Arts

Jacob Isaac Segal is one of six books to be nominated for the Translation award. Photo: Courtesy of University of Ottawa Press.

Sole scholarly work to be nominated looks at Yiddish-language poet and his milieu

When the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Awards shortlist was announced in early October, the University of Ottawa received a pleasant surprise.

Shortlisted for one of the prestigious awards was Jacob Isaac Segal: A Montreal Yiddish Poet and his Milieu, written by U of O professor Pierre Anctil and published through the U of O Press. The work stands alone among this year’s nominees—it is the only publication by a scholarly press on the list.

Anctil, who specializes in contemporary Canadian history and the vibrant Montreal Jewish community used this work to chronicle the life of Yiddish poet J. I. Segal and his proudly Jewish, very artistic, Montreal world. The book was translated by Vivian Felsen, a freelance translator who has worked with Anctil before. Consequently, since the U of O Press specifically put the book forward in the Translation category, Felsen received the award nomination.  

The book is primarily a biography of J. I. Segal, a famous Yiddish-language poet from Montreal who started publishing in the 1920s; but, as Felsen explains, it also covers Montreal as a key city of Eastern European Jewish culture—and as an important literary city.

“Yiddish literature in Canada had a very short lifespan but an extremely productive one,” said Felsen. “More books were published in Yiddish and translated into Yiddish than any other language next to English and French in Canada.”

Segal was a modernist poet, and his poems are steeped in Jewish mysticism and religion, said Felsen.

Translating an academic work is not without its challenges, of course. With Jacob Isaac Segal, Felsen and U of O Press was working with three languages—English, French, and Yiddish—and both prose and verse. In fact, said Felsen, only two of the twenty Segal poems in the book had been previously translated.

“You’re dealing with two languages that you’re bringing into English, you’re dealing with French and with Yiddish,” said U of O Press managing editor Elizabeth Schwaiger. “It just adds another layer of complexity.”

“All of this (proofreading and editing) always engages the author of the work, through various rounds of approval stages,” Schwaiger said. “Now if you picture, in a way, there are two authors here: Pierre Anctil, the author of the original French work, and Vivian Felsen, the author of the translation; and Segal, of course, is the original poet and author of the original work upon whom all of this is based.”

The U of O Press put the book forward for nomination, which they believed was a priority, stressed Schwaiger, because of the thematic content of the book. As Felsen explained, Anctil fits Segal into a wider Canadian literary context. Blending different languages while looking at the larger Canadian community made it a perfect fit for the Translation awards.

“The author describes the Jewish community and all the institutions and organizations (that) this Jewish community (had) built, and also the literary ideologies of the time—the conflict between social realism and the obligation to be an engaged writer, and those who were more art for art’s sake,” said Felsen. “(Anctil) talks about the influence of their environment and even the French-Canadian poets of their time, and puts all this in the context of Canada.”

The nomination is something Schwaiger takes pride in, and she sees it as an exciting, watershed moment for academic presses.

“We feel that this nomination alone as a finalist gives strength to the arguments for scholarly publishing, that scholarly publishing has a place in the publishing landscape of the country, and that it makes a real contribution. It’s not only for the ivory tower or academia, scholarly publishing can reach across boundaries (to) the general public.”

The Governor General’s Literary Award winners will be announced on Oct. 30 on their website, and the awards will be handed out at a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Nov. 28.