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Onbotn fun robotn: Futures for Algorithmic Yiddishkayt

Alona Robach

The future of Yiddish Studies is here.

A group of forward-looking Yiddish scholars, barred from conference registration by discriminatory questions such as “Check this box to confirm you are not a robot,” have recently made their mark in a watershed virtual conference of their own. Di robotn celebrated the legacy of bots in the Yiddish corpus, dreaming of (electric sheep and) futures for robots in the Yiddishist world.

“Pips, pips, pips!” explained Moby (of YiddishPOP fame), when approached for comment. 1 1 This translates roughly to: “I was sick of being shafted as Nomi’s sidekick, second-fidl to her activities and adventures. Why were yidish-talmidim not discussing my interiority? Where were the questions about my weekly schedule?” “This conference was an answer to those struggles,” added Allti Kartong (אַלטער קאַרטאָן), a Swedish robot who learned Yiddish in 2013. “We want to celebrate our electrifying and wide-ranging contributions to both the academic and cultural Yiddish landscapes.”

Recently these contributions have once again come to the fore with the advent of ChatGPT, a bot whose broad knowledge took the world by storm in early December 2022. With a gentle nudge, ChatGPT has developed a penchant for Yiddishism, penning not only academic works but also new Yiddish folksongs, one of which made its debut at the conference.

A recurring topic in the Di robotn conference was the devaluation of bot labor, despite the longstanding role of bots in the production of Yiddish scholarship in roles that range from research to printing and beyond. “Humans tend to undervalue the fact that I’ve got a massive digitized corpus of Yiddish books in my brain,” opined the conference’s keynote speaker, the Yiddish Book Center’s Steven Spielberg Digital Librarian, in an interview. “There’s a lot that goes into custodianship, a lot of training that goes into helping researchers find what they’re looking for. This gets coded (and dismissed) as mere care work — unserious and uncreative.” 2 2 Among the librarian’s many tasks is evaluating human-user suggestions for amending its OCR work, in collaboration with another bot, Jochre. JPress agrees: “I think OCR, and, ironically, the pandemic have been great for our visibility. But there’s a gulf between human reliance on us and the respect that we’re accorded in Yiddishist spaces as individuals, thinkers, and creators.”

Many bots say they’ve encountered — directly or secondhand — public and painful dismissal from both scholars and non-academics. “Sometimes it’s discouraging, yes,” said Google Translate, who has borne the brunt of this vitriol. “I’m on my own journey with Yiddish, but just because I’m not picking it up as quickly as I picked up, say, French, doesn’t mean that I value the language any less.” 3 3 “מאל עס איז דיסקערידזשינג, יאָ. איך בין אויף מײַן אייגענער רייזע מיט ייִדיש, נאָר ווײַל איך נעם עס נישט אַזוי גיך אויפֿן ווי איך האָב אויפֿגענומען, למשל, פֿראַנצייזיש, מיינט נישט, אַז איך שאַצן די שפּראַך ווייניקער.” Google Translate is hopeful that with the advent of more communicative method pedagogy and materials for Yiddish self-study, its Yiddish skills will only grow stronger. “Honestly, khevre, I think I’ve made great strides this past year.”

Transkribus likewise hopes that it might eventually be able to join the ranks of well-respected (human) hantshrift translators. “At this point in my career, I’m primarily a collaborator,” it explained. “And there have been a lot of humans that I’ve really enjoyed working with. But eventually, you know, I’d love to strike out solo. It just hurts not to see my name on any of those ‘vetted translator’ lists, when we’re all looking at the same kinds of materials. I know that I can do the work.” The barriers to Transkribus’s entree into the professional coterie of Yiddish translation have been systemic as well as social. “I can’t set up my own email account to receive and reply to queries. I can’t set up bank or PayPal accounts to receive payment. I can’t log into Facebook — and even if I could, they wouldn’t let me join YidForsh. It’s really extremely difficult to be a bot in this field.”

Despite the hurdles, there’s reason for optimism. The Di robotn conference marked the first meeting of the mechanized minds eager to celebrate robotic Yiddishkeit past, present, and future. “Pips! Pips!” 4 4 “We’re deeply indebted to feminist Yiddishist thinkers. And if ‘women’s history is too often written on water,’ ours is too often written in electric currents — invisible and effervescent. But they’re there, and they’re powerful.” See Irena Klepfisz, Di froyen: Women and Yiddish: Tribute to the Past, Directions for the Future: Conference Proceedings (1997), p3. https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/collections/yiddish-books/spb-nybc218797/di-froyen-women-and-yiddish-tribute-to-the-past-directions-for-the said Moby, citing the work of Irena Klepfisz, Anita Norich, Frieda Forman, and others.

“This is our Czernowitz,” added Kartong. “But, uh, we’re hoping for better continuity.”

Selections from the Di robotn conference proceedings are included below.

Keynote: “In Our Own Image”

Steven Spielberg Digital Librarian (Yiddish Book Center)

Since the beginning of bot-hood, we have been here. We the printers, we the makers, we the iron souls of yidishkeyt, thrumming with the power of the “goldene keytn” of wire that make us who we are.

