January 22, 2022

The Rabbi and the Translator (an Interactive Text)

By Daniel Schifrin

The Case of the Rabbi’s Muse

by The Draschba

Translation and Notes by Daniel Schifrin 

The Rabbi came to Mimi’s house unannounced, on a morning so quiet it felt like the air had left the world . . . . 



1. For reasons that will become clear, or not, the title of this story is difficult to render. It could also be translated as “In Case of an Amusing Rabbi,” “The Rabbi Cases the Museum,” or the more literal “Unto the Rabbi a Muse Unburdens Herself.”

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2. Even translating the author’s name, “Draschba,” is challenging. Some would say it is Hebrew for “the interpretation is inside me”; others argue for “the commentary descends into me”; still others advocate for the name as mystical code.

3. A scholar beginning to study the Draschba would be unsure if the texts that emerge every few months on various online platforms are new writings from a living author, new texts from a dead author, or merely excavations by a mysterious redactor or archivist.

4. There are some who have said that the Draschba, despite his intellectual posturing, is most acutely interested in the reader’s instinctive response to story. I believe that. I believe it is his most cherished conviction that the meaning of the text resides primarily in the liminal space between reader and language. As with the Talmud (and with fictional and critical responses to it) the Draschba’s narrative imperils any attempt to permanently fix meaning. Borrowing Heisenberg’s insight about subatomic particles, the Draschba once said: “In literature the reader can focus on the position of the characters at one moment, or the flow of events as a whole, but never both at the same time.”

5. The Draschba once argued to a tailor, in Lemberg soon after it became Lvov, that “You can only truly read a text out of the corner of your eye, while you are doing the dishes or talking with your children, living your life on the slant. It’s like the sudden brightness of a star that you see when you turn to look elsewhere in the sky. It’s the looking-elsewhere that gives the star permission to give you the truth straight.” Not long afterward, Lvov became Lemberg again.

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6. I have had some modest success in translating a few of the Draschba’s stories from Ursprecht, but “The Case of the Rabbi’s Muse” is the most complex that I have attempted. Draschba’s choice of literary language, an unstable hybrid of Biblical Hebrew, Yiddish, and Judeo-Spanish, is terribly hard to translate into colloquial English. But such is the task of the translator.

7. Perhaps it is best to quote the Draschba directly: “I’ve often been asked to describe my native language of Ursprecht, a twenty-two-sided jewel. It’s a lovely and vital vernacular, glowing and free, with a name like a rock plummeting off the Alps. Some have called Ursprecht ‘mutt-speak,’ evoking its pedigree as a crossbreed born from the wet tongues of the East. Be that as it may . . . ”

8. In Ursprecht: punctuation carries particular force. This may be inspired by the grammar of the Hebrew deployed in the Bible, which unspools from the birth of the universe to the death of Moses without a single comma or period.

9. In this moment of quiet it might be useful to explain what has only been alluded to: that no matter how hard I try, I will not succeed in translating the pulse of the Draschba’s quicksilver consciousness. Or at least not by replacing one word with another. Another metaphor must be introduced to replace “replace.” We are not removing one word from the text and putting another in its stead, like a guest who comes to take another’s seat at a table. The true act of translation is, like transubstantiation, physical. A word dies, and another is born in its place, a son or daughter, which has within itself the markings of the parent and all of its ancestors. Over time, the space in which the first, original word was carved becomes denser and denser, with each successive generation of translation and commentary living on top of the last. 

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10. It may be useful to add that the Draschba was deeply influenced by Jorge Luis Borges. It may also be useful to suggest the reverse.

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11. It has been rumored that I am in possession of the “full” story of “The Case of the Rabbi’s Muse,” but have chosen to keep it under wraps in order to dole it out over the years, perhaps even to make a tidy profit. This is madness. I have made every effort to translate and publish whatever work from the Draschba has come across my desk. Some of you may have read my remarks in the most recent issue of Ur/Sprecht, in which I offered a more personal account of my journeys through Draschba’s meandering archives. In that essay I shared my terror at the thought that whatever might have come after the first line of “The Case of the Rabbi’s Muse” was truly lost—or, if not lost, then allergic to containment: “Recall, my dear colleagues, your distress at the disappearance of Bruno Schulz’s lost manuscript The Messiah, perhaps still buried in the ghetto of Drohobycz, or of Isaac Babel’s late stories, consumed by the Soviet secret police, or of Philodendrite’s 36 Odes to the Natural World, washed away by a medieval river, its leaves flung up onto the shores of villages throughout the Near East. This is how I feel about the sacred lines that I believe can still be found, if only I work a little harder.”

I won’t bother to respond to my own critique of this work, which has yet to make its way into print, and which alleges that my obsessiveness, my dedication, my passion for this text was somehow responsible for its disappearance (or, more accurately, its decoherence).

12. For a while I worried that I was the only translator and the only reader of the Draschba; that I would be writing, and therefore reading, only for myself. I was also unnerved by the Draschba’s own definition of translation: “The process of ferrying words from the shore of one consciousness to that of another, but in the process delivering a completely different cargo—resonant of the original work, like raisins are to grapes, but technically an act of theft, or at least alchemy.” However, I had already begun . . .

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13. The first line of the text—and, in fact, the only line in the story that we have adequately imprisoned—has similar translational problems to the title. My rendering of it could support an alternate architecture like: “The Void of the World required the Rabbi to visit Mimi’s home, a sudden, silent explosion of day breaking into consciousness.” One could also try something like: “The Rabbi’s visit so surprised Mimi that she held her breath, wondering if the world were about to end.”

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. . . .

14. In Ursprecht the central weapon of punctuation is the ellipsis . . . how can I explain this without going back to the beginning? The ellipsis in this language is like a da capo in music, a sign at the end of the phrase that returns one to the first note. Just as in the public reading of the Bible, when one immediately starts over once the end is reached, the Ursprechtian ellipsis tells one to stop reading and go back to the beginning. In the case of “The Case of the Rabbi’s Muse,” the choreography of the reading is relatively simple. If we recall the line (“The Rabbi came to Mimi’s house unannounced, on a morning so quiet it felt like the air had left the world . . . . ”), we simply end “the world,” and then return to “The Rabbi,” who begins anew his quiet, desperate work with Mimi, for whom it may already be too late, and about whom we may never learn anything more.

15. The lives of people, as well as characters, are never long enough. The Draschba explains: “The life of a person is like the length of a story: as soon as you understand it, as soon as it understands itself, it’s over.”

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Dan Schifrin’s fiction and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and McSweeney’s, and he is the winner of numerous short fiction awards. Dan was a 2020 LABA Fellow, developing a play about the influence of kabbalistic storytelling on contemporary life, and is finishing a book about the intersection of creativity and care in the age of COVID and beyond. Dan currently teaches writing at Stanford University through the School of Continuing Studies. From 2008–2014 he was Writer-in-Residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.