Monday, March 31, 2008

Learning Hebrew

The last post featured links and other information on Yiddish. So it seems appropriate to point out that a few weeks ago, on Erika Dreifus' My Machberet blog, I noticed this information about learning Hebrew. (Note: I have recently been a guest blogger on this site, so feel free to check out my post there).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

More on Yiddish: From Translator Eric Dickens

The last post was on Yiddish. In response to that, translator Eric Dickens very kindly sent me an email with a lot of helpful websites. He graciously agreed to let me share it with you. Here it is:


Yiddish, once the language of European Jews, especially the poorer, less assimilated ones in the small towns or shtetls in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, may never again become the international lingua franca it once was, but it has lately been undergoing something of a revival. There are currently various courses in European cities ranging from Vilnius in Lithuania, to Paris and Oxford, as well as in the United States. See, for instance: and . The latter website has the programme for the Vilnius Summer Course in Yiddish 2008.

The language is basically old German, written in the Hebrew alphabet (!) and with quite a few words borrowed from Hebrew (see below). If you see it in transliterated form, the Germanic nature of the language is much in evidence, something kept hidden when written in Hebrew characters. There is a standard system of transliteration into the English language called the YIVO system.

Those interested in the language and Yiddish culture as a whole may be interested in a magazine, written mostly in English, called Pakn-Treger: . This publication is aimed at the enthusiast with little knowledge of the language itself, but a general interest in the history of Yiddish and, for instance, the efforts made nowadays to rescue old books written in Yiddish from a number of cities in Uruguay and Argentina, where the communities of Yiddish speakers are dwindling. Pakn-Treger is published by the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, USA.

Students of Germanic languages who are more adventurous may even want to get a basic knowledge of Yiddish. This is best done from the primer College Yiddish which was written by Uriel Weinreich in 1949 and reprinted several times until at least 1976. It is a good, old-fashioned text book with a reading passage, vocabulary and grammar. He also produced a very serviceable two-way dictionary called Modern English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English Dictionary, in 1968. Both books can still be found in second-hand bookshops and on Amazon.

A knowledge of German helps considerably when you learn Yiddish. But as implied above, the alphabet needs a bit of learning, not least on account of the Hebrew loanwords. These are tricky for the beginner, because while the ordinary part of Yiddish has vowels and consonants, like most European languages, the Hebrew loanwords have no written vowels and, just to make things doubly tricky, are not even pronounced the same as in Biblical or Modern Hebrew, but in a Yiddish way. So in addition to your Weinreich, you need the book by Yitskhok Niborski entitled Verterbukh fun Loshn-Koydesh-shtamiker verter in Yidish which means "Dictionary of the Words With Hebrew Roots in Yiddish" (1999). And one more dictionary is very useful, if you happen to know French. This is Niborski's large Dictionnaire Yiddish-Français that appeared as recently as 2002.

If you do make a serious attempt to learn Yiddish, a very helpful periodical, published in Paris by the Medem centre that publishes the Niborski dictionaries, is Yidisher Tam-Tam which is for beginner or lower intermediate level, and gives the vocabulary to a variety of reading passages in English and French translation: . You can print it off the internet or subscribe.

One of the reasons for learning Yiddish can be to read the literature written in the language. But translations do, of course, exist of most of the leading authors, such as Nobel Prizewinner Isaac (or: Yitskhok) Bashevis Singer, his brother Israel Joshua Singer and their sister Esther Kreitman. One fine poet is Abraham Sutzkever and a Modernist prose writer now being revived is Dovid (or: David) Bergelson whose books are translated by Joseph Sherman and others. Students of Yiddish can also obtain an anthology of shortish Yiddish literary passages called Mit groys fargenign, compiled by Heather Valencia of the University of Stirling in Scotland, with a couple of CDs that give you an idea of the pronunciation.

Finally, a bookshop specialising in Yiddish: .

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Yiddish and Translation

I have posted on this blog about Yiddish before. Over this past weekend, I had the opportunity to read Astrid Starck-Adler’s book Yiddish: Continuity and Change, which was published in 2007 as part of the Endangered Languages and Cultures series by the Centre for Multiethnic Research at Uppsala University in Sweden. It is a short book, and there are a surprising number of typos, but there was a lot I found interesting in it, not least because there was some discussion of translation.

The book is composed of three sections. The first is on Yiddish today and possibilities for revitalizing it. The second is on gender and Jewish literature (since Hebrew was traditionally the religious language, the one for men, while Yiddish was for women, for “men who are like women”, and for the home). The last part is on contemporary Yiddish literature.

