PRESERVING JEWISH LEGACY
A Perspective on the Future of Yiddish Translation in a Modern and Technological World
by Steven Lasky, Founder and Director, Museum of Family History
PART 1: FRAMING THE
There are a myriad of opinions about what the future of Yiddish translation should be, could be and will be. Many are certain that the future of the Yiddish language is bleak, although there are those who still believe in its survival, who pray that the language will in some way flourish once again, perhaps through an increased interest shown by today’s generation and others who care deeply about it.
There have been many questions posed by those of us who are involved with Yiddish translation, in the hope that discussion and solutions derived thereof will give us useful guidance, not only with regards to the translation of Yiddish literature per se, but more broadly the Yiddish language and culture. All of these questions surely need to be asked and answered, though perhaps before we ask them we need to frame the questions in the right way in order to find the answers we need.
No one can really foresee the future, though many say the continuing decline of the Yiddish language is inevitable, that it is a “dead” language that will eventually be spoken mostly by religious Jews, and perhaps lie dormant in the collective consciousness of those who were once exposed to it at some time in their lives. Saying that, there seems to be a resurgence of young people who are studying Yiddish through programs offered by various schools and universities, but to what end? As the wonderfully dedicated Aaron Lansky and those at the National Yiddish Book Center pointed it out to me recently, only two percent of the extant Yiddish-language books have been translated – that it would take 39,000 years to translate all of them. Not only that, but there are still more books being written today and published solely in Yiddish, and that because of this, there are more books being published today than are currently being translated into English, thus creating a “negative” number of translated books.
Many thousands of Yiddish-language titles still exist, though so many more were lost forever because of the many book burnings and waves of destruction that ran rampant during World War II and the Holocaust. Not only this, but a gradual apathy has developed over the many decades since, sadly bred by time and assimilation into a secular society. There are thousands of Yiddish books that are currently languishing on the shelves of major institutions that probably will never be translated, regretfully relegated to the “dustbin” of history.
Let us now review some of the questions that have been posed about how we might preserve Yiddish language, culture, etc. One may first ask the question “What value exists generally in the translation of Yiddish texts? Then we may ask what Yiddish-language material should be translated (a dilemma for many), or perhaps, what potential translations should take precedence over others? Then we need to ask ourselves whether Yiddish texts should only be translated by a “professional” translator who is well steeped in knowledge of Jewish history, literature and religion, or whether those who possess less knowledge and experience can translate adequately selected works where precision is not demanded. There are certainly those who are comfortable with “foreign” languages, who are quite well meaning and firmly dedicated to the cause, who are not “professionals”, but nevertheless can if given the chance make a worthwhile contribution.
These are just a few of the questions that must be asked and answered in an honest fashion. Most of these questions are moot, and the answers we might arrive at generally will depend on one’s own life experiences and attitudes. Whatever questions we may pose, it is necessary to frame them in the right way – whether, for example, one should choose to translate a piece of text only if the potential audience for such a translation is large enough. And what of the question of relevance? Should we choose to translate texts based on quality or historical importance? Is it more important to translate fiction or non-fiction?
We must employ our imagination and intellect to gain perspective on the meaning of Yiddish culture and language and how it exists and is perceived in today’s world, as compared to the world that once existed decades ago. For a very long time Yiddish was the mamaloshen, the mother tongue, the language that millions of Jews both spoke and wrote in, whether they were talking to a neighbor, writing creatively, or simply penning a letter meant for a family member domestically or abroad.
Also, many stories were written by survivors et al in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which when assembled and published in book form were known as “Yizkor books”, or Books of Remembrance, each of which commemorated the once-vibrant community that they once called “home”. Such books serve as a major contribution to our history, our collective Jewish consciousness. By saving our memories in this way we preserve for “all time” the history of thousands of towns where Jews used to live. But is their meaning in today’s world limited, when most of the survivors and Yiddish speakers are no longer with us, if these books are never translated into a more “mainstream” language such as English? Who will be able read them years into the future if they remain untranslated? There is an ongoing project by JewishGen to translate the extant Yizkor books and make them readily available online, though there are many more books in need of translation, than have to date been translated. The New York Public Library has many of the book, in their original language(s), online on their website.
