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A Translation Tsuris

Yiddish scholar Eve Jochnowitz talks about

Eve Jochnowitz, who teaches Yiddish language, culture and literature at YIVO and The Workmen’s Circle, says she found herself up against some formidable challenges when translating the “Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook,” by Fania Lewando, from Yiddish to English. Converting weights to measures and metric quantities to English was only one.

Tracking down English definitions for the ingredients Lewando included in her recipes wasn’t always easy. For example, Jochnowitz said she encountered words in the original Yiddish version for several types of semolina that aren’t readily available here.

Linguistically, Jochnowitz said, “her language is really beautiful. I’ve read a lot of cookbooks in Yiddish, and you don’t usually get one written in such Yiddish as Fania Lewando wrote.”

The biggest challenge for Jochnowitz came after publication, when she and the publisher, Schocken Books, found themselves at odds over certain editorial decisions that were made to the finished manuscript.

“I really went to great efforts to track down every word, but someone thought they knew better, and when no translation could be found, they didn’t call me,” Jochnowitz said.

For example, recipes that called for parsley root now say a parsnip can be substituted, and almond extract can replace bitter almonds. Where Lewando calls for “centrifuge butter” — an alternate to hand-churned butter that, Lewando wrote, is “uncultured” and “does not burn while frying” — the text now says that clarified butter can be used in its place.

Altie Karper, editorial director of Schocken Books, said the book was edited and copyedited by cookbook editors and copyeditors who flagged certain ingredients for various reasons. Bitter almonds can be toxic, Karper said, so they replaced them with almond extract.

“We don’t want to poison the reader,” she said.

Jochnowitz has created a website ( to correct what she perceives to be errors introduced into the text. There she explains, for example, that bitter almonds “are actually not almonds at all, but apricot kernels (sometimes called apricot seeds by marketers). They are safe, legal, and delicious… You can find them in some ethnic grocery stores and health food stores, and you can order them online.”

Karper said that while the publisher is delighted with the job Jochnowitz did, “our goal was to be faithful to Fania’s legacy and to her vision and to her work and at the same time, to produce a book that’s useful to the modern cook and uses kitchen protocols that didn’t exist 70 years ago.

“Perhaps [Jochnowitz’s] problem, Karper said, “was that we didn’t have the same vision on how one defines ‘adapted for the modern kitchen,’ as we don’t think there are errors in the book.”

“They did not have to be made,” Jochnowitz said of the changes. “It would have been so easy for them to check.” She says she feels that the inexact translations may be perceived not only as a black mark against her as a translator, but against the author as well.

While Schocken will try to come to a compromise with Jochnowitz in rephrasing certain things in a second edition, Karper said, the publisher stands by the translation.

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