On Translating (and Not Being) Jonathan Boyarin

Naomi Seidman


On the occasion of the republishing of Jonathan Boyarin’s Yidishe visnshaft un di postmodern / Yiddish Science and the Postmodern (1996), we invited the translator, Naomi Seidman, to offer her reflections on the essay and on the process of translating the terms and idioms of “Yiddish science” into English.

Without once having reread Jonathan’s piece or my own translation of it over the past twenty years, the one major insight from the essay that remained with me was that yidishe visnshaft (which, a little oddly, I translated as Yiddish science) named not only a specifically Jewish object of study but also a specifically Jewish approach to this study; in Jonathan’s words, “a kind of science.” Unlike Wissenschaft des Judentums, which “demands to be written in the Latin alphabet” and in which the academic neutrality of the method remained intact, the Jewish/Yiddish modifier of the cognate term visnshaft (embedded in the name YIVO) bends the method, in postmodern fashion, along the lines of its object of study.

I also remember the complex pleasures of reading about postmodernism in a Yiddish that mixed the familiar and unfamiliar; it was with a jolt of delight that I recognized the name Jacques Derrida in Yiddish: the zayin-shin, so rare in “native” Yiddish texts, registered the un-Yiddishness of the first name while also making a home for it in the language. Jonathan’s essay spoke of the explosive potential of Yiddish in reconceptualizing “the colonial encounter” within Europe’s borders, but this argument also intervened directly into the political climate of the American academy of the 1990s. By speaking the name of that most glamorous figure of the era in Yiddish, Jonathan built bridges between realms I had never dreamed of connecting: the heymish and the Unheimlich, the cutting edge and the traditional, my “hip” friend Jonathan on the Lower East Side and my not-so-hip mother in Brooklyn (who, as always, was my Yiddish guide), the vibrating center of academic energy and its ragged and “backward” margins.

As Jonathan said in his recent postscript, the thesis of the essay clearly required expression in Yiddish, and for Jonathan to have translated it himself would have “undermined that thesis.” The essay required a translator, that is, who was someone other than Jonathan Boyarin, and that person turned out to be me, or more precisely, the Naomi Seidman of the mid-1990s. (How I came to fill that role is now entirely lost to memory.) My task, as usual for a translator, was to render Jonathan’s thoughts in English. But my task was also manifestly, patently, and clearly, not to be Jonathan. Only the distinction between the two entities, the writer and the translator, could guarantee the “Yiddishness” of the original essay that was so central to its claims. Only by not being Jonathan could we together insist that the form of the argument was as essential as its content. Only a translator who was not Jonathan could stymie the suspicion that his non-native Yiddish was a translation of or superimposition on his native English. Such a demand could, on one level, be easily satisfied by the different signatures—Jonathan’s in Yiddish and mine in English. On another level, this suspicion could be countered by employing a certain translation style, one which let the Yiddish shine through, as it were, the English.

To put this otherwise, the essay’s claims for Yiddish and/as the postmodern were strongest precisely where Jonathan’s Yiddish revealed itself as indigenous, demonstrating that the concept of ‘the postmodern’ was not imposed on a language foreign to it but rather emerged from its distinctive idioms and habits of mind. Jonathan’s Yiddish, littered as it was with terms from contemporary theory like “the subaltern” (der untertenik-anderer) or with the word “iz” placed “under erasure,” was elsewhere juicy and idiomatic: Wissenschaft des Judentums heyst zikh shraybn mit Lateynishe oysyes; yidishe visnshaft varft dizelbe frage-tseykhn in di oygn. My translation of these last two phrases, however, is not: “Wissenschaft des Judentums demands to be written in the Latin alphabet”; “Yiddish science throws a question mark into the eyes of those… .” Jonathan generously calls my translation wonderful and accurate, but to me, it now reads as overly literal and just strange, the effect perhaps of the too-close attachment to a Yiddish-English dictionary symptomatic of a beginning translator, or a timidity at rendering a sophisticated theoretical discourse that was probably only partly comprehensible to me in English.

Or maybe, to be more generous to that long-ago self, I was feeling my way to the position required of me to not be Jonathan Boyarin. What not being Jonathan required was, perhaps paradoxically, the most literal rendering possible of his Yiddish; I had to produce a calque of his Yiddish thought that enlarged English and pushed its boundaries rather than constructing a “retroversion” or recovery of the “original” English that might be discerned “behind” Jonathan’s Yiddish. What was required, in other words, was a translation of the sort described in Walter Benjamin’s citation of Rudolf Pannwitz in his famous essay on translation: As Pannwitz declared, “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Greek, Hindi, English. […] The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be profoundly affected by the foreign tongue. [Rather], he must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language.” 1 1 As quoted in Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 1—1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 261–62. Ideally, Jonathan’s Yiddish would turn my English into something it could not have achieved without the pressure of Yiddish. Fluency, the evidence of native thought, should inhabit the Yiddish, while being a visible absence in the English translation. So did I achieve the beautifully foreignizing translation that the essay required, or did I rather produce, as my first published translation from Yiddish, an embarrassingly clunky piece of prose? Honestly, I have no idea.

Jonathan’s postscript expresses new hesitation about what he now sees as too-bold claims for Yiddish as in its essence a privileged language of and for postmodernism, given the marginality of the language and its speakers to the project of Europe. But the essay itself already bifurcated these claims by working in at least two temporalities: Yiddish (and YIVO) in its East European indigeneity and marginality, in its historical homeland and through its traditional speakers; and Yiddish in the academy of the 1990s, in which marginality and centrality, minority and power, were discovering an ironic overlap (just as the shnorer and the shliyekh tsibur did in the Yiddish joke with the punch line “Look who thinks he’s nothing”). Jonathan already suggested in the essay that these two temporalities, the Yiddish of not-quite-European modernity and the Yiddish that could be read alongside the postmodern, were neither identical nor entirely different. Twenty years later, what temporality do we now inhabit? Are we still within the postmodern, a condition now both more familiar and perhaps, as some have suggested, dead? What power does Yiddish have in our world of nonstop chatter, of ubiquitous and generalized marginality, of planetary precarity? Not being Jonathan Boyarin, I cannot answer these questions. But if he does, I hope he calls on me again to translate.

Seidman, Naomi. “On Translating (and Not Being) Jonathan Boyarin.” In geveb, March 2016:
Seidman, Naomi. “On Translating (and Not Being) Jonathan Boyarin.” In geveb (March 2016): Accessed Jun 25, 2019.


Naomi Seidman

Naomi Seidman is the Koret Professor of Jewish Culture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.