Spoken Yiddish can be sweet music
ears. For those who have the ability to read and understand Yiddish,
they are blessed because they have the option to select among the
very best of Yiddish writings and more fully appreciate Jewish
creativity and thought. If the Yiddish reader has an imagination
that is active and free, and possesses sufficient knowledge of the
life and the world events of the day, they will derive much
satisfaction and hopefully will be inspired to read more texts
penned by Yiddish writers.
WHAT SHOULD BE TRANSLATED AND WHO SHOULD DO IT?
The question of what should be translated cannot be answered properly without asking why translate in the first place? Ideally, would we want to have most Yiddish texts translated into English, and if so, why?
It is my opinion that one cannot say that translating one form of Yiddish writing should take precedence over another, e.g. literature as opposed to non-fiction, such as what has been written in past Yiddish newspapers, journals, Yizkor books, even letters and postcards sent between family members. Each form represents a point in the nexus of Jewish existence, and each should be considered as being important enough to translate. With the dearth of available Yiddish speakers and an aging Yiddish-speaking population, what is translated is often a question of what someone will pay a professional translator to translate.
Then there is the question of
whether a particular piece of Yiddish text need be translated by a
translator, or could an
make his or her own
worthwhile contribution, without having been privy to a deep and
meaningful education steeped in Jewish history, literature,
religion, etc. I would venture to say that some distinctions must be
made, that perhaps the translation of Yiddish literature be left to
but others with less skills and background receive our support to
translate less literary work. Much of the latter should eagerly be
offered up to any interested individual who shows enough desire to
take on such a task, whether they are an auto-didact or someone who
has learned Yiddish in one form or another in school. It is perhaps
through this pragmatic philosophy that we may advance more swiftly
the translation of the great number of Yiddish texts, while at the
same time creating a greater interest in such works. Let
literature where it is most
important to recognize nuances in language, e.g. finding just the
right word or expression, be done a “professional”,
support wholeheartedly the “amateur”
who wishes without pay to
translate works such as non-fiction, where finding the exact word or
expression might not be as important as presenting information
FINDING AN AUDIENCE
It has been asked, “Who is the audience for Yiddish translations?” This is another question that should be considered, though this question should be independent of the question of what should be translated. There is a relative dearth of people who can truly read and understand Yiddish. A scarcity also exists with regards to the number of people who actually would like to read Yiddish literature, in whatever language it might be available. The question that ultimately should be asked is “How do we fuel interest, not only for Jewish literature, but for learning about Jewish cultural and history as well?” By working diligently and passionately we may find ways to excite those in the “mainstream” about Jewish culture, so that they feel that they can with some effort participate in such an “experience”, dong their part to preserve our collective Jewish memory. Perhaps by stimulating such an interest will we help spread an enthusiasm to others, and we will have our “Yiddish Spring”.
PART II: SAVE A LANGUAGE
In Part I, I stressed the importance of continuing on an ever more determined basis the translation of Yiddish works, not just literature per se, but all forms of Yiddish writings, including non-fiction works. This is not to say that all Yiddish texts ever written should be translated. There are “experts”, or “those in the know”, who might be able to suggest to us what our priorities should be, but such a list of priorities is generally a subjective matter, as are most such lists. Ultimately, a volunteer translator will choose what is valuable to them and choose that to translate; a paid translator simply will translate what someone is willing to pay for. This is a matter of course.
At the current time and for the foreseeable future, there simply won’t be enough volunteers or paid translators to do all the work that needs to be done. It appears that such organizations as the Yiddish Book Center, the Arbeiter-Ring and YIVO, as well as other educational institutions are offering courses in Yiddish language, which is all well and good. However, the question then arises to what end will the student be studying Yiddish, and after completing their studies, what purpose will it serve?
It is my fervent hope that each such student will find whatever Yiddish-language work appeals to him or her and translate that piece, for it is when a person is most enthused about their chosen task that they will do their best work.
Then the question arises, “How can
be best increase enthusiasm, not just of students of Yiddish, but of
the masses as a whole, the potential audience, each of whom is a
potential translator of Yiddish works?”
