Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter

By – November 10, 2011

In this his­tor­i­cal nov­el, a young Amer­i­can stum­bles across and sets out to trans­late the unpub­lished Yid­dish mem­oirs of Itsik Malpesh. Malpesh’s love inter­ests and adven­tures are basis enough for a saga. The Russ­ian immi­grant lived through major events in Jew­ish his­to­ry and tells of his expe­ri­ences in col­or­ful, humor­ous lan­guage. Manseau’s sweep­ing nov­el spans gen­er­a­tions and con­ti­nents, lan­guages and reli­gions. Yet, the book is a great deal more than an immigrant’s epic tale. The nov­el inter­spers­es Malpesh’s sto­ries with per­son­al notes from Malpesh’s trans­la­tor. Even­tu­al­ly the life sto­ries of the young Amer­i­can Catholic trans­la­tor and the old Russ­ian Jew­ish poet inter­sect in inter­est­ing and sur­pris­ing ways. Songs for the Butcher’s Daugh­ter is a book about writ­ing, a warm, fun­ny, and fas­ci­nat­ing tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of words, a pow­er that out­lives a dying lan­guage and tran­scends love.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Simon & Schuster

1. Now that I have read them all, I know the many ways in which the tale of Malpesh’s life res­onates with the events that led me to his door: a failed love affair, lies of faith, threat of scan­dal, and, most impor­tant, the promise of deliv­er­ance through the trans­la­tion of words. (p. 7)” To what extent does the trans­la­tor’s involve­ment with Malpesh seem ground­ed in his own pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and emo­tion­al needs, rather than in an exact ren­der­ing of those of his sub­ject? When he writes of deliv­er­ance through…translation,” what kind of redemp­tion is he look­ing for, and how does he achieve it in Songs for the Butcher’s Daugh­ter?

2. How would you char­ac­ter­ize Sasha Bimko’s role in the birth of Itsik Malpesh? How does Malpesh’s account of his birth com­pare to the real­i­ty that Sasha dis­clos­es to him as an adult? What does his own roman­ti­cized vision of his entry into the world reveal about Malpesh’s per­son­al­i­ty? Why does the trans­la­tor decide to include both accounts of Malpesh’s birth in his trans­lat­ed mem­oir, despite their contradictions?

3. In such an envi­ron­ment, not pass­ing would have required a con­cert­ed effort. And, worse, it might have been dis­rup­tive. Why both­er insist­ing I was not a Jew when such insis­tence would only con­found every­one around me? (p. 41)” How does the trans­la­tor’s deci­sion to con­ceal his true reli­gious iden­ti­ty as a Catholic affect his inter­ac­tions with his cowork­er, Clara, and with Itsik Malpesh, the sub­ject of his trans­la­tion? What does his deci­sion to feign being Jew­ish reveal about his own com­fort with his actu­al identity?

4. “[M]y secret learn­ing came at a cost. How could I for­get the dai­ly labor I endured to remain housed with­in this new cas­tle of the mind? (p. 63)” How does Itsik’s decep­tion of his fam­i­ly in order to learn how to read Russ­ian com­pare to his trans­la­tor’s decep­tion of his employ­ers to learn Yid­dish? How does each man’s dis­cov­ery of a new lan­guage open up new worlds to him, and what do these worlds rep­re­sent in terms of future pos­si­bil­i­ties, hopes, and dreams?

5. How is Chaim Glatt respon­si­ble for chang­ing the course of Itsik Malpesh’s life as a young boy in Kishinev, and how does that com­pare to his impact on Itsik, the young and naive émi­gré in New York, in his new­ly adopt­ed per­sona of Char­lie Smooth? What accounts for their seem­ing­ly irrepara­ble con­nec­tion to each oth­er? To what extent is Itsik’s impli­ca­tion of Chaim in the death of Her­shl Shveig a kind of pay­back for Chaim’s mis­treat­ment of him over the years?

6. Owing to my own rel­a­tive igno­rance when I first encoun­tered his work, I did not men­tion any of the larg­er issues of accuracy…merely some inci­dents that, to my mind, strained a read­er’s con­fi­dence in his reli­a­bil­i­ty. (p. 85)” How does the series of trans­la­tor’s notes that appears in the nar­ra­tive of the Songs for the Butcher’s Daugh­ter affect your read­ing of the life sto­ry of Itsik Malpesh? How did the trans­la­tor’s role in the nar­ra­tive inform your appre­ci­a­tion of Malpesh? To what extent can you imag­ine this nov­el stripped of the trans­la­tor and his story?

7. Is my bash­ert then Sasha Bimko? (p. 52)” I asked. How does his ide­al­ized vision of Sasha Bimko as his des­tiny, his beloved, and his muse enable Itsik Malpesh to focus his bud­ding ambi­tions as a poet? In what respects does Malpesh’s attach­ment to Bimko seem to be ground­ed in a kind of self-preser­va­tion, as she is his one liv­ing con­nec­tion to his birth­place and his fam­i­ly? To what extent does their even­tu­al roman­tic involve­ment seem inevitable, and why does the res­o­lu­tion of that rela­tion­ship in Songs for the Butcher’s Daugh­ter, draw in Malpesh’s trans­la­tor and his girl­friend, Clara?

8. How do the unfor­tu­nate cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing Malpesh and Her­shl Shveig’s first encounter com­pare to their lat­er involve­ment as adults? Why does Malpesh mis­in­ter­pret Shveig’s inter­ac­tions with Sasha? What role do their reli­gious dif­fer­ences of opin­ion play in Malpesh’s inabil­i­ty to com­pre­hend Shveig’s inno­cence? How would you char­ac­ter­ize the con­se­quences of Malpesh’s actions against Shveig? Why does the trans­la­tor choose to relate this infor­ma­tion in his trans­la­tion of the mem­oir, rather than expose Malpesh to the author­i­ties as a murderer?

9. There is more to tell about how I came to be the trans­la­tor of Itsik Malpesh, and about the great joke of the fates this arrange­ment would come to seem.(p. 6)” How do the trans­la­tor and Malpesh seem fat­ed for each oth­er? How does the trans­la­tor’s con­nec­tion to Sasha Bimko, through his rela­tion­ship with Clara, lead Malpesh back to his bash­ert? How does the great joke of the fates” (p. 6) seem to be at play through­out Songs for the Butcher’s Daugh­ter, giv­en the many quirks of coin­ci­dence that bring char­ac­ters back into one anoth­er’s lives?

10. Of the many char­ac­ters who pop­u­late Songs for the Butcher’s Daugh­ter, which did you find most com­pelling, and why? Giv­en the nov­el­’s simul­ta­ne­ous nar­ra­tives — the sto­ry of Itsik Malpesh, and the sto­ry of his trans­la­tor — did you feel that either sto­ry was more engross­ing, or did both engage you equal­ly as a read­er? To what extent are these dual nar­ra­tives able to be sep­a­rat­ed from each oth­er, and what argu­ment might the author be mak­ing about the nature of trans­la­tion in their interconnectedness?