Yiddish Language and Translation: A Disappearing Art?

About Yiddish  and Yiddish Translation

Yiddish was spoken by the central and eastern European Jews and their descendants starting about 1000 years ago. It is written in the Hebrew alphabet and was spoken in most countries with a Jewish population during the 19th century. During the 9th-12th centuries, Yiddish arose as a mixture between Hebrew, Amharic, a strong German component as well as some influences from Romance languages.

During the Holocaust, the Yiddish-speaking population was decimated, what happened to the language?

There is an ample Yiddish literature collection, among which are examples of children’s literature. Currently, a team of professors at Emory University in Atlanta is studying children’s literature published between World War I and World War II. Some of the writings have undergone professional translation giving a broader audience precious insight into the Yiddish culture and values at the time. Considering how little the language is still spoken, it is a challenge to find high-quality language translation or interpretation for it.

Yiddish and the World Wide Web

The bright news is that Yiddish has really has taken off online. Even if the language is mostly spoken by elders and Orthodox Haredim and Hasidim Jews, there is Yiddish hip hop on YouTube, Yiddish chatrooms and message boards, blogs, Twitter accounts and more. Almost all existing Yiddish literature can now be found online too.

Of course, there are some more conservative rabbis who do not agree with internet usage. Some ban it completely while others allow it for business only. Web filtering services to make content compatible with Jewish law and Hasidic-friendly have had a great business opportunity!

One incredible story is the one behind Der Bay, an Anglo-Yiddish newsletter. Its webmaster, Philip “Fishl” Kutner, lives in Northern California, is 87 years old and legally blind. He spends a good part of his days three inches away from his computer screen maintaining a global database of Yiddish teachers, translators, interpreters, language clubs and more.

All the existing Yiddish digital outlets along with the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library that comprises 11,000 free digital books, insure that the language and its works are stored and available for duration. The challenge now is to awaken interest in the Yiddish language outside of the Orthodox community and in the younger generations in order to keep the idiom alive and evolving. Certainly the translation of the children’s books at Emory is a good start in that direction.

For more information about online Yiddish resources, refer to Ross Perlin’s article Blitspostn, Vebzaytlekh, Veblogs: The Rise of Yiddish Online

For more Yiddish news, the most well-known newspaper is The Yiddish Daily Forward.

Quick Note for German Speakers

While doing this research, I was surprised by the great grammatical and lexical similarities Yiddish has with German. In fact, much of the Yiddish transliterated writing (converted from the Hebrew to the Latin alphabet) can be understood when read by a German speaker. Even the gender of nouns seems to be the same as in German in many instances. Here are some finds:

Yiddish                     German                    English

fledermoyz di          die Fledermaus         bat

shirem der               der Schirm               umbrella

shtif-bruder der      der Stiefbruder         step-brother

holts dos                   das Holz                   wood
heybam di                die Hebamme           midwife