THANKS to “Fiddler on the Roof,” Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem is known predominantly for creating “Tevye the Milkman.” But to Chinese translator Yao Yi’en, Sholom Aleichem’s most enduring character is Motl.
Back in 1950s, Yao, who was a professor of Russian language at the Shanghai International Studies University, was asked to translate the Ukraine-born novelist’s “Adventures of Motl” into Chinese.
But it was also the era of the Anti-Rightist Movement that targeted Chinese intellectuals, writers and critics. However, Yao escaped the crackdown because “Sholom wanted to make people laugh despite the hardship.” Yao Yi’en, now 89, says it was “a theme that was correct in any form of censorship.”
Since then, Yao’s life has been tied to the Jewish writer. In the last 50 years, he persistently focused on the works of Sholom Aleichem, giving lectures, collecting various kinds of Chinese translations and materials related to the writer, and carrying on a slew of academic and cultural exchanges related to him.
He has been to Ukraine, Poland, Canada and the US since 2009 to work with relevant research societies. In 1994, Sholom Aleichem’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman, an author herself and best known for her 1965 bestselling novel “Up the Down Staircase,” visited Shanghai. She asked to meet Yao, whom she called a “bosom friend of Jewish writers.”
Kaufman sent Yao an old family photo when she returned to the United States. At the back of the photo, she wrote in Yiddish, “Dear Yao Yi’en, this is Bel Kaufman at the age of one and a half sitting on the knees of Sholom Aleichem. From grown-up Bel Kaufman with the best wishes.”
All these moments have been captured in the graphic book “Sholom Aleichem in China,” published in both Chinese and English and compiled by Yao. With this book, Yao tries to illustrate Sholom’s life and achievements, his world influence, and his great contribution to human civilization.
“Sholom Aleichem had never been to China,” Yao said, “but Chinese people are not unfamiliar with him, because when his works were introduced into China, he and his works began to take root in the minds of the Chinese people.”
Chinese writer Mao Dun was the first to introduce the Jewish writer under the pseudonym P Sheng in the Literary supplement “Consciousness” in Minguoribao Daily on June 20, 1921, according to a piece of the newspaper clip which Yao found in the Xujiahui Library.
From 1920s to 1940s, more of Aleichem’s short stories were translated and appeared in Chinese newspapers and periodicals during the hard times of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggregation (1937-45). He was known as the “Jewish Mark Twain” in China.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, there has been a lot of research on Sholom Aleichem. More translations of his works appeared including the “Adventures of Motl” by Yao in 1957 and published by Shanghai Children’s Publishing House.
So far, over 100,000 copies of “The Adventures of Motl” have been published in 10 different editions in the last 50 years.
To commemorate the 100th death anniversary of the Jewish writer, the Shanghai Research Institute of Culture and History organized a book launch event for Yao’s “Sholom Aleichem in China.”
Professor Xu Xin from the Research Institute of Jewish Culture in Nanjing University said scholars and intellectuals such as Hu Shi and Lu Xun promoted the influence of Yiddish literature in the development of written vernacular Chinese after the May Fourth Movement in 1919.