Feb 16, 2022
Arele (Arun) Viswanath grew up speaking three languages — English, Yiddish, and Tamil — at home, and knows around twelve more languages to varying degrees. But not until he thought about the prospect of raising a child in a world where there was no Yiddish Harry Potter did he embark on the task of translating the fantasy favorite into Yiddish, his literal mame-loshn.
This interview was initially conducted in September 2020 and has been condensed and edited for clarity and precision.
Miranda Cooper: Could you tell me about your background and how this translation project began?
Arele Visvanath: I was raised in the New Jersey suburbs. My mom, Gitl Schaechter- Viswanath, was always very involved in the Yiddish world, so my siblings and I were very fortunate to grow up around cousins with whom we could speak Yiddish. My father spoke Tamil, and we spoke it with him, but there wasn’t as much of a svive with whom we could interact in the language [Tamil]. Growing up, I didn’t really associate Yiddish with my mom specifically; it was just that a portion of my world was in Yiddish. The Yiddishist scene has changed a lot over the last twenty or thirty years, but when I was growing up there definitely was a sense that Yiddish was not associated with shiny new things. I only remember one instance of an exciting new children’s book coming out in Yiddish (besides maybe Dos kleyne vekerl), and that was Di kats der payats — Sholem Berger’s translation of The Cat in the Hat. We grew up with mostly old books, like Vovik. Rereading it now, I see that it’s totally communist propaganda, but I just remember it being a story about a dog.
The point is, there weren’t many new books; we had all old books. There were sometimes Hasidish books, but they always looked weird to me because of the nikudos—it was overly pointillated—and the theme and content weren’t that interesting [to me]. I never even imagined original Yiddish literature written for young adults, or translations of young adult novels [into Yiddish], for that matter. It never seemed like something that was possible to me.
In terms of reading for pleasure as a teenager, I was reading mostly English. Then when I was fifteen, my grandfather, Mordkhe Schaechter, died. I think his dying was a particular kind of trauma that revived everything he had stood for. In our extended family, it [had] felt like as he was waning, [Yiddish] had all been waning with him, and then when he died everyone became so serious about everything he cared about. Suddenly everyone was trying to speak with grammatical gender. My mom claims that she always corrected us as kids, but I swear I never learned grammatical gender, or I should say I didn’t acquire it linguistically. Suddenly everyone around me was committed to Yiddish grammar in this new way.
Around that same time, I tried to read a short story about a fisherman in Gezamlte verk fun Y.L. Peretz far yugnt and I only understood something like a quarter of the words. That really freaked me out, and it started me on the path to be more committed to fully acquiring Yiddish in its various registers. All the while, I had a nagging question in the back of my mind: What is this for? Why am I doing this? I answered it by telling myself that one day I would raise Yiddish-speaking children. But it always felt silly, because I didn’t know what the future held, and because it’s hard to impart Yiddish literature to children. For instance, I wouldn’t say my mother imparted Yiddish literature to us—no knocks on her, that’s just a tall order. So I didn’t really know why I was doing this, but in the meantime, I started the Learn Yiddish group on Facebook back in high school, and for a few years I was on the board of the Yiddish Lige.
Then a few years ago I got married, and my wife said, Why don’t you do something with this? What if you translated Harry Potter into Yiddish? I said, I can’t do that, my Yiddish isn’t good enough. I’d say I have about 85% fluency, if a native speaker’s fluency is 100%. But she said, We’re going to be raising children together soon; do you want to raise them in a world where there’s no Harry Potter in Yiddish? I don’t know if she meant it as a joke, but that line stuck with me. I took it seriously: I finally had a channel to pour in my angst, and all that vocabulary and grammar I learned, and three years later, here we are.
MC: Here we are, indeed. Harry Potter un der filosofisher shteyn was published in March 2020. For a lot of people, myself included, it was auspicious timing: with the beginning of COVID and lockdowns, a lot of people had more time to read — I know for me that was a real treat, a small silver lining.
AV: It was good timing, too: my wife framed it that way, and the book came out the same month we found out she was pregnant. And since it was March 2020, it was the dawn of a new era in more ways than one.
MC: Who do you see as the primary readership for this translation?