When one speaks of a “living language”, the implication is that the language is “modern” and evolving, and is spoken regularly by the population of an existing culture. On the other hand, Yiddish is often deemed a “dead language”, because it is neither spoken nor read regularly by the majority of any particular population, although there are segments of the world’s population who still speak it. In a declining, native Yiddish-speaking world, Yiddish is still trying to find its place, or at a minimum resisting its purported demise. Yiddish was the language spoken and read most commonly among European Jews, though in such countries as Hungary, it was not the dominant language among Jews.
Thus Yiddish was indeed a “living language” in pre-World War II Europe (and elsewhere) because there existed a vast Jewish population who spoke it, and it was thus a vital part of Jewish culture and expression. Yiddish was used daily among neighbors, friends and within the family unit. For many it was a daily ritual to read a Yiddish-language newspaper. Many journals and periodic editions were written in Yiddish. Jewish novelists, playwrights and journalists wrote creative works of both fiction and non-fiction. It was a “living language” because it was spoken and read by the greatest Jewish population that has been in existence in modern history.
The Holocaust, of course, did the
greatest damage to Yiddish culture and language; assimilation within
the non-Jewish secular world has also been a significant factor. Not
only is Yiddish not spoken within most segments of our population,
but also a general awareness of Yiddish culture, history, etc. often
wanes once we reach adulthood. For many of us, we then make our way
into the secular, non-Yiddish speaking world. So one question to be
asked is, “What can we do in such a word to increase awareness and
inspire others to make a commitment to Yiddish in its many forms, to
make it more a part of their lives?”
RECREATING A YIDDISH WORLD
We cannot literally go back in time. “Vos iz geven iz geven”, as they say, What is gone, is gone. I am reminded of the movie “The Time Machine” in which actor Rod Taylor sat in his time machine outside a store with a mannequin in a window, where her clothes changed rapidly as he passed through time.
If we could do this, we could undoubtedly travel back in time and truly visit any place or time in Jewish history. We could walk among our Jewish masses and experience our world as it once existed and reinvigorate our Yiddishkeit (we could relive our youth, assuming we’d want to). However, since we cannot do so we can only employ our imagination and act in positive ways as Jews that will have meaning to us and to others. All we can do is utilize our mind, our sense, and this will allow us to create images from our memories. If history is the study of past events, then each of us must learn more fully how to appreciate and embrace our history, not only our own but that of our family and Jewish history as a whole.
If we can learn how to embrace history and inspire others to do so, we can recreate a version of our former Yiddish world, though in a virtual way. By working to achieve this goal, we will at the same time increase our own awareness and Jewish identity. As we augment our base of knowledge, we will more fully appreciate our own culture and the experiences of those who came before us. By ‘touching’ our own history, we will become more aware of the beautiful aspects of the Yiddish world that once existed.
Hopefully we will be drawn deeper
into this world, feel good about it and thirst to learn and do more.
We will want to familiarize ourselves to a greater extent with
Yiddish culture, e.g. read more literature written by our Jewish
authors, journalists and playwrights. Each positive experience we
have adds to the image we have of our past Yiddish world and brings
us closer to it and helps recreate the past, at least in our own
WHAT’S BEING DONE
There are well-known and
not-so-well-known organizations and groups who offer programs, as
well as other opportunities, to learn not just Yiddish language, but
history, literature and the like. Here I shall mention one, and
continue this once again in Part III of this article.
THE YIDDISH BOOK CENTER
The Yiddish Book Center is one such organization, which very much represents the future (and preservation) of Yiddish culture, literature, translation, etc. Founded by Aaron Lansky, the Center has saved many Yiddish books from the dustbins of obscurity and made them available online, free for all to see, at the Internet Archive at www.archive.org. The Center also offers Yiddish-language books for sale, either as used copies or as reprints, all at reasonable prices. Importantly, they have a beautiful building in Amherst, Massachusetts in which they offer lectures, course and workshops in Yiddish language and culture. They currently offer a free, seven-week summer course in Yiddish language and culture for high school juniors and seniors. One can only hope that such courses will be offered by many other such institutions in the not-so-distant future, specially those that come tuition-free, though obviously funding can be an issue. The Center also offers their “Wexler Oral History Project”, which “explores the question, ‘Why Learn Yiddish?’ In this compilation of interviews, teachers, students, scholars, and performing artists discuss their reasons for learning the language, the joys along the way, and the access they have gained to a new world in the process.”
