On the Frontiers of Ashkenaz: Translating into Yiddish, Then and Now

By Shandler, Jeffrey | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

On the Frontiers of Ashkenaz: Translating into Yiddish, Then and Now


Shandler, Jeffrey, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


IN YIDDISH CULTURE TRANSLATION PLAYS A FOUNDATIONAL role. Because it is a language that never stands alone, translations both into and out of Yiddish provide strategic opportunities for considering the shifting linguistic and cultural frontiers of Ashkenaz. More than items of linguistic or literary interest, translations can be regarded as sites of cultural engagement that reveal the contingent nature of Yiddish vis-a-vis other languages at a given time and place. In addition to the dynamics of language use, translations articulate shifting notions of Jewish literacy, fluency, and vernacularity. In this respect, Yiddish exemplifies literary theorist Homi Bhabha's characterization of translation as a strategic, formative locus of culture: "it is the 'inter'--the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space--that carries the burden of the meaning of culture." (1) In this essay, I discuss one side of this cultural negotiation, looking at translating into Yiddish, focusing on contemporary examples, in order to consider what translation reveals about Yiddish culture today and into the future.

Most of the earliest works of Yiddish literature, including those that first appeared following the advent of Yiddish printing in the sixteenth century, are translations, ranging from Yiddish versions of the Bible, legends, ethical guides, liturgy, and other texts originally written in Loshn-koydesh to works of secular literature from non-Jewish sources--such as Aesop's fables and the romance of King Arthur. As is true of translation generally, Yiddish renderings of these texts entail transforming as well as transferring their meaning. The meta-value of early Yiddish translations is distinctive, for they constitute a popular Ashkenazic literature that radically altered prevailing notions of Jewish literacy. Rooted in the democratizing effect of the printing press, these books created new communities of Jewish readers and, moreover, new notions of what it meant to read as a Jew, defined by Jewish vernacularity.

In particular, this vernacular Ashkenazic reader embodied a new kind of Jewish erudition. For example, the title page of the 1602 edition of the Mayse-bukh, a popular compendium of morally edifying tales and legends, most translated from rabbinic sources, assures the reader that, if he masters its contents, then everyone will think he is a brilliant rabbinic scholar--despite the fact that the Mayse-bukh offers a highly limited sampling of Jewish lore. But instead of manifesting his erudition like a rabbi, who does so by making authoritative rulings on matters of Jewish law, the reader of the Mayse-bukh demonstrates his scholarly acumen though actions in the course of daily life--his ability to cite elucidating texts appropriate to the occasion at hand, and in his own ethical conduct as well as that of fellow Jews whom he enlightens. Thus, through their translations into Yiddish, reading these works and implementing their teachings were encoded as practices of daily life for "ordinary" people, who thereby were defined and distinguished as pious Jews.

Translating world literature into Yiddish during the flourishing of modern Yiddish belles lettres in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century wrought a different but equally profound transformation of Jewish literacy and erudition. Earlier Yiddish versions of Jewish scripture, liturgy, and lore reconfigured the traditional interface between the learned elite and the rest of the community. Yiddish renderings of modern and classical belles lettres, as well as works of philosophy, history, and the social sciences, revolutionized the notion of secular literacy in the Jewish vernacular as much as did the works of literary patriarchs Sholem Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz and their fellow writers.

By the turn of the twentieth-century, Jewish publishing houses and periodicals in Europe and America were regularly issuing Yiddish translations from Russian, German, Polish, English, and French, as well as from other European and, occasionally, non-Western languages. …

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