AV: Kids growing up speaking Yiddish. Aside from Hasidim, maybe that’s only, I don’t know, fifty kids. Yiddishists’ kids who don’t have a way to feel proud of and connected to their culture, or to have Yiddish as the air they breathe. My own kids, and my nieces and nephews, which are already a big portion of that fifty.
But I also hope it will be a good tool for Yiddish students. There’s a shocking number of people who know the Harry Potter text extremely well, many sections by heart. And while I would not recommend the book as a text for beginners, if you’re someone who has taken a beginner’s Yiddish class and knows Harry Potter well, you can probably just have the book open on one side and Beinfeld and Bochner on the other side. Between that and the glossary online for the words that don’t show up in Beinfeld and Bochner, you should be good. You’ll probably learn a lot of Yiddish, just because it’s a relatively complex text from a grammatical perspective.
Hasidim are another question. Many Hasidim aren’t particularly fond of academic Yiddishists, in my experience at least, and there were some people on Jewish Twitter who were scandalized that this book wasn’t being translated into Hasidic Yiddish, so there’s some animosity there. But I know for a fact that at least a few Hasidish kids have read the book and loved it. Some Hasidish kids have read it in English or Hebrew, so it’s not like they need it in Yiddish. Nobody needs Harry Potter in Yiddish.
MC (laughing): That’s going to be the headline of this interview. “Nobody needs Harry Potter in Yiddish.” But hey, I did buy it. I think it’s the only new Yiddish book I’ve ever purchased.
AV: Honestly, happily, sadly — I don’t know how to feel about it — the main audience is probably that person who sees it and thinks, “Ooh, Harry Potter in Yiddish! I need that on my bookshelf.” That person might think Yiddish as a language is cute or funny or sad, and they are the prime buyer. That’s just how it is.
MC: Let’s talk about translation. I’m also a prose translator, though I’ve worked mostly from Yiddish to English, so I’m well acquainted with the many choices and creative solutions that translations require. Can you speak to any such moments in your translation process for Harry Potter?
AV: I’ll start with the most banal. Just translating into Yiddish was so difficult. Even for me as a heritage speaker, I couldn’t have done it without my editors, or without the Yiddish Book Center’s Jochre/OCR — I used it so many times to check: “Am I using this collocation correctly?” Translating anything into Yiddish today is a huge undertaking. People complain about the quality of Yiddish writing today, but the fact is, we continue to maintain such high standards. It’s never going to be enough. It’s a groyse yerides-hadoyres, a continuous slippage from generation to generation. It’s hard to feel that any piece of Yiddish writing meets those standards, which made producing a Yiddish translation a daunting task.
Another challenge is that if you read the first book in English, it’s not that well written.
MC: No, it’s not. They get better as they go along, more literary.
AV: You can see that J. K. Rowling’s prose is clumsy. It’s good, but it’s not as good as the later ones.
MC: It’s more of a children’s book than any of the others. Not that children’s books can’t be great literature. But the books grow up along with the readership.
AV: Yes, they grow not just in terms of content—they get darker—but style, and the skillfulness of the writing. So I noticed a lot of grammatical moments that I didn’t like—for instance, she uses a lot of present participle modifiers—and I had to make the decision of whether or not to improve upon those things with my translation. At first I felt bad, but obviously, I wasn’t going to replicate every single one of these grammatical tics. Ri Turner has a term for this, shtelvayze iberzetsn, for translating by passage, that empowered me a bit. My editor Yankl Peretz also recommended more deviation from the text. Some people might read it and think it’s still quite juvenile. But the way I see it is, if J.K. Rowling grew with this, then I can grow with it also.
MC: As a Yiddish to English translator, I often hear from other translators that “they didn’t really have editors, so we have to be their editors.” Obviously that’s not exactly the case here, but some would argue that polishing a text is part of the work of translation.
AV: I recently came across an interview with Faith Jones and Irena Klepfisz discussing Celia Dropkin, in which Klepfisz cited the idea that a translator should feel okay about the fact that her translation is good enough for now, that there will be another now [in the future], and that the original was simply good enough for the now in which it was written.
Jones, Faith, and Irena Klepfisz. “They Wrote about Everything: Women and Yiddish.” Bridges 16, no. 1 (2011): 58–63. https://doi.org/10.2979/bridges.16.1.58.
