top of page
  • Eric Margolis

Henry Roth and the Generative Power of Translation

Call It Sleep is one of the great texts of the Jewish-American literary canon. Published in 1934, Henry Roth’s novel stars the eight-year-old David Schearl and his coming-of-age experiences, ranging from him learning the story of why his parents left Poland, to forging a friendship with the Polish-Catholic Leo, to beginning to study the Torah in Hebrew School. The novel has won increasing critical interest over the years for its vivid portrait of immigrant life in New York’s Lower East Side as well as its dense exploration of Jewish textuality, weaving together the stories of Isaiah and the Passover sacrifice. Call It Sleep has also earned renown as a multilingual novel, with not only English and Hebrew but also Yiddish and Polish playing large roles in the novel’s stylistic, formal, and motific structures.

Jewish-American literature necessarily inhabits a deeply multilingual space, from 19th-century authors like Abraham Cahan, whose protagonists struggle to learn English, to 20th-century masters like Saul Bellow, who spoke four languages fluently. Examining multilingualism alongside processes of translation reveals the essential linkage between texts and people, places, and bodies. Hana Wirth-Nesher concludes that these multilingual “works and the many others… confirm Linda Pastan’s acute hearing when her inner ear sensed that—‘Far beyond the lights of Jersey, Jerusalem still beckons us, in tongues.’”[1] ‘Tongues’ refers to both a religious ‘speaking in tongues’ and to the physical mouths and bodies of speaker and listener. The instinctual, spiritual call of Jewish texts demands bodily experience. Not just Hebrew, but multilingualism of all kinds creates a juxtaposition that reminds a reader that each language has a body of its own—its own set of specific sounds and forms that differs in palpable ways from those of other languages. Jonathan Culler describes how, in analyzing a text, a reader should account for the meaning of the words, the meaning of the form, and the meaning of the utterance.[2] By doing all three, we acknowledge the body and the personhood of both speaker and text. Multilingual texts force the reader to confront not only the uniqueness of different languages but also the nexus of meaning that unites words, form, and body. Questions of how we understand translation involve real stakes for the culture and person at hand, reader and author alike.

Call It Sleep should also be considered one of the great texts of the Western canon of high-modernism. The novel’s portrayal of urban life, dynamic use of stream of consciousness and multilingual pun, and development of a mythic subtext merit comparison with works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, or William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Call It Sleep is a deeply Jewish text and a deeply modern text, which becomes becomes a hybrid Jewish-modernist text through its use of multilingualism. Roth uses multilingualism as a formal and stylistic device to create a modernist masterpiece, and accordingly suggests the rich, generative possibilities of translation, cultural appropriation, and assimilation.

Roth begins Call It Sleep by describing new immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and reuniting with their family members:

Roth replaces the spoken language of his multilingual cast of characters with physical, bodily expression. His use of “jabbered” and “roared” evokes a verbal eruption that does not involve words, but rather gestures, nonsensical sounds, and even dance. By substituting stereotypical but culturally encoded bodily expression for verbal expression, Roth alerts a reader to the notion that each can stand for the other—that Jewish language (Yiddish) equals Jewish physical expression, and vice-versa. Cultural, historical, and bodily experience, all intertwined, must undergo translation in instances of migration.

Even the English immigrants, who speak the language of the text, are rendered mute. In fact, the English in this scene, who “gravitate toward” but “never achieve”, serve as a metaphor for the relationship of foreign languages to English in Call It Sleep. Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew, the primary “other” languages of the text, gravitate towards American English, the literal and lingual setting of the story, but never achieve full embrace—the different languages do not perfectly cohere to one another and therefore cannot be perfectly translated. Critics concur that the four languages have different uses in the text: Yiddish is the language of home; English is the language of the streets; Polish is the language of the Old World; and Hebrew is the language of spirituality and religion.[3] But Roth does not simply use different languages to different ends. Each language also has a distinct form and physical presence; that is to say that David does not simply interact with different languages to different ends, but that each languages is essentially unique. Roth’s formal techniques and translation methods in the mediating language of English create this substantive difference between the languages, while also constituting the modernist achievement of the novel. This ‘modernist achievement’ can be seen as the formal and thematic motifs that Call It Sleep shares with James Joyce’s Ulysses. The two novels have a network of well-documented similarities, from a narrator that wobbles between third-person indirect voice and first-person stream of consciousness, to a complex novelistic structure based on mythology and religion.[4] In the case of Roth, however, it is his process of translation—his use of embodied Jewish languages—that generates modernist aesthetics, from the flowing Victorian beauty of Roth’s Yiddish translations, to the Hebrew texts that encompass the novel’s religious subtext, to the accented English of the multi-ethnic New Yorkers.

