Does Translating Yiddish Preserve History Or Betray It?

Anita Norich Explores the Contradictory Burdens of the Field

Navigating Two Worlds: Anita Norich is the author of ‘Writing in Tongues: Translating Yiddish in the 20th Century.’
Courtesy of Anita Norich
Navigating Two Worlds: Anita Norich is the author of ‘Writing in Tongues: Translating Yiddish in the 20th Century.’

By Eitan Kensky

Published June 07, 2014, issue of June 13, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Writing in Tongues: Translating Yiddish in the 20th Century
By Anita Norich
University of Washington Press, 160 pages, $30

Translators are villains, lechers, traitors. Like the spinster who translates Yankel Ostrover’s stories in Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” they are vain. “Who has read James Joyce, Ostrover or I?” she seethes. “I didn’t go to Vassar for nothing.”

Translators are insecure, pathetic. Like the translator in David Fogel’s Hebrew novella “Facing the Sea,” they hide their deformities under obsequious shows of worldliness.

They live between loyalties, like the young soldier forced to interpret in “Saving Private Ryan.” His knowledge of another language cursed him with empathy, blinded him to the evil staring back.

To this we can add both the particular accusation levied against Yiddish translators and the moral burden thrust upon them. On the one hand, Anita Norich tells us in her excellent book, “Writing in Tongues: Translating Yiddish in the 20th Century,” translating Yiddish is an “act of collaboration in the destruction of a culture” (my emphasis). It implies that there will never again be an audience for these books in the original. On the other hand, translating Yiddish is also a kind of “resistance to history” (Norich’s emphasis). Translating Yiddish is a gesture aimed at preserving and maintaining what was supposed to have been killed.

It’s the truth of Norich’s war-stained language that makes it disquieting: Yiddish and its legacy are still haunted by the Holocaust. There is no normal translation of Yiddish novels and stories. Each translation is a claim on the Yiddish past. Each translation is a statement about what the centuries of Jewish life in Eastern Europe were and what that history means today, to us. “This was Yiddish,” translations shout, though almost no one hears. “No, it was this,” another adds to the echoes. One of the earliest meanings of the English word “translation” is the movement of sacred relics from one place to another. In a very real way — and one that I would never have stated in these terms before reading the third chapter of Norich’s book — we scholars and translators of Yiddish are choosing what graves to bring to an unmourning America.

“Writing in Tongues” is a book about translation. It begins with an introduction to translation theory, it includes a chapter that minutely compares nine English versions of the Jacob Glatstein (born Yankev Glatshteyn) poem “A gute nakht, velt” (Good Night, World), and it closes with a discussion of the different ways of translating a single, pivotal sentence in a story by I.L. Peretz. At no point is the discussion overly technical. First presented as part of the prestigious Stroum Lectures at the University of Washington, the chapter-lectures that make up “Writing in Tongues” are aimed at a general-but-educated audience. Norich writes clearly and simplifies abstruse ideas.

(Full disclosure: Norich is a family friend and her brother, Samuel Norich, is the publisher of the Forward.)


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.