The Problem of Materiality in Yiddish Translation

Sarah Ponichtera


At the Annu­al Con­fer­ence of the Asso­ci­a­tion for Jew­ish Stud­ies in Decem­ber 2015, In geveb orga­nized a round­table dis­cus­sion enti­tled, Far­tayt­sht un farbesert? Trans­lat­ing Yid­dish in the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry.” This is the sec­ond essay in a series of reflec­tions by Yid­dish trans­la­tors and schol­ars inspired by that con­ver­sa­tion. You can read the full series here.

In geveb’s 2015 translation panel, “Fartaytsht un farbesert? Translating Yiddish in the Twenty-First Century,” started an animated conversation that touched on many topics, but kept returning to the subject of materiality, or how to bring the lived context of Yiddish texts into a virtual world. Materiality can be a slippery term. In the digital world, it can refer to the physical aspects of looking at a digital object, such as brightness, color, and presentation on the screen, or the physical hardware and software that underlies the experience of viewing an image. In our panel, materiality came to signify the world of the physical materials themselves, a world which no longer exists in physical space, and therefore may be experienced only in a constructed online context.

We might begin to speak of mobilizing Yiddish translation, especially in an online context, in the service of what Toni Morrison calls “rememory.” In Morrison’s novel Beloved, the main character Sethe defines rememory as follows: “If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think about it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there.” 1 1 Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 36. This remembered world that no longer exists is the world we must bring with our translations, especially into an online context where language is so easily severed from its origin. Archival texts—linguistic, photographic, or auditory—can help recreate the context in which Yiddish works were written and read. A translation of a novel could be surrounded by photographs of the author and the town(s) where the author lived, sound recordings of songs popular at the time, or newspaper clippings of the stories of the day. Even advertisements and recipes could be included to give a fully fleshed out world in which the reader can make informed connections between the text and the context. This availability of cultural context, something that may be taken for granted in other literatures, is something we in Yiddish must consciously—and responsibly—create.

These efforts to create a context for our translations harken back, not only to the specific conditions of translating Yiddish in the twentieth century, but to German Romantic thinking about translation. No less a figure than Friedrich Schleiermacher regularly spoke of translation in spatial terms, playing off the German term übertragen (meaning “to translate,” with a root that signifies physical movement or transfer). In his Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersezens” (On the Different Methods of Translating), Schleiermacher describes two approaches to translation in terms of movement, saying “In my opinion, there are only two [possibilities]. Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.” 2 2 Friedrich Schliermacher, “On the Different Methods of Translating,” trans. Susan Bernofsky, The Translation Studies Reader, Ed. Laurence Venuti (London: Routledge, 2012), 43. Efforts to contextualize Yiddish translations online present a rare opportunity to bring the reader toward the writer, to immerse the reader in the world of the writer, so that she can better understand the text.

This approach demands a lot of us, as translators and as creators of websites. We must not only understand the text deeply enough to convey it in a second language, and possess sufficient mastery of the target language to render effects in it that were never developed or utilized before, but we must also understand the cultural world in which the Yiddish writer lived. As many critics have noted, the world of the Yiddish writer was one in the midst of rapid change, deeply unstable, and consisting of myriad parts. Contextual information useful to understanding a writer like Der Nister might include the art of Russian Constructivists, the mystical thought of Breslover Chasidism, and the tales of Hans Christian Anderson. For a writer like Aaron Glants-Leyeles, it might include Ezra Pound, jazz music, and the New York Times. It is simultaneously daunting and thrilling to consider the range of possibilities. Schlegel writes in the Athenäums-Fragment, “in order to translate perfectly . . . the translator would have to be so mighty . . . that, if need be, he could make everything modern; but at the same time he would have to understand antiquity in such a way that he would be able not to merely imitate it, but if necessary, recreate it.” 3 3 Fragment #393. Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments, trans. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991). It is the task of the Yiddish translator in the twenty-first century to bring not only the words of the Yiddish writers into our language, but also something of Yiddishland.

There is always the danger, in surrounding texts with contextual materials, of creating an excessive apparatus that distracts from the reader’s experience with the text. One might start out by searching for Yehoash’s translation of the Tanakh, get distracted by his translations and interpretations of Chinese and Japanese poetry, and end up engrossed in Yiddish newspapers published in Shanghai. It’s possible to get so entranced by the many connections and relationships that a text has with other texts, and its historical context, that the immediacy of the author’s words on the page gets lost. Although this is a real possibility, I would argue that in the case of Yiddish literature, getting lost in its world of contexts and commentaries might constitute the closest that a modern individual can come to walking der yidisher gas. 4 4 Meaning “the Jewish street,” a synecdoche for the cultural world of East European Jewry. Rather than seeking a kind of Protestant-inspired individual communion with the Word, a world of contextualized Yiddish texts would allow for a classically Jewish experience of cross-generational, transnational conversation and commentary, where the text is only a starting point.

Ponichtera, Sarah. “The Problem of Materiality in Yiddish Translation.” In geveb, May 2016:
Ponichtera, Sarah. “The Problem of Materiality in Yiddish Translation.” In geveb (May 2016): Accessed Jan 23, 2021.


Sarah Ponichtera

Sarah Ponichtera is the Assistant Dean for Special Collections & the Gallery at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ.