Dec 02, 2021
Daniel Kennedy: You’ve joined me here inside our respective inboxes to talk about your new venture: Kinder-loshn Publications. Can you start off by telling our readers what prompted you to start a new press and what niche you hope to occupy?
Jordan Kutzik: Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish has been around since the 1960s and for decades published a literary journal, ran activities on college campuses and organized the annual Yidish-Vokh retreat. While Yidish-Vokh remains a vital program and our signature event, our other programming hasn’t been as active in recent years as the Yiddish “scene” has expanded to offer many more events and the internet has changed communication needs. We’ve been thinking for a while now about what we could bring to the table that would fill a need in the community.
In 2015 or so, I wanted to create a children’s book lending library for Yugntruf. I collected some old children’s books and gave them to some of the kids at Yidish-Vokh, but they just didn’t keep their attention. The books were old—literally falling apart in some cases—and the illustrations were, in the words of one kid, “b’emes nebekhdik.” Reading aloud from some of the books worked, but it was a tough sell getting kids interested in them. I realized that if kids were going to pick them up on their own, the books needed to look as good as those they were reading in English. So I thought: “Let’s hire an illustrator, retype the texts and print new editions.” But it just didn’t add up financially.
At the same time, I was getting more and more into literary translation, and it occurred to me to translate Yiddish children’s literature to make it more accessible. One day in early 2016, I was in a children’s bookstore and I saw a beautiful children’s book in Inuktitut and English. A light bulb went off in my head.
Not only does printing the books bilingually make it feasible to publish high quality professional books in Yiddish, it opens up the literature to a wider audience. It also allows the books to be used as a pedagogical aid for Yiddish students of all ages and for Yiddish readers looking to improve their English. And it serves as a good introduction to Yiddish language and culture for kids who would otherwise not see a Yiddish text or have a Yiddish book at home. Even if you can’t speak a language, being exposed to it through the presence of books can get you interested. One of the main reasons I began studying Yiddish myself was because there were Yiddish books in my childhood home, and I wanted to learn to read them. The same is true of Jewish day schools. Outside of the Hasidic world and Sholem Aleichem College in Melbourne, kids aren’t learning any Yiddish in schools. But I hope that Jewish schools will buy these books and that kids will consider Yiddish less exotic than most American Jews of my generation did. It’s a way of normalizing the presence of the language.
Samantha Zerin came up with the perfect name Kinder-Loshn, and many friends and colleagues have given invaluable advice and contributed their talents. I see an inherent value in creating a press that properly compensates and recognizes the contributions of writers, translators, illustrators, editors, and graphic designers who work with Yiddish.
Ultimately our mission is to make great classic works of Yiddish children’s literature available to readers in both Yiddish and English and to publish new Yiddish children’s books and translations of other works into Yiddish and English.
DK: How would you describe your aesthetic?
JK: Our visual aesthetic is eclectic. Our first two chapter books are illustrated by Yehuda Blum. Yehuda and I overlapped at the Forverts for four years. The things he created for the Forverts were phenomenal, not only technically as art but in terms of the variety of styles he incorporates and the many historical and literary references. So when I knew we’d need an illustrator for a chapter book, he was the first person who came to mind. It’s been amazing seeing him develop many drafts of his illustrations. The Clever Little Tailor, the first book he illustrated, has one main character but takes place in a kind of fantastical renaissance Europe that seems to span centuries. Yehuda researched the settings of different scenes and the costumes of the era. Early on he had the great idea to make two sets of images – illuminated Hebrew letters to start off the chapters, and chapter images as the primary illustrations. Visually speaking, the illustrations are “bilingual” – the artistic style in the illuminated letters looks like Jewish folk art, while the main illustrations are much more typical of American children’s books. Yehuda also illustrated our logo, which is a beautiful synthesis of Yiddish and English, old and new styles.
Kurt Hoffman, also a former colleague of mine at the Forward, is doing the art for Max Weinreich’s The Story of the Big Bad Beyz. He has a really interesting style using watercolors.
