Precarious Chains: Reflections on Translating Yiddish

Saul Noam Zaritt


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 essay is the first in a series of reflec­tions by Yid­dish trans­la­tors and schol­ars inspired by that con­ver­sa­tion. You can read the full series here.

Reflecting on his anthology project with Eliezer Greenberg in 1970, Irving Howe had this to say about the future of the translation of Yiddish literature:

What we established here in effect was a cultural chain. First, from these translators to myself who am an amateur in this field, and whose knowledge of the Jewish tradition is severely limited and whose knowledge of Yiddish is fairly limited. Then, from myself to Greenberg, a veteran Yiddish poet, and then of course from Greenberg to the whole Yiddish tradition itself. This chain is terribly precarious. It can be snapped at any number of points. So that the problem for the future of Yiddish translation into English is not to find people who know the meaning of the words or can look them up in the dictionary, but to have available, at a time when most Jews are ceasing to use Yiddish, a corps of experts who would maintain the tradition, who would have a sense of cultural aura and of cultural associations, so that those who wanted to engage in the technical work of translation would have a resource to turn to for control and for check. Now in some ways of course, this is a tragic proposal but so too, it seems, is the situation that prompts it. 1 1 Irving Howe, “Translating from Yiddish,” in The World of Translation (New York: PEN American Center, 1971), 143.

Howe here echoes an old problem in Jewish literary history, one with an apocalyptic horizon: yeridas hadoyres, the decline of the generations. This rabbinic concept describes the growing distance from divine revelation and the decline of spiritual authority with time: the previous generations were that much closer to the source, and so are the possessors of greater knowledge that with time becomes harder, if not impossible, to both pass down and access. This sense of decline is heightened for Howe in the case of Yiddish because of the language’s apparent decimation—the passing away of unheeded and unheard forefathers and foremothers—and Howe’s sense of the culture’s inevitable erasure after the Holocaust due to a kind of natural extinction, blind assimilation, and, most insidious for Howe, the destructive impulses of nostalgia.

In this context, translation for Howe comes as an inadequate form of rescue, but a necessary one: a link in the “precarious chain.” Translators, limited as they are, can make belated interventions in order to save certain remnants of Yiddish now transposed into English for posterity and to potentially make some mark on a new postwar Jewish American experience.

Nearly fifty years later, the impulse toward archive and rescue continues to be the most common “defense” of the project of the translation of Yiddish literature. The Yiddish Book Center continues its book-saving efforts by promoting the translation of what the organization thinks of as lost texts. Translation has also become a central part of Yiddish scholarship. Hana Wirth-Nesher recently claimed in an essay for In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies that “research on Yiddish literature and culture is almost entirely conducted in the English language” while Mikhail Krutikov, in another essay, points to increasingly important contributions in Hebrew, German, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and several other languages. In geveb itself publishes in English, and sometimes in English and Yiddish at the same time, but never Yiddish on its own. Simultaneous to these scholarly translations, Yiddish occasionally appears as a sometimes prop of post-ethnic Judaism, or in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s terms, as a “figurative thing,” either as a form of immigrant nostalgia or a kind of “Broadway Yiddish”. Even while the Forverts continues to produce great Yiddish journalism, and as scholars continue to value the mastery of Yiddish as an essential aspect of Yiddish scholarship, there has been an increased admission that Yiddish as a cultural force now exists under the sign of translation. Outside of the Hasidic world (and increasingly including the Hasidic world), Yiddish is doubled by a second language: there is no Yiddish theater without supertitles, just as there is no Yiddish literature without the university press, paid for through the beneficence of the Yiddish non-profit organization.

The translation, adaptation, or tradaptation of Yiddish culture has become a central component of its very existence. To a certain extent this has been true since the immediate postwar period, beginning with Irving Howe’s anthologies and continuing through the Bashevis Singer translation machine. Over the past fifty years Yiddish translation has followed familiar conservational models, aligned with either Howe’s survivalism or Bashevis’s universalism, and rarely anywhere in between. But with the rise of digital publishing and new web platforms, there is a sense that now is a time to think beyond such models and examine new directions in the translation of Yiddish literature. Yiddish can be found in many new contexts, potentially beyond certain institutional and market restraints. It may be possible to move past rescue projects and to think about the cultural and scholarly consequences of translation. One goal may be to find ways to avoid the apologetics of having to claim over and over again that reading Yiddish writers is worth it, that they deserve a place in the publication schedule of major literary outlets. Or maybe we have not been translating the right things or placing these texts in the right contexts. It is time to think both with and without the sense of a “precarious chain” of Yiddish literary knowledge, to understand these challenges as fundamental to all translation and, instead of mourning this fact, imagine this generational rupture as a creative opportunity.

In geveb is poised to be one forum where the explorations of such challenges can take place, a chance to think beyond previous models of Yiddish translation and to think of the futures of Yiddish translation. In part as a way to reflect on the first academic year of In geveb’s publishing of new translations, over the next two weeks we will present a series of essays by Yiddish translators and scholars about the process of translation, the possibilities of Yiddish texts in other languages, and the cultural and scholarly contingencies surrounding the project of Yiddish literature in translation. These essays all acknowledge Howe’s sense of inevitable decline and yet still attempt to uncover or discover new methodologies and markets for Yiddish in translation.

Zaritt, Saul Noam. “Precarious Chains: Reflections on Translating Yiddish.” In geveb, May 2016:
Zaritt, Saul Noam. “Precarious Chains: Reflections on Translating Yiddish.” In geveb (May 2016): Accessed May 19, 2024.


Saul Noam Zaritt

Saul Noam Zaritt is an associate professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University. He is currently a peer review editor at In geveb and one of the site's founding editors.