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Hebrew Tongue

The Jewish author Ilan Stavans was once reminded of a famous anecdote quoted by Saul Bellow in the preface to Great Jewish Stories, about the meeting Bellow had with S. Y. Agnon in Jerusalem:

"While we were drinking tea," Bellow recalled, "he asked me if any of my books had been translated into Hebrew. If they had not been, I had better see to it immediately, because, he said, they would survive only in the Holy Tongue. His advice I assumed was only half serious. This was his witty way of calling my attention to a curious situation. I cited Heinrich Heine as an example of a poet who has done rather well in German. 'Ah,' said Mr. Agnon, 'we have him beautifully translated into Hebrew. He is safe...'"

"He is safe," Stavans remarked. "What a wonderful dictum! Hebrew is truly a language for the ages, a vertical tongue. What is remarkable about the anecdote, though, is that we all remember it in English!"

["I personally long for the eternity of Hebrew, and feel nostalgia for Yiddish," he explained, "but it's in English that I feel the human connection."]

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