Jul 11, 2017
Translating from Yiddish can be a tricky business, fraught with its own particular occupational hazards: paper cuts, dust inhalation, unfiltered metaphors and—most hazardous of all—mistakes!
In geveb has interrogated two dozen or so translators on their preferences, difficulties, pet peeves and hopes for the future.
The majority of those who responded work from Yiddish into English, though also represented are those whose target language is Polish, Spanish, and Hebrew.
About thirty percent also translate from various languages into Yiddish (often official documents).
About 80% of those surveyed translate in relation to their research. 60% consider it a hobby, while 70% have, at some point, translated for money.
Favorite Work in Translation from Yiddish
The question, “what is your favourite work translated from Yiddish” inspired an unsurprisingly varied list. The two most popular translators, in joint first/second place were Joseph Sherman for his Bergelson translations, and Maurice Samuel.
Honorable mentions include:
Daniel Kahn’s song lyrics, Natalia Krynicka’s Polish translations of Miriam Ulinower, Helen Mintz’s translation of Vilne My Vilne by Abraham Karpinowitz, Maurice Carr’s translation of Esther Kreitman’s Deborah, and Jenny Romaine and Great Small Works’ translations of Yosl Kotler and Zuni Maud’s puppet plays.
Tricky words, phrases and structures
We asked translators to tell us what words or phrases and grammatical structures they find most difficult to translate from Yiddish. We’ve broken the answers down into several categories.
Multiple respondents wrote about the seemingly simple pronoun me(n), a vague little indefinite pronoun (somewhere between “one” and generic “you” in English) which, depending on the context, could conceivably be translated as: someone, we, they, you, one, or by the passive voice.
Another culprit is es, often used as a stand in pronoun with desires, urges and inclinations.
“It’s hard to know what to preserve and what to anglicize when it comes to punctuation.”
Many of the difficulties encountered spring not from linguistic differences between source and target languages, but from stylistic differences and narrative traditions.
Yiddish narrative prose has a tendency to jump abruptly from the past tense to the present tense, and back again, with reckless disregard for the emotional well-being of future translators. Yiddish to French translator Batia Baum has a theory that the switch from past to present is used to zoom in, as it were, and focus on the interior viewpoint of a particular character, while present-to-past is used to zoom back out again. (As compelling as this theory is, she is yet to find an editor who did not insist on changing everything to the past.)
Jessica Kirzane talks about her difficulties translating punctuation and line breaks:
“I find that Yiddish prose is often broken up into paragraphs in places where I might have not broken the paragraph in English, is prone to very long sentences that don’t make sense in English, and has a lot of ellipses that are melodramatic and unnecessary in English … It’s hard to know what to preserve and what to anglicize when it comes to punctuation.”
Lawrence Rosenwald and many others talked about expressions like keyneynore (no Evil Eye), mirtseshem (God-willing), kholile (God forbid), lehavdl (a word used to mark a separation between the holy and the profane), nisht do gedakht (may it not happen here) etc. These utterances (which James Matisoff calls psycho-ostensive expressions, and Dovid Katz calls psycho-adverbial inserts) are used reflexively and superstitiously to ward off evil, avoid tempting fate, or to express a range of feelings from solidarity to hope and fear. 1 1 See James A. Matisoff, Blessing, Curses, Hopes, and Fears: Psycho-ostensive Expressions in Yiddish (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000) and Dovid Katz, Grammar of the Yiddish Language (London: Duckworth, 1987) While not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon—the Turkish and Irish languages, 2 2 Irish English still bears a trace of these, which I struggle to avoid using in my own translations, otherwise the characters can end up sounding like they’re from Ballydehob rather than Bialystok -Daniel for example, have more than their fair share—Yiddish possesses a dizzying array of these expressions, sometimes even using them with an ironic or humorous spin.
The Sacred Pun
Yiddish humor is such an ingrained aspect of North-American culture that surely it must be easy to translate? If we assume the average reader is proficient in Hebrew and Aramaic, has a penchant for puns, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Talmud, then, yes.
Sean Sidky shared with us his attempt to render Tevye’s faux-Talmudic Aramaic into willfully butchered-Latin:
“In the middle of one of Tevye’s monologues is the phrase: ‘Askakurde demeskante dekarnose defarshmakhte.’ It makes more or less no sense in English (or Yiddish really) but is made of Hebraic words with Aramaic prefixes and suffixes. I replaced the ‘de’ with ‘co’ which is a Latinate prefix that indicates the same kind of inclusiveness as the Aramaic, then attempted to find English words that had similar meanings to the embedded Hebrew terms (‘conclude’; ‘snub-nosed’; ‘languish’), affixing new Latin-ish beginnings and endings in an attempt to replicate the audience’s initial encounter with this phrase: total confusion that sounds like religious language (Talmudic Aramaic being substituted for something vaguely Church-Latiny). I kept the ‘askakurde’ since it’s a word basically invented by Sholem Aleichem as a way to mark his Aramaic-ish phrases, and the whole thing became: ‘Askakurda concludanta copugnosa colanguisda’, which is still entirely nonsense, but a strange and fun thing nonetheless.”