MC: Let’s talk about something specific to translating Harry Potter. What was the process of translating magical terms? J.K. Rowling invented so many words for this world she built.
AV: There were maybe thirty or forty terms I had to innovate. Even in book two, which I’m working on now, she gets bolder and there are more; it feels like every other page I have to make up a new word. Ideas for these words would percolate in my mind, and I would brainstorm with friends and editors; I would send suggestions to them and see what they thought.
MC: How do you take a word that is essentially nonsense and try to preserve its meaning? Or did you want to instead preserve the sound, or the feel, something less tangible?
AV: People want to read Harry Potter in Yiddish. They don’t want to read I.L. Peretz. They want the story they know with the characters they know. So for most names I kept the names; Harry was “Heri” (although there was a lot of debate about whether it should be written with a pasekh alef or an ayin, and that debate split along American versus European lines, which is linguistically interesting). But made-up names like Slytherin or Gryffindor, which had sound symbolism and etymology, were more complicated. With Slytherin I thought, it has an “sl” at the beginning, so I should do something with shlang. My wife vetoed that. We ended up landing on Samderin, which I think was actually better.
One of the most interesting ones was my term for Quidditch. “Kviditsh” could have worked fine, but I found myself drawn to the old saying “אַז גאָט װיל — שיסט אַ בעזעם, “az got vil — shist a bezem,” which I first encountered when reading Manger’s Khumesh-lider as a teenager and which literally means, “if God wants, a broom shoots” (but the metaphor can be interpreted in radically different directions). Condensing the phrase into one word, I got shisbezem (literally “shootbroom”).
And then there were some words, such as for magic and wizards, that already existed in Yiddish and I didn’t have to make up.
MC: How did you decide what dialects characters would use? The one that jumped out to me was Hagrid. You came up with a very clever way of differentiating his speech.
AV: Hagrid speaks a dialect in the original. But I wanted the book to be a Yiddishist tribute, so I tried to sneak in references to Yiddish things. This is the first time I’m admitting this. For example—Polish Yiddish was more daytshmerish, so I had Hagrid say things like “forverts” when the first-years are going across the lake to the castle, which would otherwise not have been used outside of maybe a workers’ march. In one place, I used “afn shvel” where I could have used “doorstep” — just a little easter egg there.
Hagrid’s dialect had to be Polish because the stereotype of the Galitzyaner is someone warm and boisterous with a sense of humor; that’s obviously Hagrid. Hagrid is set up in contrast to others like McGonagall and Snape and Filch, so if he was going to be Galitzyaner, they had to be Litvish. When Harry, Ron, Hermione and Malfoy go into the Forbidden Forest, Filch says something like, “You think you’re going to have fun with that oaf in there?” followed by, in Litvish dialect, a contraction of “es heybt zikh nit onit,” which means basically “not a chance.” I found that in Dovid Katz’s cultural dictionary.
I wanted to plug in various Yiddishist things of interest because what better place to get people interested in lexicology, and Yiddish literature, than Harry Potter?
MC: Do you know anyone who has become more interested in Yiddish literature because of Harry Potter?
AV: There have been around ten people who have gotten in touch with me to tell me it made them want to learn Yiddish, which is cool.
MC: I have a loaded question. J.K. Rowling has made transphobic comments which have hurt a lot of people. This can be hard to reconcile with the books’ message of love triumphing over hate and people from different backgrounds coming together to fight evil. Does Rowling’s transphobia change Harry Potter for you, and if so, do you feel that you as a translator can intervene in any way?
AV: We can rightfully accuse her of transphobia, and heteronormativity, and racism, and a lot of tokenism. But for me it doesn’t change my view of the text, probably because I never had a powerful sense of her as a person being connected to the books.
MC: So where are you now in the project? Are you planning to translate all seven?
AV: I’m working on the second book already. I always knew I’d do the first two books; I didn’t want it to be simply a novelty. But the writing gets better and the books get longer and darker, so it would be a challenge. Past the third book, I really don’t know. I might want to do another project, maybe Narnia.
MC: Anything you can tell us about the second book?
AV: Gilderoy Lockhart’s speech is going to be heavily daytshmerish.