s no question that there were a handful of folks in the audience (for example, some Hasidic friends of mine) who were introduced to Beckett via the Yiddish translation. But it goes without saying that the task of translating world literature to bring it to the Yiddish ‘masses’ no longer burns with the same urgency as it did for Borochov and his early-twentieth century colleagues.

On the other hand, Shane tells me that in Ireland—where one would expect even fewer Yiddish speakers—he overheard people after the show saying that they had never understood Waiting for Godot as they had in Yiddish. And this was NOT a Yiddish speaking audience.

I asked Shane if he’d found anything new in the text with this new production. “A yid lebt mit bitokhn (a Jew lives with hope),” he replied. “For me, Beckett is all about hope.” In the optimism of Godot’s Vladimir Shane sees one of the things he fell in love with about Yiddish, “the insistence of the older generation of Yiddishists; the joy and purpose in what they were doing… Vladimir has his questioning moments, but he’s the driving force that keeps them waiting. It’s a purposeful waiting, a Jewish waiting.”

I have to agree. Though on the surface it seems like nothing happens in Godot, what keeps you on the edge of your seat is the development of the relationships between these four brutalized humans. How will they choose? Between life and death? Between hope and despair? These are questions with the most vitality when done with the deepest specificity, which is why I think Godot in Yiddish holds such power for audiences, whether or not they speak Yiddish. Great art needs no further justification.

Waiting for Godot shows through September 21 at Barrow Street Theater in New York. Purchase tickets here. (Use discount code “WAIT35” for 20% off.)

Rokhl Kafrissen writes about Jewish life and culture from a distant corner of New York City. Her new play is a Yiddish-English gangster ghost romance called “A Brokhe” (A Blessing).

(Image by Ron Glassman, via New Yiddish Rep)