“An interesting tendency of Yiddish is to state the obvious when it comes to anatomy: ‘Two eyes.’ ‘Two hands.’ ‘Ten fingers.’”
Idiosyncrasies of Yiddish vocabulary
One respondent writes: “An interesting tendency of Yiddish is to state the obvious when it comes to anatomy. ‘Two eyes.’ ‘Two hands.’ ‘Ten fingers.’” The same translator has noticed a mismatch of register between Yiddish and English, “Some Latinate words in Yiddish (pedagogye for instance) are used far more often than in English and therefore sound less intellectual, at least they did before WWII.”
Rachel writes about words dealing with emotions that seem to have a much wider range than they do in English: “words like umet come up again and again, which I translate variously—from ‘disappointed’ to ‘devastated’ depending on context.”
A word that I personally have spent far too much time struggling with is farglivert. Literally it means congealed, curdled, coagulated or jellied but it’s range and use in Yiddish is far broader and significantly less … gloopy-sounding. Emotions, thoughts, and feelings can become farglivert and it’s common to describe someone or something that stops moving as being somehow farglivert—a bit like being frozen in English, but at room temperature.
Honorable mentions in the trickiest word category:
agune, zayn af kest, mentsh, shoyn, heymish, and religious vocabulary that can end up sounding either a little bit too Christian (the Sabbath, the Feast of Tabernacles) or arcane (kise hakoved—the Throne of Glory, reboyne sheloylem—Master of the Universe) 3 3 A common way of referring to God. No connection to the 1987 He-man film of the same name.
All translators make mistakes, either due to lack of familiarity with the source culture or historical context, misreading of ambiguous phrases, the inadvertent skipping of lines (or sometimes whole pages!) or confusion caused by non-standard orthography and all too familiar typos.
Whatever the cause, mistakes are usually nothing more than small, sad reminders of human frailty.
Here are some of our favorites…
װאַקאַציע־לײַט זיק בראָטן אױף דער זון
די װײַסע טױב פֿון שלום
One man’s peeve is another man’s pet
When it comes to personal preferences Yiddish translators have the same variety of firmly held, yet mutually-incompatible opinions as any other sub-group of Yiddishists. The following is a selection of complaints and counter-complaints.
Irad Ben Isaak says he is “often bothered by the common focus on the smoothness of the target language.”
While Rachel complains of translations that are overly literal, unidiomatic and wooden-sounding.
Maia Evrona takes issue with the tendency to condense and simplify:
“Sometimes I wonder if the tendency to condense is a misapplication of the writing dictum that fewer words are always better than more. I don’t believe it should be a translator’s job to turn more words into fewer, and doing so can make complex writing feel stilted and overly simple—even childish—in English.”
Likewise Lawrence Rosenwald dislikes what he sees as arbitrary shortening and re-ordering. Particularly when it comes to the psycho-ostensive expressions mentioned above.
An interesting elaboration on this and other of Rosenwald’s peeves can be found here.
Mindl Cohen writes:
“Something I’m sure I’m guilty of, as well, and super common: overly Jewifying the speech of characters in the translation from Yiddish to English, by trying to keep a Yiddish syntax or use a Yinglish/Jewish English word or phrase. You know, when you want to keep ‘oy’ instead of ‘ah’ or ‘oh’ or whatever, but suddenly you’ve turned the character into Mel Brooks. Or trying to use the word ‘Jew’ in a translation of any phrase using ‘yid’ where it just means ‘you’ or ‘that guy’.”
Hershl Hartman laments the practice of “translating poetry for meaning only, without any attempt to convey rhyming patterns and/or meter.”
Another respondent complains about translators turning Yiddish names into their English or Israeli Hebrew equivalents: “Basye is not Batya, Moyshe is not Moshe or Moses, Rokhl is not Rakhel or Rachel. This is nothing short of cultural erasure and a subtle way of wiping out a thousand years of Eastern-European Jewish history.”
What needs to be translated?
Finally, there was no shortage of opinions about the potential future directions for Yiddish literature in translation:
—More women writers in general! (Specifically: more Yenta Mash, more Rachel Auerbach, more Fradel Shtok, Chava Rosenfarb’s essays)
—A complete translation on Itsik Manger’s Khumesh lider.
—An anthology of Moyshe Kulbak’s poetry.
—More modernist prose.
—More retranslations of old classics.
—More Soviet writers.
—More contemporary writers and writers active in the last thirty years, such as Tsvi Kanar, Tsvi Eisenman, Mikhoel Felsenbaum, or Lev Berinski.
—More shund: trashy literature of all kinds. (Do our brows always need to be so high?)
Of course, we here at In Geveb hope to play our part by continuing to provide an outlet for translations such as these (and others). We are always open for submissions.