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Remembering 'Jewish Mark Twain' and his Chinese translator

THE little-known Ukrainian Jewish humorist whose works inspired "Fiddler on the Roof" will be celebrated today. And an 81-year-old Chinese translator will finally get his day in the sun, reports Yao Minji.

It takes a lot of passion to persevere, especially when your efforts are ignored or disdained by most people for 53 years. In a world where highly visible attainments are prized, someone lost by the wayside could be a depressed and angry man.

At 81, translator and cultural researcher Yao Yi'en is quite the opposite. It's his deep affection, patience and optimism that have kept him going in the face of a passion unshared.

That passion is the life and works of Ukrainian Jewish humorist Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), writing in Yiddish, translated from Russian by Yao.

Aleichem was known as "The People's Storyteller" and the "Jewish Mark Twain" - and Twain is said to have once called himself the "American Sholem Aleichem."

The 1964 musical "Fiddler on the Roof" was based on Aleichem's "Tevye the Milkman." He wrote about everyday Jewish village life in Eastern Europe and in Russia under the Czars.

This year marks Aleichem's 150th birth anniversary.

A two-hour celebration and academic discussion of his works will be held this afternoon at the Shanghai Hotel.

Yao, who translated "Mottel the Cantor's Son" from Russian in 1956, when he was 28, will speak about the writer's life and significance. He had worked at the institute for 20 years after retiring from the Shanghai International Studies University where he taught Russian.

Sholem Aleichem (pen name for Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich), is scarcely read in China and little beyond "Mottel," a Tom Sawyer-like collection of young people's stories, has been translated.

"Mottel" was published in 1957 and drew high praise from famous Chinese intellectuals and translators such as Qian Zhongshu and Feng Zikai. It was reprinted in 1982 and 2007. Only around 200,000 copies were printed.

Yet Yao still receives occasional letters from children who have read the adventures of optimistic "Mottel the Cantor's Sun," and he displays them with delight.

"He is a very humanistic writer and emphasizes love for the people," Yao tells Shanghai Daily. "This matches our understanding now as Chinese pay increasingly more attention to individuals."

Yao considers Sholem Aleichem still relevant and valuable.

"The stories of Mottel will not go out of date. Today, we can still learn from Mottel how to deal with troubles, how to overcome all kinds of obstacles with optimism and humor."

They are stories of strength and persistence, Yao says. Much like Yao's own story.

Yao says he is proudest of his Aleichem translation and research into Aleichem's life - more so than the numerous titles he holds, more than his regard in Chinese intellectual circles.

"I'm proud that I have worked for 65 years, almost twice as long as other people. I did it because I have a mission - to promote Sholem Aleichem in China.

"I never gave up because I never did it for recognition. I did it out of personal interest that has enriched my life."

The retired professor was among the first students who studied Russian in Shanghai after 1949. He later taught the language.

In those days the former Soviet Union and China were very close, and Russian was "the" foreign language to learn as economic and cultural exchanges flourished.

Yao later worked for numerous Chinese and Russian magazines in China, doing final editing and proof-reading. He helped edit the first Russian-Chinese dictionary - it was the first foreign-language Chinese dictionary and served as a model for others.

He helped organize the umbrella group, Shanghai Interpreters' Association, and served as its first secretary-general. Many of Yao's efforts - proposing academic discussions about Aleichem and introducing him in newspapers - were ignored for more than 50 years.

Yao has written pages about Aleichem, based on his research since the 1960s. There's no publisher, so he keeps them at home.

His efforts went nowhere.

Until today.

The elderly intellectual is still sharp, healthy, articulate, upbeat and proud. He's chatty and tells fascinating personal stories. He looks like a 60-year-old and walks like a middle-aged man. He loves travel and his footsteps cover half of China. He reads a lot - both academic works and popular novels. His tiny sitting room is filled with bookshelves and books are piled everywhere.

His collection includes not only the Chinese classics but also recent books such as the popular "Wolf Totem" by Jiang Rong.

"Books today are more superficial in general," he says. "There are some interesting ideas, but writing styles and language cannot compare with earlier books."

He says young people don't read much anymore, which makes it difficult to promote a foreign writer born 150 years ago.

He hopes to found a research center in China about Sholem Aleichem so that people around the world can discuss the works. He believes this would facilitate cultural communication between the Chinese and the Jewish community.


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