Quidditch in Yiddish, etc

Surely you want to read the Harry Potter books in their new Yiddish translation, don’t you?

“But I don’t read Yiddish!” you exclaim.

That’s admittedly a handicap.

But you can make some progress by sounding out the Hebrew letters (with a little extra advice about vowels — see below) and pretending it’s German (better yet, medieval German). That will help, although it goes only so far.

And it does require that you can read Hebrew letters and know some German.

So what’s going on here?

The base article about this translation is in Tablet Magazine, so you should read that description of how the Yiddish translation came about and what some of the issues were. I was initially surprised that the translator is named Arun Visnawath, not a name one would associate with a Yiddishist. But that apparent discrepancy was not even remarked on in the Tablet article, perhaps because Visnawath’s family is “a scion of one of America’s greatest Yiddish dynasties.” It’s worth reading the entire paragraph about his background:

Born in New York City and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, Viswanath attended Orthodox Jewish day schools. After a gap year in Israel, he attended Harvard University, where he was the student president of Hillel, majored in linguistics, and attained conversational fluency in 15 languages. (The two of us first met in college.) Language, and particularly Yiddish, ran deep in his family. His grandfather, Mordkhe Schaechter, was a professor of Yiddish at Columbia University, and together with his siblings and children, devoted his life to the propagation and perpetuation of the language. Viswanath’s mother, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, is the author of the 856-page Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary. His aunt, Rukhl Schaechter, is the editor of the Yiddish Forverts, the sole remaining non-Hasidic Yiddish newspaper. Arun’s mother even met his father, P.V. Viswanath, thanks to Yiddish. The elder Viswanath, an Indian economist from Bombay, came to the United States for graduate school, discovered Judaism, and found his way to a Yiddishist retreat in the Catskills. As legend has it, he dove into the lake without sufficient swimming skill, and was rescued by the lifeguard on duty, Gitl, whom he later married.

The Indian-Jewish connection is not as unusual as most Americans would probably guess. I’ve known several mixed families with just such as combination.

Anyway, I originally found the Tablet article in a post about it in one of my favorite linguistics blogs, Language Hat, which quotes extensively from Tablet, so if you only have time for one source you can read the Language Hat post. Given the differences between the two publications, it is no surprise that the Tablet article focuses entirely on the Yiddish translation whereas the commenters in Hat’s piece also write about translation issues in other languages: Tablet, after all, is “a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture,” whereas Language Hat is a general linguistics blog that has the whole world as its domain.

PS: Here’s the promised note on vowels in Yiddish. As you (probably) know, the Hebrew alphabet — like the Arabic, which we’ll discuss next week — consists entirely of consonants. In both Hebrew and Arabic, dots and squiggles around the letters — known as pointing — can be added to help us foreigners with the missing vowel sounds, but those are used only for novices, not for people who read actual Hebrew and Arabic. This system works well for Semitic languages, where the root of a word is expressed only in consonants (most often three of them) and the vowels change to mark different forms, along with prefixes and suffixes. But it’s not so good for Germanic languages, where we have unrelated words that differ only in their vowels, like bad, bed, bidand budso we can’t get away with a vowelless writing system. Yiddish is a Germanic language, like English, although it borrows some words from Hebrew (and elsewhere). This means that the Hebrew alphabet is not really a good fit with Yiddish. The solution is to repurpose some of the consonants, so that Yiddish can use consonants that are silent in modern Hebrew to represent a and eand consonants like y and w to represent i and o/u respectively. (It’s more complicated than that, but those are the highlights.)


Categories: Linguistics