The Berlin-based singer-songwriter and “punk-Klezmer” musician Daniel Kahn is one of the most innovative performers working with Yiddish today. A world-class singer of more traditional Yiddish fare and a brilliant songwriter in English in his own right Kahn’s unique genius lies in his self-described “tradaptations,” his translations and adaptations of songs across languages.
He, along with his friend and mentor the late Theo Bikel, is one of the few masters of creating singable English versions of Yiddish songs. Kahn is particularly adept at taking Yiddish songs from generations and even centuries past and getting them to sound like contemporary American songs. At the same time he remains loyal to his source material, always performing the original Yiddish lyrics interspersed with his new English versions.
Besides singing his own English translations of Yiddish and German songs Kahn also translates German and American songs into Yiddish. When I heard his Yiddish “tradaptation” of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at a party in honor of the Yiddish Studies journal “In Geveb” I immediately knew that it would have wide appeal. I invited him to record the song for the Yiddish Forward in our studio and he came by a few weeks later. My colleague Nukhim Koyfman recorded Kahn’s performance and prepared the video.
Due to the confines of rhyme and meter song translations always vary a bit in literal meaning from their source material. As such the English subtitles are a literal translation of Kahn’s version of the song rather than Leonard Cohen’s original text. As you will see the two vary in some ways but match entirely in spirit. The song’s text in Yiddish and in Yiddish in transliteration can be read here.
Jordan Kutzik is a staff writer at the Forverts. He can be followed on Twitter @thrownpeas.