Starck-Adler mentions a variety of interesting topics in the book, such as transmitting the language to younger generations, “familial” and “convivial” ways of helping the language live on, films in or about Yiddish (such as The Last Holocaust Survivors in Eastern Europe, Castings, and Voyages), using the internet for learning Yiddish, Yiddish writers, and works such as Mayse-bukh, which were used in part to teach women about the bible (and of course this raises issues of translation and adaptation from Hebrew to English). She also discusses how the “most interesting thing about Yiddish is that it plays a twofold role: as a Jewish language, Yiddish is a factor of identity; as a language based on German it is a vector of alterity.” (26)

As for translation, Starck-Adler believes that “[s]ince the circle of Yiddish readers is so small, translation of little-known writers into other languages outside the small Yiddish world is very important for allowing their works to be more widely known” (59-60) and that “[t]ranslation from or into Yiddish or making available in a bilingual edition some important texts is one of the essential means of promoting the survival and renewal of an endangered language like Yiddish.” (48) She seems to be a strong advocate for bilingual editions, since they allow the reader to “compare the two versions of the same text, to ‘verify’ the accuracy of the core text, and, in the absence of good reliable dictionaries, we can then have access to different registers of language, which are more elaborate and more complete.” (49) Also, seeing the original language may encourage curious readers of the translated text to study it.

Finally, here is a somewhat odd comment on translation: “The importance of translations has been pointed out by Dovid Katz who thinks that a better translation than the original would help to gain interest from a bigger readership!” (19)

Usually, books on language don’t discuss translation, so it was refreshing to read a scholar’s thoughts on how translation is necessary for keeping Yiddish literature and language alive.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different…

Here is a link to a video that definitely shows some bad translation, but will probably only be funny to those who know Swedish. Thank you to Arne Elander for sending me this silly link!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nordic Translation Conference Report, Part 2

Let me start with some statistics and basic information about the conference. The conference offered six workshops (on translating poetry, computer tools for translators, tips of the trade, translating songs, keeping language skills up to date, and contrastive linguistics) on 6 March. On 7 and 8 March, we had the bulk of the conference, which included: a publisher's panel (which discussed issues of finding and publishing Nordic literature in English); keynote presentations by Amanda Hopkinson, Douglas Robinson, Janet Garton, Geoffrey Samuelsson-Brown, and Kirsten Malmkjær; around 30 presentations on literary or technical translation or subtitling; five readings by authors from Nordic countries (Alexander Ahndoril from Sweden, Douglas Robinson from the US/Finland, Sjón from Iceland, Stig Dalager from Denmark, and Izzet Celasin from Norway); and a variety of exhibits, including one by the authors of Outside In, in which they displayed Nordic children's books in English translation. The conference dinner was at the House of Commons, hosted by MP Martin Linton, who was born in Sweden, and there was also a reception at the conference hosted by Norrtelje Brenneri, a Swedish liquor company. Other sponsors included the Nordic Culture Fund, the five Nordic embassies in London, Scandinavian Airlines, UCL's Department of Scandinavian Studies, and Swansea University.

Since I was the organizer, I had to deal with a lot of the practical issues, which meant that I missed some of the presentations (maybe people who attended the conference can write in the comments about the presentations they went to), but I certainly got a lot out of what I did attend, and I also enjoyed all the socializing. Many of us who work on Nordic languages tend to feel rather alone, since the languages are small and often forgotten, which is why it was so great to get an opportunity to come together.

I knew next to nothing about the Faroe Islands and its literature, so I was grateful to hear Turið Sigurðardóttir's presentation, in which she discussed the influence of Danish on Faroese and how the islands have developed their children's literature. Subtitling is another issue I have little experience with, and the panel presentation by Tina Engström, Helena Johansson, Erik Skuggevik, and Kenn Nakata Steffensen was entertaining and interesting. Though some of the facts they offered about the subtitling industry were depressing, I nevertheless started to think that it might be fun to try to work on subtitling at some point.

One of the highlights for me was the readings. Hearing authors read from their work is always a special treat that really brings the text alive in a new way. In this case, we had authors read from their work in the original languages and their translators (or, in two cases, someone else) read from the translations. Most of us attending the conference do not know all of the Nordic languages, so one might think that it could be frustrating, say, or dull, to hear the Icelandic author read in Icelandic if one doesn’t know the tongue. On the contrary, though, I felt that I could understand something of the text just from the way each author read (of course, it didn’t hurt that I had read all but one of the books in advance, and also that the translated text was a nice cheat sheet).