DK: Are there other presses or projects that you aspire to emulate?
JK: I’m inspired by a lot of projects, some similar, some quite different. Nikolai Olniansky in Sweden has been publishing Yiddish children’s books for a while, and I’m always excited to see what he has coming, including more bilingual books recently.
Beyond our little Yiddish bubble, there are a lot of presses publishing children’s literature in translation. I enjoy following them on Twitter to see how the field is growing. Every September is World Kid Lit Month, and the group behind the event has a wonderful website with a lot of resources for readers, writers, librarians, translators, and publishers. It’s a vibrant scene and some of the presses I aspire to have Kinder-Loshn be reminiscent of are children’s publishers who focus on works in translation such as Elsewhere Editions, Levine Querido, Pushkin Children’s and Yonder. One publisher that I’m particularly inspired by is Inhabit Media. They publish beautifully illustrated books in English, Inuktitut, and French that center Inuit culture. Like Inhabit Media, Kinder-Loshn Publications aims both to preserve and disseminate older traditional stories and highlight contemporary creativity.
DK: Tell us a little about the team behind the scenes: who is involved and what are their backgrounds?
JK: I’m the publisher along with my wife Rachel Field. Eliezer Niborski edited the Yiddish texts for the two chapter books and the Big Bad Beys and helped with many stylistic matters. Dina Niborski typed up the Yiddish manuscripts according to standard YIVO spelling. Alex Zucker, an experienced literary translator from Czech, copyedited The Clever Little Tailor in English. Arun Viswanath,Yaakov Blum and Boris Sandler have weighed in on many Yiddish stylistic questions,Yankl Salant, a talented layout editor and book designer, worked with me to figure out the best way to lay out a bilingual book.
Many people have also given us invaluable advice on books to consider, chief among them Kenneth Moss, David Stromberg, Zackary Sholem Berger, Samantha Zerin, and especially Miriam Udel. Naomi Prawer Kadar’s work on Yiddish children’s magazines also opened up a world of new stories to me, many of which never appeared in book form. More broadly, her scholarship has helped me to better understand the cultural context in which American Yiddish children’s literature developed.
Finally, none of our work would be possible without our donors.
DK: So what’s the story behind your book about the Faroese puffin?
When I was starting to research how to set up and promote Kinder-Loshn, I decided to look into how other organizations that primarily publish books in indigenous and minority languages go about it. I found a list of every Harry Potter translation and used that to find some of the most prominent publishers working in languages like Basque, Occitan, Low German, Asturian, Breton, Frisian, Greenlandic, Irish, and Welsh. That’s how I discovered the Faroese children’s publishing industry, which must be the largest children’s publishing industry per capita in the world. There are about 50,000 people in the Faroe Islands, and they produce dozens of new children’s books a year. All seven Harry Potter books have appeared in Faroese, while only the first two have appeared in most minority languages or even some languages spoken by tens of millions of people, such as Tagalog, Gujarati, Cambodian, Malayalam, and Tamil. So that gives you a sense of the scale and the amount of effort put into promoting publishing in Faroese. Besides translations, they release many original titles and are especially known for young adult novels.
As we were looking into Faroese children’s publishers, Rachel noticed the cover for an adorable book called Uh Oh by Jenny Kjaerbo. I saw that it had been translated into Spanish but not into English and bought a copy of the Spanish edition. The book arrived six weeks later and I translated it from Spanish into translatenese; Rachel turned it into storybook English. We obtained the rights and brought on Arun Viswanath to translate the book into Yiddish. It’s a silly but touching story for 2-4 year-olds about a young puffin that has a series of misadventures when he is left in charge of an egg. Arun’s translation, “Gevald!”, will undoubtedly be the first work of Faroese literature to appear in Yiddish.
DK: If I’m not mistaken your first two titles will be entirely bilingual, Yiddish/English? Can you tell us about those books?