Roth translates the Yiddish of his characters into beautiful but outdated Victorian-era English. Roth presents this Victorian aesthetic as an old-fashioned mode of expression that looks neither inward to human consciousness, nor outwards towards a greater mythology. The title of the first chapter, “The Cellar”, becomes a fitting metaphor for Yiddish as a language of the Old World. The first Yiddish sentence spoken in the text, “And this is the Golden Land” (11), is viscerally poetic and genteel. This Victorian flair is even more visible in David’s interactions with his mother:

David’s mother takes him in her arms and nuzzles him with her Yiddish; even her throaty chuckle is given bodily emphasis. Roth’s use of “whom” and semicolons, alongside extravagant phrases like “the weather grows warm”, represent a version of English spoken by no one on the Lower East Side in the 1920s, but nevertheless an English that abides by the rules of grammar and traditional linguistic beauty. Even the “brusque”, “unbending” Albert talks like a peeved Englishman—“As if those blue-coated mongrels in there weren’t mocking me enough” (12). At the end of the chapter, David gets lost, and his Yiddish accent prevents him from communicating the name of his street to a policeman. Yiddish in Call It Sleep represents an obstacle—a cage—preventing David being able to live and thrive in an English-speaking America.

Yiddish stands in contrast to Hebrew, which Roth translates into high modernist poetry. Hebrew becomes a transcendental stimulant, tossing David into a world of mythological symbol—a world that is paradoxically Christian in form and content. Later in the novel, David becomes skilled at reciting the Torah at Hebrew school. After David is bullied into plunging a piece of zinc into the railroad tracks, producing a spark, he rushes to the synagogue to read Torah. There, as he recites the Hebrew aloud, he experiences a sort of transcendence:

Roth overwhelms a reader with language of poetic transcendence. Meaning is “limitless,” texture is “impalpable”. The inundation of suffixes “im” and “un” convey the remoteness of David’s experience. Roth’s first four sentences are full of fluid clauses and half-rhymes separated by commas, producing a flooding rhythm: the consonance of “senses dissolved” and “impalpable pavements”, the half-rhyme of “rolled” and “flooded”, the alliteration of “forms” and “footholds”. This rush of lyricism is punctuated by the reappearance of the biblical in the final sentence, “And their faces shone because the light in their midst was luminous laughter”. Roth begins the sentence with the biblical marker “And”, as the whole sentence overflows with biblical diction and syntax. “Thundered” has both a biblical and modernist sensibility.[5] Roth displaces David from the physical world (“unmoored in space”) and even conflates the Jewish ritual of reciting Hebrew with the Christian imagery of crosses. Hebrew provides David access to a transcendent, spiritual experience, portrayed on the page in a modernist poetic style that is specifically non-Jewish in form.

The Hebrew in Call It Sleep also forms a mythic subtext that merits comparison to Joyce’s treatment of The Odyssey as a backbone for Ulysses. This cross-textual structure comes to fruition in the climax of the novel, when David dips milk ladles into train tracks and receives a powerful electric shock. A bystander shouts “Christ i’s a Kid!” (420). A reader is aware by this point in the novel that Kid refers to the goat in the song “Chad Godya.” This goat refers to the Passover sacrifice, a crucial component of the Exodus story in which the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt. Roth reinforces the connection through David’s vivid, italicized fantasies: “‘Chadgodya!’ moaned the man in the wires. ‘One kid one only kid’” (427). This climactic moment, grounded in religious intertextuality, only takes shape via multilingual pun that conflates Jesus Christ and Chad Godya.[6] Roth makes David’s sacrifice equivalent to the sacrifice of Jesus by means of multilingualism. He transforms the non-Jewish form of his symbolism into Jewish content by using Hebrew oral recitation as the means that generates all of these forms in the first place.

English is different from Hebrew or Yiddish in Call It Sleep because it does not need to be translated. David uses English to communicate with the outside world—with the Polish-Catholic Leo, with a Chinese shop owner, with police officers. English serves as the medium through which all of the linguistically distinct characters can communicate with one another. However, Roth renders the English of every character in the novel as distinctly butchered. English is, in fact, the most difficult language to parse in the entire text. An Italian street cleaner tells a group of kids to get out of his way: “Ah kicka duh assuh! Geeda duh!” (Roth, 243); a Jewish butcher defends them: “Fav’y you push dis, ha?” (244). At Callahan’s bar, Jim Haig, an oiler, exclaims: “I ain’t ‘ed any fish ’n’ chips since the day I left ‘ome” (411); the fat Bill Whitney nonsensically responds: “Harrh! There’s night I’d take my bible oath, these stairs uz higher” (411).

The resulting mess on the page, while alienating to a reader, gives English its own embodied voice. The characters’ first languages—Yiddish, Italian, Polish, or anything else—remain latent in their English through Roth’s careful preservation of accent and multilingual pun. Yiddish words and jokes frequently slip into the English of the characters. Some examples include David misinterpreting “molar” as “molleh” (someone who performs circumcisions), “cocaine” as “kockin” (“to shit”), and “Christmas” as “Crotzmich” (“scratch me”).[7] None of the languages lose their unique shape and form when translated into English. This version of English, overwhelmed with apostrophes, misspellings, and multilingual puns, stands in contrast with a higher register of a literary tone also created by multilingualism—the Victorian beauty of Yiddish and the modernist mythology of the Hebrew. The characters’ ongoing attempts to translate their thoughts and feelings is precisely what results in a modernist cacophony worthy of Gertrude Stein. Roth’s English thus immerses a reader into the uniquely complex modern urban experience of the novel’s characters, engaged in continuous acts of translation.