Speaking of Icelandic, our featured author Sjón made some interesting comments about writing and translating. When asked whether he has begun to write for translation (as his texts can be very Icelandic-specific, and since the vast majority of the people in the world have never been to Iceland and know little about the country, one might think he’d start to soften the Icelandicness of his work), he said no, and that he felt it was important for writers to stick to their own language and own culture. His translator, Victoria Cribb, said that she has spent so much time in Iceland and speaking Icelandic that it has lost some of its exoticism to her, which is why she feels that it is useful for translators to have other people review their texts; a translator may no longer always know what s/he is domesticating or foreignizing, or what s/he has made overly clear or not clear enough. Sjón joked then that since translators are so familiar with the source language and culture, it is up to writers to make the job of translating even more challenging, by using ever more difficult words and concepts.

This post is getting long, so I will close it with a few photos from the conference (and if anyone has more pictures, please email them to me).

This first picture is from the dinner at the House of Commons on Friday night.

This is Douglas Robinson, who both gave a keynote lecture and also read from his novel, which has been published in Finland and is about the Finnish poet and translator Pentti Saarikoski.

The next picture is of Geoffrey Samuelsson-Brown, who gave a keynote lecture. Here, he is discussing the process of detective work that a translator must sometimes go through while translating.

Here you can see one of the exhibits. This one is on Nordic children's books in English translation, and the woman who arranged it is seen in the picture. Her name is Deborah Hallford and she is a co-author of Outside In, a guide to children's books in translation.

This photo shows Swedish author Alexander Ahndoril and his translator Sarah Death, discussing his novel based on the life of Ingmar Bergman (the novel is called "The Director" in English).

This last photograph shows Anna and Jessica Anerfält from
Norrtelje Brenneri, which sponsored the conference's reception on Saturday night. It was great to have a real Nordic conference at the event.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Nordic Translation Conference Report, Part 1

Well, the Nordic Translation Conference is now over, and I am pleased to say it was a great success. It brought together a diverse group of people: translators of technical, legal, and financial texts; translators of literary fiction or poetry; interpreters; subtitlers; editors; publishers; authors; people from embassies or from government agencies; translation agencies; booksellers; librarians; and more. The two things we all had in common were that we worked with or were interested in translation in some way and that we were involved with one or more Nordic languages. And yet, throughout the course of the weekend, we found that we could learn from one another, and that we had much to share with each other and explore together.

This conference was a first for
the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies in four ways: 1) it was the first conference they had that was organized by a PhD student (that would be yours truly); 2) it was the first conference they had on the Nordic languages (despite the fact that they are called GermanIC, they previously only had German); 3) it was their first conference on translation they had; and 4) it was the biggest conference they have had (we had around 150 participants, and many more were turned away, though we had expected about half that).

It was also a first in general for there to be a major international conference on all the Nordic languages and their translation, and people seemed to enjoy having the opportunity to meet colleagues.

In the following post, I will write about some of the highlights for me and I will try to include some photos as well.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Off to the Nordic Translation Conference

I am leaving for London shortly to attend the Nordic Translation Conference. I hope I will see some of you there; if so, please introduce yourself to me. If you haven't yet signed up, I am afraid it is too late, as the conference is completely sold out.

After the conference, I am going to Sweden to do research for which I received a generous grant from
Stiftelsen Karin och Hjalmar Tornblads fond in Sweden.

So, my upcoming travels mean that I will be posting less often. However, I will likely post about the conference early next week, and keep checking back for other posts as well.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Theory-Practice Relationship

Last weekend, I attended a conference at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The focus of the conference was on the theory and practice of translation. The question discussed was basically what relationship translation theory and the practice of translation have, or should have.

It often surprises me to find translation theorists who don’t actually translate themselves. Of course I know that, for example, movie critics aren’t usually directors or actors themselves and literary critics aren’t always writers, and that you can learn a lot about a topic by reading about it. Still, I feel that it is hard to create theory or to work as a critic without some active knowledge of the practice.

Many theorists get annoyed about how practicing translators tend to ignore the theoretical work. Translators sometimes feel that they learn hands-on and don’t have to read what seems to be dull and irrelevant and distant from their work.

In other words, there is a divide between theorists and practitioners. Some of us do both and want to see more of a connection. But why? My feeling is that theorists would greatly benefit from doing and not just thinking and critiquing, while practitioners might get some new ideas or understanding from reading some of the theoretical ideas. Yes, it sounds obvious, but apparently a lot of people are still missing the point.

My own presentation at the conference was about how certain theories (in this particular case, postcolonial theories) could inform a translator’s decisions for a text and choice of strategies by making the translator more aware of certain issues (here, the role of power). As a practicing translator myself, I’ve certainly found that not only is it interesting to learn about translation theory, but it can also improve my work, although there are definitely some ideas that I have dismissed.