What also is new at the Center is their joint project with the Montreal Jewish Public Library to digitize more than 1,500 hours of reel-to-reel tapes for their audio library. Included in this collection are some precious recordings in which Yiddish writers read from their own works. At least initially, English subtitles have been added to the Yiddish audio.
Those of us who are Yiddish lovers
should very much admire Aaron, his staff and supporters for the work
they do. They realize the importance of interesting the younger
generation in the joys of Yiddish. Visiting the Yiddish Book Center
is also recommended (if not in person, then online). For the Yiddish
lover, it is like a child going into a candy store. So much to
THE YIVO INSTITUTE OF JEWISH
YIVO is not just a repository of
Yiddish material, but they also offer interesting lectures and other
cultural events. Importantly, for this topic of discussion, it
offers classes in Yiddish and adult education, which includes a
six-week intensive summer program, not to mention opportunities for
all of us to conduct research to our heart’s content.
There are, of course, many schools and universities that offer Yiddish study courses, language programs, etc. There is not enough time or space to delve into all these programs, though it should be said that there must be many other such institutes of higher learning that must offer such courses, especially in Yiddish literature and translation.
PART III: HOPES AND DREAMS OF A STRONG AND VIBRANT YIDDISH WORLD
In this last part of my article on
preserving Jewish legacy and the Yiddish language, I’d like to
continue a short discussion of institutions and organizations that
offer opportunities for further Yiddish learning, as well as how I,
the founder of the online Museum of Family History has worked with
diligence and great determination to work toward this goal, with the
hope and dream of reinvigorating the interest and appreciation of
our collective Jewish history. Lastly, I will offer a few
suggestions for all to consider.
THE ARBETER RING (WORKMEN’S
They also have choruses that sing
Yiddish music, and they even sponsor free summer concerts and music
YIDDISH EDUCATION IN HEBREW SCHOOLS
I cannot speak factually to whether
the Yiddish language, in general, is being taught in Hebrew schools
to pre-bar and pre-bat mitzvahs, and if so, to what degree. Wouldn’t
it be nice if they were not only taught how to read, translate and
speak Yiddish (at least in its rudimentary forms), so they would at
an early age be exposed to the language and hopefully be shown how
beautiful and meaningful it is? Perhaps within a particular
curriculum there could be opportunities to recite Yiddish poetry
within the classroom, as well as a period of discussion, or perhaps
a class could participate in an in-class reading of a Yiddish play.
Nothing should stand in the way of such invaluable experiences if
those in charge can be made to believe that the Yiddish language
must be preserved, that it must be introduced in a positive way,
with imagination, to our children while they are very young and
It is my fervent hope that many other institutions offer tuition-free courses in Yiddish culture and translation; this will encourage most strongly those with an interest to take up this cause. Of course it is easier to do this when an organization has sufficient funding to do so. Teachers need to be paid, so it is necessary that those of us who can afford to give, donate to such organizations and institutions, perhaps sponsoring as individuals or as part of a group programs where some aspect of Yiddish is taught.
Perhaps some programs may offer a certificate to each student upon their completion of it, e.g. in Yiddish translation, with the proviso that, since they are receiving this education gratis, they sign an agreement, promising to translate Yiddish material (which material to be translated to be determined by the sponsor), for a specified period of time (for low wages or gratis). Then, afterwards, their names may be added to a master list of translators, detailing their translation experience, availability, etc. Then they would have the opportunity to work as a paid translator and derive some income from their further work. What kind of courses and what content these courses would contain, and how long a student must study, etc., must be determined by those more qualified than me.
One type of program may have as its goal to teach their students to be a “decent” translator, albeit not a “professional” one. This suggestion will undoubtedly be a moot one to some. This is not to say that an organization shouldn’t also offer longer programs that “graduate” students who are more proficient, whose work would likely be more worthy of money that might be paid to them. This goes back to an earlier point I made in Part I of this article where I suggested that less-trained translators be encouraged to translate works that don’t need the precision that more literary works might require. What the parameters of the “decent translator” courses might be, in practical terms, can be established if this suggestion is to be seriously put into action.