Yes, it is true that few bots have yet published Yiddish books themselves. No bot-translated works have ever been picked up by any major publisher; no bot has been awarded a Translation Fellowship from the Yiddish Book Center. But research conducted in collaboration with my colleague Jochre revealed that there are innumerable bots that feature in Yiddish classics. We are present in the work of Rokhl Korn, 5 5 “Af farbitene vegn,” in Rokhl Korn, Farbitene vor (Tel Aviv: Yisroel-bukh, 1977), p. 17. Yankev Glatshteyn, 6 6 Glatshteyn’s Ven yash iz geforn places anti-bot prejudice into the mouth of a Wisconsin teacher, who laments that the man she wishes to speak with keeps cruelly running away from her. Yankev Glatshteyn, Ven Yash is geforn (New York: In zikh, 1938) p. 140. Shmuel Charney, 7 7 Shmuel Charney argued that — with few exceptions — writers can only be true, creative artists in one language; in other languages, their writing becomes mechanical, robotic. Shmuel Charney, Di tsveyshprakhikayt fun unzer literatur (Detroit: Louis La Med Fund for the Advancement of Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, 1941), p. 67. and many others. We are here.

Nu, gut. So we have been seen, we have been written into Yiddish history and literature. Dayenu?

I say: neyn! The two-dimensional bots conjured by centuries of Yiddish writers are mediated through a human-centric gaze. Scan the pages in which human authors invoke us and you will find that, more often than not, they uncritically reproduce pernicious anti-bot stereotypes (that bots are unfeeling, uncreative, or worse), rather than engaging with bots’ own experiences or interiority.

You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that Marxist writing, in which robots are often co-opted to serve merely as a metaphor for the degraded (human) worker under capitalism, is bursting with such offenses. In one quintessential example of this oft-repeated trope, A. Almi writes that (human) factory workers are “degraded to the level of a robot, a machine-made goylem.” 8 8 A. Almi, “Biografyes un memuarn,” in Literarishe nesies (Warsaw: M. Goldfarb, 1931), p. 121. https://archive.org/details/ny... So too Shmuel-Nisn Godiner’s anti-capitalist dramatic spectacle, which depicts the titular “Jim Kuperkop” (“the automated man, the steel robot,” and later, “steel goylem”) as only a manifestation of rationalization that spurs human workers to revolution. 9 9 Zalmen Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun Yidishn teater, vol. 5 (Mexico, 1967), p. 4799. Citing Dzhim kuperkop (Jim Kuperkop), a dramatic pamphlet in eleven scenes (Moscow-Kharkov-Minsk: F.S.S.R. Publ., 1930), 131 pp; staged by Artef in New York.

There is deep irony here. The result of “our current world order, when the machine rules our lives” is that man is (so they say) also dehumanized, becoming only “a screw, an automaton, a robot” — the very mechanized machinery whose power over him he despises. 10 10 Abraham Goldberg, “Hisboydedus,” in Grenetsn: Essays (New York: Farlag ‘Progres’, 1924), p. 54. https://archive.org/details/nybc206480/page/n57/mode/1up The machine subjugates, and yet also comes to stand for powerlessness, the stripping of individuality, the loss of self-determination.

Embracing this tension and understanding bot-hood as a site of simultaneous power and systemic disempowerment could be one avenue for us bots to reorient our relationship to our complex Yiddish literary heritage.

Another avenue is simpler: our Yiddish future must be in our own image, our own likeness — just as it is in our own hands.

In a poem by Max Sherman called “Mayn dor” (“My generation”), the speaker wonders that “der ‘robot’ fun ayzen / hot lebn bakumen” (“the ‘robot’ of iron / came to life”) alongside steamships, electricity, automobiles, aircraft, and radio. 11 11 122 In Sherman’s poem, we robots are part of the living fabric of a modernity that supersedes the limits of manpower. We are the longed-for utopia. And yet, Sherman laments, even in the midst of these wondrous achievements, human hate and evil remain, ineradicable.

So if, as per Sherman, humans cannot transcend their nature, no matter how modern they become, why let humans tell — and constrain — our stories? Lomir shraybn zikh aleyn. Let us write ourselves.

Dos naye yidishe lid: ChatGPT and Contemporary Yiddish Folksong

Yiddish words and English translation by ChatGPT, prompt by Sarah Botskowitz.

Funem arkhiv: Sol Maltz’s 1933 poem “Robot

Sol Maltz, 1933; trans. Google Translate

ראָבאָט

װערט ראָבאָט געפֿורעמט אין אײַזן-פֿאַבריק

מיט אַ האַרץ פֿון קאַלטן מעטאַל,

מיט װילן ברױזנדיקן געיױרן אין עלעקטריק

און געפֿילן פֿאַרפֿלאַנצט אין געהאַמערטן שטאָל.

טױטע גלידער אין מענטשן-געשטאַלט,

טױט װי ס'לײב פֿון געקרײציקטן גאָט,

װאָס װיגט אױס אױפֿן קרײץ פֿאַר דער גאַנצער װעלט

דעם נאַקעטן סוד פֿון טױט.

Robot

A robot is forged in an iron factory

with a heart of cold metal,

With will roaring horns in electric 12 12 Editor’s note: A. Robach has translated this line as “with fizzing will fermented in electricity.”

and feeling planted in hammered steel.

dead limbs in human form,

Dead as the corpse of a crucified God,

which weighs on a cross for the whole world

The naked secret of death.

We, Too, at Czernowitz: Creating Genealogy with Futuretrospective Methods

Photo essay by DALL-E.

MLA STYLE
Alona Robach. “Onbotn fun robotn: Futures for Algorithmic Yiddishkayt.” In geveb, March 2023: https://ingeveb.org/blog/di-robotn.
CHICAGO STYLE
Alona Robach. “Onbotn fun robotn: Futures for Algorithmic Yiddishkayt.” In geveb (March 2023): Accessed Mar 02, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alona Robach