JK: The Clever Little Tailor by Solomon Simon, which we released in September, was originally serialized in the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute’s Kinder Zhurnal and later appeared as a book in 1933. Although best remembered as the children’s book author who along with I. B. Singer was the biggest popularizer of Chelm stories in America, Simon produced political polemics, journalism, literary criticism, biblical exegesis, and a memoir, ultimately publishing more than twenty books. And all of that while working fulltime as a dentist! He was a fascinating renaissance man whose writing for adults would likely have fallen into obscurity if not for his grandson David Forman, who has dedicated much of his time over the last decade to learning Yiddish and translating his grandfather’s works.
Several people recommended The Clever Little Tailor to me, and upon reading it I was enchanted by its mixture of folk wisdom and fairytale quality with sophisticated characterization and dark humor. It’s a book that’s simultaneously quite typical of Yiddish children’s literature in a lot of respects but also subverts many tropes of it as well. I also liked that unlike far too many children’s books, especially Yiddish ones, it’s written in a way that doesn’t assume the reader is in need of moral edification. There are clear morals and good guys and bad guys, but it isn’t the least bit didactic.
Christa Whitney at the Yiddish Book Center put me in touch with David Forman, and lo and behold he was already working on a translation of the book. A perfect shidduch.
DK: What are some of the logistic considerations and challenges of publishing a bilingual book?
JK: The fact that the translations are side by side definitely impacted how David Forman did his translation. There’s always a tension in literary translation between how close you hew to the original text and how much you try to make it sound like something originally written in the target language. When both languages are side by side, the translator’s decisions are far more apparent. David was very cognizant of the fact that some readers will be reading in one language and using the other as a crutch to help them decipher words and phrases they don’t understand. So he made some decisions as a translator that he would have probably made differently had the book been published just in English. I think he found a happy medium. Of course for monolingual English readers most of these decisions are invisible.
Logistically, in terms of book design, laying out the text is a nightmare because Yiddish goes from right to left and English from left to right. So with parallel texts, no matter what you do, one language is going in the wrong direction. After much debate, we decided to privilege the Yiddish text by having the book go from right to left. The cover, meanwhile, is in English. So when an English reader opens the book, she is redirected to the “back” where the text starts in both languages. Besides some translated manga, I’ve never seen an English-language book done this way, and it will be interesting to see how people react to it. Ultimately, it serves as a constant, albeit hopefully subtle reminder, that the book was originally written in Yiddish.
We started on Jacob Glatstein’s Emil and Karl before Uh Oh! and The Story of the Big Bad Beyz but we’ve put off publishing it until 2023. Jeffrey Shandler’s excellent English translation, which we will republish in agreement with Square Fish Press, an imprint of Macmillan, will be joined by Glatstein’s original Yiddish text. The formatting will be the same as with The Clever Little Tailor.
Uh Oh!/Gevald! is being printed in a bilingual edition as well. Because it’s a picture book and there’s a clear sequence of action, we actually produced mirror images of all of the illustrations when we originally planned to have unilingual Yiddish and English editions. Like with The Clever Little Tailor and Emil and Karl, , the page order is going to go from right to left like a Yiddish book. We may produce unilingual editions of Uh Oh/Gevald down the line too, in which case the English version will have the illustrations facing the same way as in the Faroese and Spanish versions.
DK: Where will readers be able to find these books once they are released?
JK: The Clever Little Tailor is available on our Shopify store. While we can ship the book anywhere and we’d love for you to order it, we know the cost of foreign shipping is very expensive at the moment so we’re working on ways to make buying our books more affordable in Europe and Israel. We’ll have information on where to get our books locally in Israel shortly and we hope to have options for Canada and Europe soon. We’ll be expanding onto Amazon and into a few more bookstores next year as well.
Uh Oh/Gevald will appear in the Spring of 2022 and The Big Bad Beyz hopefully in late 2022 and Emil and Karl in 2023.
Note: Please send Jordan Kutzik an email ([email protected]) if you have any suggestions for titles to translate and/or would like to collaborate.