A Hat by Any Other Name

Long gaps between blog posts, and yet again, I find myself squeezing a note in between two out-of-town trips. But I’m not willing to let the gap grow any wider.

One hope I had when I started this blog in the first place was to encourage others to believe they can learn a language in midlife or older. We labor under the myth that only young people can learn languages. Much has been made of the flexibility of young people’s brains. What I think, is that young people have time. Why can a child so easily learn from age one to age four a language that adults struggle to master in ten years? Because the child listens to and uses that language every waking hour. To match three years of every waking hour, even over a ten-year span, an adult learner would have to study four hours a day. But I’ve seen adults master a foreign language with far less time investment than that. At an hour and a half per day, a college student can get halfway to fluency in about three years, not ten, and that’s only during the school year. With vacations and summer, that’s only sixty percent of the time.

Yes, it’s true, we’re not college kids any more either. So maybe it would take us a few minutes longer a day, or a year extra. But there is no magic cutoff. Not puberty, and not college age. With a little study every day, most people would make amazing progress. I’m not denying that it’s harder the older you get, and harder for some people than others. What I am saying is that it can be done, and far more easily than the mythology would have you believe. What is needed is just consistency.

“Just” consistency. That’s the tough part, isn’t it? And I will concede that older learners forget more in between. Now that Yiddish class has ended for the year, I keep being whirled off to visit family, and am investing time making plans to move. Consequently, I’ve kind of dropped the ball, not only with blog writing, but also with my study. Fortunately, my own peculiar method of learning a language by translating things can be restarted at any moment. Once I exert some control over my time, all I need is a Yiddish text and my dictionary.

As important as it is to find a way to stay physically active over the winter, I need a way to keep Yiddishly active over the summer. I almost made it to Kulturfest in New York City. Then, I almost made it to Yiddishland (the Workman’s Circle’s week-long retreat). But almost doesn’t count, and so instead I’m back to my translating. And to blogging, which helps me put my time where my mouth is.
Speaking of translating, I’ve been thinking about particular cases, especially when it comes to idioms, where the original might be allowed to ‘show through’ in a translation. For example, in Robert’s Adventures, there’s a point where Robert is in danger of being put in an orphanage and resolves to run away to his uncle. But how do you get the cat over the water?, he asks himself. After considering various English idioms as possible equivalents (for example, “Easier said than done”), I finally decided on, “How do you get the cat over the water?” This one cannot be farbesert in translation.

Here’s another example. In the pamphlet The Fate of Our Yiddishist Schools, my grandfather describes how in editing the Khumesh to make it accessible for children, every change he made in the wording of Yehoash’s version of the Khumesh was bitterly contested. Then finally, Yehoash’s own notes were found, and the editorial board saw that he had allowed himself certain liberties in the first place.    הותרה הרצועה
said my granfather, and the work proceeded more easily from there.

My teacher consulted on my behalf with a scholar of Hebrew and Talmud, who replied: “The phrase is Hebrew and literally means the strap or binding has been released. The word for strap here is the one used for those in tefillin (with which we bind ourselves) so this may have some suggestion of release from religious constraints.”

After considering various strategies, I decided on the literal, “The tefillin strap was loosened,” and the work could proceed. Do I need to explain that tefillin are “phylacteries”, as though anyone knew what the heck a phylactery was? Whoever might come to read about the Yiddish schools is going to be interested in Jewish life. His dig at orthodoxy, or his dig at the editors by equating their reluctance to accept any changes with orthodoxy, is both humorous and also revealing of my grandfather’’s attitudes.

I own a shockingly dense and difficult book titled Dictionary of Untranslatables (ed. Barbara Cassin). The book essentially describes the history of philosophy by examining individual words that either lead to confusion when translated, having different meanings in the target language than in the original, or are often not translated at all. In the later case, the original language word is carried over as jargon in the translation (i.e. “praxis”). The workings of the book expand out from this first goal, for example, by showing how the manner in which ‘praxis’ was employed changed from Aristotle to Marx. What cinched the sale was that this book about untranslatability was itself translated from the French. I couldn’t resist the irony.

Beyond the book as a showpiece, or gag, or other narcissistic reasons for wanting it, I am also intrigued by the endeavor to clarify particular ideas by showing how language bound and culturally specific they are. Words cover different, overlapping, territories in different languages. The editor’s deep rationale for the work is that philosophy (and by extension, thinking in general) is not just done with words, but in words. Nontranslations, or failures of translation, can be informative in a way that the less problematic parts of the work cannot.

Going back, for example, to the pointlessness of translating tefillin to ‘phylacteries’, there is no non-Jewish meaning of the non-Jewish version of the word. ‘Pentatuch’ gives us nothing that Khumesh does not already have in it. To me this somehow implies that if languages were not different in the coverage and connotations of individual words, there would be much less point to translating in the first place.

Finally, I wrote an English poem yesterday in which I used the word ‘shtreimels’. I was describing a rookery, with herons’ nests perched on top of spars. First, I had to decide whether to write ‘shtreimlekh’, or to keep the anglicized plural. Then, I had to decide whether or not to include an explanatory footnote. The first decision was made purely on the basis of sound, and ‘shtreimels’ sounded better in that particular line. Then I decided not to include any footnote description, even though if I were reading the poem out loud to an English audience I would surely explain what shtreimels are. Why not then? Because everyone who reads has Google now. If they want to know, they can look it up. Better yet, when they do look it up, they are likely to get a picture, and it’s the visual that I was after.

I am really going by instinct in a lot of the work I do. I know little to nothing of translation theory. I believe Anita Norich, in her Writing in Tongues, says that over time, Yiddish translators have grown more willing to let the particularity of the language be felt in translation, and also more willing to demand that the reader bring some knowledge of Jewish life and culture to the enterprise. It seems to me that the existence of search engines, and of the web more generally, vindicates this trend. Isn’t the point of translation to bring something to people that they don’t already have in their own language? Rather than putting anyone off, my hope is that I’m inviting them to come a little closer.

Strayml, or Streimel?

Shtrayml, or Shtreimel? Khumesh or Chumesh? I remain slow to learn the ‘correct’ way to transliterate, but in some cases (as when you Google an old word in English), there are more hits for the ‘wrong’ spelling than the right one. For example, the hybrid Anglicized/Germanized ‘streimels’ gets far more search engine  hits than the correct ‘shtraymlekh’ does.


4 thoughts on “A Hat by Any Other Name

  1. So very interesting. Did you ever read Cynthia ozick’s essay ‘the last prayer leader is dead’ about the problems of translation, for example: געשטארבן איז דער לעצטע בעל תפילה A whole Jewish community is gone..or whatever. By the way, I bristle at “shtetls” but I get it. Hugs, P


    • I haven’t read the essay, but I will look for it.
      If a writer says, “The last prayer leader is dead,” and means, “A whole Jewish community is gone,” that poses a problem, particularly if I want the Yiddish feel of the language to show through in the translation. I might suggest, “There’s no one left alive to lead the prayers.” But see,.. a perfect iambic pentameter line. I have to make a special effort not to write like an English-speaking poet.


  2. Brilliant, and appreciated, as always. Might “streimels” come into fashion in far northern climes? It would only take a celebrity or two! All good things to you.


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