I have not written this three-part article in order to promote my museum, though I wish that many more people around the world would be made aware of it, and that they would be encouraged to pay it a visit. It is simply that I feel strongly about preserving Jewish history, in all its many facets, lest our knowledge of it get lost over time due to apathy, or perhaps more tragically, due to a lack of awareness of all that is out there, available, just waiting to appreciated and savored.
Saying this, let me nevertheless tell you how I have, for the past seven years (since the launching of my website), tried to practice what I preach. How have I put into practice my philosophy that a language (such as Yiddish) only can stay vibrant and viable if the culture from which it takes its fuel flourishes as well? There is certainly no great rush to make Yiddish more visible in books or spoken inside our outside the classroom, home, school, etc, though I wish I could tell you otherwise. In the absence of Yiddish being spoken and read en masse and being taught enthusiastically to our children et al, we nevertheless need to continue translating Yiddish works, making them easily available to all. We must also find some way to make Yiddish more a part of our popular culture, if this is possible, so that knowing Yiddish would be considered “fashionable”, so that even non-Yiddish speakers can be exposed to it, so that more people may learn to appreciate the Yiddish word and thought.
More than one year ago, I began the largest project I have ever undertaken for the Museum of Family History, i.e. the translation of Zalmen Zylbercweig’s “Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre”, a work that exists in seven volumes (six published). In all, there are more than 2,800 individual biographies (and group histories) within these tomes, most all about those men and women who were involved once in some aspect of Yiddish theatre, i.e. not just actors and actresses, but playwrights, journalists, prompters et al.
I chose this project because of my love for the Yiddish language and theatre and my admiration for all the Jewish men and women who chose to become involved in this field. Not only will I be presenting translations, but I am also presenting excerpts and full airings of the Yiddish-language radio programs that Zylbercweig and his wife Celia presented weekly during the 1950s and 60s, broadcast out of the studio that they built in the back of their home in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles, California. By doing all of this, I will be presenting and promoting important aspects of “modern” Jewish culture, i.e. Yiddish theatre and radio. I am attempting to preserve Jewish cultural history by taking my audience back in time, rebroadcasting dozens of Yiddish-language program segments that would otherwise fall into oblivion. My wish is to present both the Yiddish and the English translations of these programs, but in the absence of volunteers to assist me in translating the Yiddish audio into English, this is impossible, and often only Yiddish will be available for one’s “listening pleasure”. By presenting histories of the famous and not-so-famous Yiddish personalities, I am keeping our memory of them alive, while at the same time allowing the listener to learn more about their lives, both personal and professional.
There is really much more to the Museum of Family History’s Yiddish World than just the Zylbercweig presentations, so I hope you thoroughly check out this section of the museum, at your leisure.
Within the confines of my virtual
(Internet-only) museum, there is so much more ready for your
perusal. Among other features, I have tried to create a memorial to
our collective Jewish history, featuring exhibitions about life in
pre-World War II Europe, life after the war, immigration, Jewish
life in America and the like. The museum has arguably the largest
collection of online photographs of world Holocaust memorials and
former European synagogues. So please explore the museum at your
leisure (and don’t be afraid to volunteer your time to help me in
whatever way you can). I try to show what Jewish life was like, is
like today, and could be if only.... An important characteristic of
my online museum is that I ask the public to participate in my work,
so that in this sense it is a “people’s museum”. I give everyone
the opportunity to preserve the memories of their own family and
Jewish culture as a whole.
Hopes and dreams of a strong and
vibrant Yiddish world.... Yiddish is a beautiful language that is
worth preserving and nurturing in all its forms. While interest in
the language is greatest in only a small percentage of the overall
Jewish population, it is up to us to try to make it relevant to
others in the world, to members of our families, to ourselves. We
cannot force anyone to love the language (let alone become a
translator), but we can encourage them to learn and enjoy the
language, whether it be via the reading and understanding of
literature, a Yiddish newspaper article, a song, a poem, etc. We can
show the world the beauty of Yiddish, of Jewish thought and how it
has expressed itself over these many years. For each person we have
successfully interested in our language and culture, we will become
more hopeful that the promise of a re-flourishing of the Yiddish
language is real and attainable for all.
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