THE BLOG
07/31/2015 02:46 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

A Harem of Translators: Isaac Bashevis Singer at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A couple of months ago, I remembered a movie I enjoyed very much when it came out, in 1989, and hadn't seen since. So I Netflixed Enemies, A Love Story, based on the 1972 novel by the marvelous Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer and directed by Paul Mazursky. It stars Ron Silver as a Polish immigrant in post-World War II New York whose love life--he has a young wife (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska) and a lusty mistress (Lena Olin)--becomes far more complicated when the wife he'd presumed lost in the Holocaust (Anjelica Huston) suddenly pops up in his world. Oy.

Now that I've seen one of the films in this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I understand how Singer came up with the story. The 72-minute documentary is called The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, but it could just as easily and more aptly been titled A Harem Full of Translators. That line comes from Singer himself, who, we learn at the beginning of this unusual film, dreamed of having a harem of women, specifically noting that "a harem full of translators would be heaven on earth."

Singer left his wife and five-year-old son in Poland in 1935 for the opportunities afforded in America, not least to have his stories published in English. His first translator was Saul Bellow, no less, whose parents were Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews. Bellow's translation of Singer's story "Gimpel the Fool" appeared in a 1953 issue of Partisan Review and quickly established Singer in the English-speaking world. Bellow's fame certainly helped, but Singer wanted a translator who wouldn't share the spotlight, and thus began his employment over the years of some 40 unknown women, a few of whom didn't even speak Yiddish.

Israeli directors Shaul Betser and Asaf Galay tracked down nine of these women and some wonderful footage--not just of Singer's interviews over the years (in one of which, with Dick Cavett in 1979, he takes exception to the commandment against adultery) but of Singer at work with his translators. How wonderful that someone thought to film these working sessions. For some three decades, Singer first published his short stories and serialized novels in the Jewish Daily Forward, a well-known Yiddish newspaper in New York. In several scenes, we see him reading aloud, in English, from a story cut from the newspaper, one or another woman typing away and occasionally helping him with a word or a phrase.

Singer demanded that all his foreign publishers work from these sometimes softened English translations, the better to make his work palatable to the non-Jewish audience. All this behind-the-scenes creative stuff is so interesting, it may distract from the fact that, then as now, the famous take advantage of those who feel honored just to be next to them. All of the women were bright and well educated; some wanted to be writers themselves. While his translators usually received a credit, they were not well paid, and Singer did not exactly have a firm notion of boundaries.

That part doesn't seem to have upset any of those interviewed. All seem to have expected a pass at the very least; one, a lively blonde who says she had a 30-year affair with the author, must be the prototype for the Lena Olin character in Enemies. And in Miami in his last years, perhaps in an effort to rev up a flagging imagination, Singer asked his last translator to tell him stories, and corrected her so often--"Your characters are wooden"; "that's not a story"--she finally learned to do it. That, she says, is how she became a writer.

The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer will most interest those who want to know more about the author, fiction writing, and/or the art of translation. Singer, who died in 1991, published some 18 novels, more than a dozen story collections, 14 children's books, plus memoirs and essays; he shared the 1974 National Book Award with Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow) for A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

It would be nice to think that Enemies, the movie, and Yentl, a 1983 film directed by and starring Barbra Streisand inspired by the story "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy," sent viewers on to Singer's writing, and that this new documentary will do the same. You can start with Enemies, A Love Story and Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories, Volume One, which includes both "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" and "Gimpel the Fool." If you can't catch the documentary during the SF Jewish Film Festival, there'll always be Netflix.

Aug. 1, California Theatre, 2113 Kittredge St., Berkeley; Aug. 2, Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.; Aug. 9, Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, 415.621.0523, sfjff.org.