Support the Yiddish Book Center's Translation Initiative

Your contribution will support a hugely successful but now endangered program to train a new generation of Yiddish translators

Sholem-aleykhem. I’m writing to ask you to help us continue a hugely successful but now endangered program to train a new generation of Yiddish translators and bring important Yiddish novels, stories, plays, poetry, memoirs, and more to English readers who have never been able to read them before.

The necessity of translating Yiddish literature cannot be overstated. The tens of thousands of modern Yiddish titles represent one of the most concentrated outpourings of literary creativity in all of Jewish history, yet 98 percent of them remain inaccessible to those who can’t read Yiddish in the original. Since the Yiddish Book Center began my colleagues and I have been astounded by the richness and variety of the books we’ve found. As a start-up organization, however, we were operating by triage, and our first priority was to rescue the books themselves. It wasn’t until we had saved a million volumes that we felt ready to turn our attention to the next big challenge: How to bring them to readers who couldn’t read Yiddish?

Our first step was to join forces with an existing project called the Library of Yiddish Classics (later the New Yiddish Library). The series had already published a short but impressive list of titles. Its selection process, however, was decidedly top-down: once a year an advisory board decided which title to translate next and who among a shrinking pool of Yiddish translators could do the job. We managed to publish one new translation a year for each of the next ten years—an achievement we were rather proud of until a student pointed out that at that rate we still had 39,000 years to go.

That was when we decided to convene a summit. To our surprise, over a hundred people showed up, and they all agreed that something had to be done. It was only after three days of deliberations, however, that two practical priorities came into focus: a publishing venture through which we could print new translations at an affordable cost, and a plan to train a new generation of translators.

Thanks to your support, both initiatives—publishing and training—have gotten off to a great start. Four years ago we launched White Goat Press (named for the klor vays tsigele, the little white goat who adorns our logo). Under the leadership of Lisa Newman, a senior staff member with extensive publishing experience, we’ve released 19 titles so far, with 10 more under contract. Highlights include Journey through the Spanish Civil War by S. L. Shneiderman; Meant to Be and Other Stories by Shira Gorshman; and the first of a three-volume collection of Writings on Yiddish and Yiddishkayt by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Of course, more translations require more translators, and that’s a tall order. It takes a solid grasp of both Yiddish and English to produce a translation worth reading, and we weren’t sure there were enough candidates to fill the bill. We were thrilled, therefore, when 21 applied for six positions in the program’s first year. As part of the admissions process, each applicant chooses a book they would like to translate. That’s the exact opposite of a top-down approach: rather than relying on experts, the applicants themselves peruse the thousands of books in our Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library and select the ones that intrigue them most. A significant number of their choices are titles my colleagues and I at the Yiddish Book Center have never read—or even heard of—before.

The training program consists of both workshops and mentorships. The workshops take place over three long weekends, giving fellows the chance to learn from faculty members and each other. As you’d expect, almost none of our translators grew up in the world where Yiddish literature was written. During the first year we hired faculty members with strong Yiddish knowledge, on the assumption that they’d be answering lexical questions like “What’s this idiom mean?” or “How can I render this phrase into English?”

We quickly discovered, however, that when it came to defining words, new technology had already beaten us to the punch. When I was in graduate school and I couldn’t find a Yiddish word in the dictionary I would phone any of a large number of elderly immigrants and ask. When today’s translators can’t find the meaning of a particular word or phrase, they post it online and wait for people around the world to tell them.

A. C. Weaver, for example, was translating Sholem Asch’s play Shabsay tsvi and encountered a word that didn’t appear in any Yiddish dictionaries. In English, incomprehensible words are characterized as “all Greek to me.” In Yiddish the phrase is “S’iz terkish bay mir”—it’s Turkish to me—a holdover, undoubtedly, from the proximity of the Ottoman Empire to Ukraine and Galicia, where more than a million Jews lived before the Second World War. In Weaver's case, the Yiddish expression proved especially apt: when the word was posted to our online group for translation fellows, another fellow discovered its meaning by asking a Turkish speaking friend.

If translation fellows can readily find the meaning of Yiddish words by turning to their online community, why do they need to shlep to Amherst? According to Dr. Mindl Cohen, the director of our translation initiative, they don’t come looking for help with vocabulary but with the overall craft of literary translation. We therefore shifted our approach after the first year to choose workshop leaders who were brilliant literary translators, period, like Bill Johnston of Indiana University, whose field is Polish literature. Sometimes it’s better if our workshop leaders don’t know Yiddish, because that way they can evaluate each translation on its own merit: How well does it read in English?

