If I Were a Rothschild…

I would go to Boston and sit in on these two presentations at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in Boston. The first is about translation, and features an impressive lineup:

Fartaytsht un farbesert? Translating Yiddish in the 21st Century.

From Irving Howe’s anthologies to the Yiddish books series at Yale University Press, the past 70 years have seen a number of different translation projects, each designed to bring Yiddish texts to new audiences. With the rise of digital publishing and new web platforms, there is a need to think beyond earlier models and examine new directions in the translation of Yiddish literature. The panelists of this roundtable will discuss the act and impact of translation in a variety of overlapping contexts, from the role of translation in Yiddish Studies to the emergence of digital-first audiences. This roundtable will also consider the new institutional contexts of Yiddish in translation: the Yiddish Book Center’s translation fellowships and translation series, the new online journal IN GEVEB, and new scholarship on translation.

The panelists will focus on the following questions surrounding Yiddish in and through translation: What are the current methodologies for the translation of Yiddish literature? How do they answer the needs of new audiences for Yiddish in translation, both in the US and internationally, both digital and in print? What is the relationship between translation and current scholarship in Yiddish Studies? How can theories of translation contribute to discussions of Yiddish translation?

Barbara Harshav, a renowned translator, will speak about the multiple challenges of translating Yiddish literature. Sasha Senderovich (University of Colorado, Boulder) is currently translating David Bergelson’s MIDAS HADIN (with Harriet Murav) and will reflect on the tension between scholarship and the politics of translation. Sarah Ponichtera will speak about her experience as a translation editor at IN GEVEB and will offer her thoughts, as the project manager of YIVO’s Vilna Project, on the digital presentation of archival materials. Anita Norich (University of Michigan) will address why some Yiddish texts are translated multiple times and what this tells us about American Jewish cultural history. Zackary Sholem Berger, a translator of Yiddish poetry, will discuss how a translator selects what they will work on and for what purpose. The roundtable will be moderated by Saul Zaritt, a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis and the editor of IN GEVEB.


The second is about folklore, including a talk that highlights my Zeidy’s work, followed by various learned musings about draft-dodging, neologisms, and puns. What could possibly be more fun?

Ruth von Bernuth, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Chelm Canon: Collecting and Writing Tales of the Wise Men in the Twentieth Century

The collected tales of the wise men of Chelm emerge late. Ethnographic collections published at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century are the starting point for the proliferation of Chelm stories that began to appear individually, in newspapers, periodicals, and anthologies, and in book-length treatments by a single author. This talk examines the Yiddish Chelm “canon” of the 20th century, which has not been thoroughly studied. Chelm literature can, roughly speaking, be divided into three categories. First, there are ethnographic and folkloric publications, as well as anthologies of Jewish humor; second, there are literary productions by accomplished Yiddish writers; and third, there is the increasingly pronounced trend toward treating Chelm as a subject for children’s literature. Some of the works overlap these categories, the best examples being the ethnographically tinged original Chelm tales by Menakhem Kipnis (1878-1942). This Yiddish singer and writer was one of the first to publish Chelm stories for the general public rather than for fellow folklore enthusiasts, contributing a long Chelm series to the Yiddish daily newspaper HAYNT in 1922 and 1923. Many of the major modern Yiddish writers—Moshe Broderzon, Itsik Manger, Miryam Ulinover, Yud Yud Trunk, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, among others—embraced Chelm as an archetype that enabled them engagingly to appreciate or critique one kind of Jewish society or another, be it rabbinic or hasidic or some new utopian alternative. I.B. Singer’s popular volume of Chelm stories for children was by no means the first adaptation of the theme for young readers. An early example was Solomon Simon’s HELDEN FUN KHELM (Heroes of Chelm, 1942), initially designed for the Yiddish secular school movement but issued, too, in the same year in a highly successful English version, titled the WISE MEN OF HELM AND THEIR MERRY TALES.

Also presenting work in the same session:

The PLAGERS: Folklore of the Jewish Draft Dodgers of Galicia
Itzik Gottesman, University of Texas at Austin

The Yiddish of the Future: How the YIVO Linguists Coined New Words
Alec Eliezer Burko, Jewish Theological Seminary

The Puns of the Lord: paronomasia, language and hermeneutics in The Words of the Lord (Zbiór Słów Pańskich)
Shay Alexander Alleson-Gerberg, Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Some people have assumed that, since I am studying Jewish, I am interested in working in Jewish Studies. The truth is, that I know nothing about it as a scholarly field. Also, when I escaped from academia it was not, presumably, only to get back in; still less in an area where everyone has a thirty-five year head start on me.

In fact, I have been learning Yiddish in order to learn Yiddish. I have been translating in order to translate. But wouldn’t it be nice to know what the professionals, the people who really know stuff about Yiddish, translation, and Yiddish folklore, think?

Alas, I am not a Rothschild.


Walter Rothschild, with zebras.


2 thoughts on “If I Were a Rothschild…

  1.    David, you’ve really become smitten with Yiddish. Apparently, it’s become quite a topic of academic discussion in some circles. And, to think, that when I was growing up, in the Bronx,in the 1950s, my parents told me that we don’t speak Yiddish outside of our apartment. Their view was that: ‘In gas redden mir nor Engelsh’. Kindest regards                       


  2. I am truly disappointed that even with a small contribution and some promised chewing gum I cannot persuade you to be in Boston. I couldn’t even persuade myself when I first saw the announcement. However, I trust that somewhere or the other we will get a decent synopsis of what the folks will say, and indeed there are a lot of luminaries talking. As it happens I will be giving my Greenwood reading tomorrow night and have elected to this time spend a bit of time talking about why and what etc we translate. I am insanely jealous of your growing expertise in Yiddish and think that your Rothchildlessness is creating a formidable Yiddishist! Chappy Chanukah. Have you read the curious but interesting article by Lahiri, Jumpa in last week’s New York Review of Books, I think, about why she learned Italian and is now writing in it!



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