Yiddish in Translation: From Oral Tradition to Literature

Author: Ulysse Canonge

When I borrowed the French translation of David Bergelson’s short story Around the Railway Station’ from UCL library, I was surprised to open the book to a foreword by the Russian linguist Efim Etkind on the issue of translating poetry from a foreign language to French. By underlining the difficulty to render the rhythm and tonality of other languages, he goes on to remind the reader that the task of the translator is not ‘secondary’ or ‘subaltern’.

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David Bergelson

This foreword is the starting point of the reflection that led me to present the reader with this short article: why making a remark about the translation of poetry before the translation of a short story ? I would answer that question by pointing out the musical aspect of Yiddish, even when it is written in prose, especially in the event of writing a short story. As much as versified poetry requires a particular attention towards the rhythm, I believe that a short story needs to be perfectly balanced in order to keep a steady dynamic from the first to the last word – in a novel, there is enough room and time to let a complex intrigue unfold more slowly.

Yiddish draws most of its lexical and grammatical elements from German to Hebrew, passing by some Slavic languages, it has a unique musicality which cannot be found in either of these languages. For instance, Bergelson’s syntax is close to the Russian one, whereas an author like Peretz who received his education in Poland has a different syntax. What I also want to focus on is the strong questioning that Jewish authors have faced when starting to write in Yiddish. When linguists talk about the low and high variety of a language, they respectively designate the language used for daily life and the one used for administrative, educational and religious purpose. For the Jewish populations of Germany, the low one would be Yiddish, whereas German (used in administration) and Hebrew (for education and religion) would be the high ones.

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In this situation, the first Yiddish writers were making their own translation from an exclusively spoken language to the completely new written variety that would be literary Yiddish. The Jewish Enlightenment movement, named the ‘Haskalah’ (the word for Light in Hebrew) is connected to the gathering of Jewish writers from around Europe to discuss the rules of the new-born language, which was to be used to educate the people. Therefore, at the dawn of the XXth century, David Bergelson makes a strong choice by choosing to write in Yiddish. His high languages being Russian and Hebrew, he started writing in these languages, but he nevertheless needed to express the daily life of the ‘shtetl’, the small villages mainly populated by Jews in the residency area of the Russian Empire. Yet, as he did not grow up in a shtetl, his Yiddish was not a popular variety.

The consequence of this paradox – Yiddish is a popular language by essence – is poetic and incredibly nuanced, even when it comes to relating vulgar dialogues between the merchants of the station. Here comes again the comparison with poetry, as he also repeats multiple motifs to describe people: ‘the one with poaches under the eyes’, ‘the red-hair student with brand-new buttons on his university uniform’… The recurrences make his short story sound like a tale, and from time to time a ballad: by using a refined style, he brings his story back to a typically popular exercise. Indeed, the paradox of Yiddish as a popular language stuck somewhere between a popular and an elitist culture is what allows it to be so poetic and such a challenge for translators nowadays. This challenge is also faced by Yiddish speakers, as the popular variety of Yiddish has died out due to the Holocaust and the re-introduction of Jewish populations – i.e. the end of the shtetl and ghettos. The written and oral Yiddish are now tied by academic institutions, which make it further removed from its original value. I would like to share a short poem in order to conclude this article, which recalls of both the Jewish people itself and the Yiddish language. With this 1891 poem, I. L. Peretz underlines the ties of destiny between the Jewish people and their language, a cursed destiny at the time:220px-I_L_Peretz_postcard

I. L. Peretz

« Not a flower she is, my muse, Not on the meadows, she grows; Not a butterfly who seeks All the flowers out for a kiss! Not a nightingale she is, my muse, Has no trills, has no sweetness. She’s a Jewess of old age, A shrivelled one, an ugly one. On her own with her orphans, And spread out all over the world; An out-and-down pauper And she screams only, and she curses… »