The linguistic madness comes to a head at the novel’s conclusion. David’s relentless parsing of Yiddish, Polish, Hebrew and English culminates in an explosion of coarse mob-talk alternating with sheer poetic beauty that depicts the inner workings of David’s consciousness. The crowd calls out “Hot! Jesus!” (424) “Ain’t it a dirty shame” (425) and W’ea’s ‘e boined?” (425), while italicized sections speak of “darkness fathomless” (426), “infinite mirrors” (427), and “the funnel of night” (429). Joshua Lambert argues that a profusion of obscene language prior to this climactic scene results “in a kind of purification for David, reported in oblique and lyrical language… Afterward, not another taboo word appears in David’s thoughts.”[8] The overwhelming power of linguistic and literal electric force knocks David out at the climax of the novel. Roth insists on the sheer trauma and shocking difficulty of navigating translation, of attempting to bridge the gaps between cultural and textual bodies.

Roth’s method of translation, utilizing embodied languages, accent, and multilingual pun, creates a dramatic manifestation of the Jewish body and Jewish voice in Western, modernist form. The basis of Roth’s formal experimentation and modernism is achieved by the act of translation. Michael North demonstrates how British and American modernists became “modern by acting Black”—how African-American dialect was used as a liberating tool for artists like TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, and more.[9] What we see then in Call It Sleep is a reversal, where Henry Roth became Jewish by acting modern, appropriating Christian and modernist devices to tell a Jewish story.

The relationship between text and body plays a crucial role in this act of translation. Roth writes:

“Nothingness” is a word that, while empty and void, once embodied on the page, can reach out to a reader. Roth begins with sound and ends with silence. He surrounds lyrical obliquity with forceful sonic presence and lack of presence, reminding a reader that texts begin with physicality, and that language begins with orality. “‘Call it sleep’ is a tentative translation itself,” Wirth-Nesher writes, “from an inchoate sensation into a word… and also from a concept or experience in one language into a word from another. The source word “it’ remains inaccessible in English, because translation is always incomplete.”[10] The novel ends with this “tentative translation”—exactly as a masterwork of Jewish-American fiction, a work that translates between Jewish and Western texts, between the Jewish voice and American society, should. Roth’s act of translation evokes a kinship between the Jewish and Western traditions and languages, creating new aesthetic forms as well as a new approach to literary modernism that is predicated on Jewishness.

Call It Sleep thus becomes a powerful statement on the positive, generative possibilities of cultural assimilation, appropriation, and translation. Henry Roth places the Jewish voice and the Jewish body on the Western page. This embodied multilingualism becomes a formal device that renders modernism on the page, creating a work of art that aligns with the Western standards of a high-modernist novel. By using Jewish languages and Hebrew textuality to accord to a Western structure, Roth’s novel suggests the possibilities of generative assimilation through linguistic and cultural translation. The result is not just a Jewish text, and not just a modernist text, but also Jewish-modernist text. The result is a multiplicity of meanings, an abundance of possibilities for a reader. The unique power and resonance of Call It Sleep emerges from this generative intersection between Jewish languages and Western art.



1. Hana Wirth-Nesher, Call It English (Princeton University Press, 2006), 176.

2. Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1997, ProQuest Ebook Central), 56.

3. Wirth-Nesher, 80. “Yiddish serves him at home, English assaults him on the street, and Hebrew and Aramaic beckon to him as mysterious languages, sacred tongues that represent mystical power and that initiate him into Jewishness as spirituality.”

Brian MacHale, “Henry Roth in Nighttown”, New Essays on Call It Sleep edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 82. MacHale writes that the novel’s four chapters each have a “key language and a correspondingly different confrontation of languages” that plays a unique role in David’s consciousness and growth.

4. MacHale, 76. Ulysses and Call It Sleep both: 1) Demonstrate the complexity of modern urban experience via stream of consciousness; 2) Vary in narrative technique and dominant motif from section to section; 3) Present a web of motifs that span the entire text; 4) Have a mythic or religious subtext.

5. “What the Thunder Said” (TS Eliot, “The Waste Land”) and “When Moses stretched out his staff towards the sky, the Lord sent thunder and hail” (Exodus 9:23)

6. Wirth-Nesher, 88.

7. Werner Sollers, “Language, Nostalgic Mournfulness, and Urban Immigrant Family Romance in Call It Sleep”, New Essays on Call It Sleep edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 134.

8. Joshua Lambert, Unclean Lips (New York University Press, 2013, ProQuest Ebook Central), 84-86.

9. Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature (Oxford University Press, 1994), 17.

10. Wirth-Nesher, 99.

60 views0 comments


bottom of page