Of course, translators not only need to translate Yiddish words, they often have to interpret the culture from which Yiddish literature derives. Jewish civilization is suffused with traditions, folkways, and historical memory, which means a good Yiddish translator needs to have an ear for folklore, ethnography, and history, as well as literature.

Humor is usually culturally specific and therefore hard to translate. Do you explain the joke? Do you replace it with a different joke that will be more comprehensible to English readers? Or, heaven forbid, do you include a footnote that risks breaking the narrative flow?

Idioms are similarly problematic. Do you translate the idiom literally, even if it makes no sense in English? Do you explain it in the text and hope the reader doesn’t notice? Or do you replace it with a totally different English idiom that conveys a similar meaning?

And what about the everyday details of Jewish culture? If a text mentions “challah,” for example—the braided egg bread that Jews eat on Shabbos and major holidays—do you provide what Mindl calls a “stealth gloss” to explain it without breaking narrative stride, such as “She picked up the challah, the braided Sabbath bread, and placed it on the table”?

These are questions every translator needs to resolve. To help guide them through the thicket, we match each translation fellow with a personal mentor—usually an experienced translator or scholar. Mentors meet one-on-one with their fellows three to five times a year and make themselves available for text messages, emails, Zoom sessions, and phone calls. Mindl, who runs the program, is the shadkhn, the matchmaker: “I’ve already selected the fellows,” she explains. “I’ve read their applications, so I know what their proposed projects are. I ask them, ‘What do you think you need to work on? What kind of support are you looking for?’ And then I get to think about every cool translator I’ve ever met and invite them to do something they’re very likely to say yes to, because being a mentor is so rewarding.”

Our fellows are impressive. Some come up through the Center’s own programs, like Great Jewish Books and the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. Others, like Anita Norich, Kathryn Hellerstein, and Faith Jones, are established translators embarking on exciting new projects. Some have become well known as translators in the years since they participated in the fellowship, like Ellen Cassedy and Daniel Kennedy.

Other fellows are also producing excellent work. Jessica Kirzane, who teaches Yiddish at the University of Chicago, rediscovered and translated Miriam Karpilove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love—a novel of intimate feelings and scandalous behavior that appeared serially from 1916 to 1918. It was way ahead of its time in its treatment of feminist issues like women’s sexuality, women’s empowerment, and consent.

Caraid O’Brien, born in Galway, Ireland, attended our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program before distinguishing herself as a writer, performer, translator and director. Her project, recently published by White Goat Press, was Sholem Asch’s Underworld Trilogy, a collection of three dramas, ready for the stage.

I wish I could tell you about all ninety of the translation fellows we’ve trained so far, or describe some of the eye-popping books they’re translating. This letter, however, is already longer than usual, and I need to leave room to explain why, after more than a decade of success, our translation program suddenly needs your help.

We were fortunate to have two foundations supporting our translation efforts these past 11 years. Our books and fellowships have won universal acclaim—including the Prize for Translation Initiatives at the London Book Fair. But successful as the program has been, no foundation support lasts forever. One of our major funders ended its support last year, and the other will be doing the same in 2024.

We’re disappointed but not daunted—and I think you’ll agree that our translation program is too important to stop now. Which is why, as I’ve done before, I’m turning to you and other good friends to ask you to please join others who have supported this initiative so we can continue to train new translators and publish new translations for many years to come.

The annual cost of our translation initiative is $150,000. Eventually we hope to secure endowment support. But first we need to find funding for the next two years, and we can’t secure that without your help:

Whatever you can afford, I want to assure you that your help will make a difference—not only for the next group of fellows, but for those of us who will enjoy the fruits of their labor for years to come.

The translator Ellen Cassedy once observed that Yiddish is “a major literature in a minor language.” You helped us rescue this literature, and now we need your help again, to share its treasures with English readers everywhere.

Please, as funding runs out, won’t you help us continue to train new translators by sending your tax-deductible contribution right now, while it’s still on your mind?

Mit a hartsikn dank – With heartfelt thanks,

Aaron Lansky

P. S. Warm wishes for a gut, gezunt, un zis yor—a happy, healthy, and sweet New Year!