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: .

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