Time! It presses. I am trying to translate more of my grandfather’s books sooner rather than later. Absent some deus ex machina, I’m going to run out of time before they’re all done, even if I only aspire to finish the children’s books. Not everyone is capable of working full time and then writing on the side, long into the wee hours, as my Zeidy did. Aside from the abridged children’s versions of Torah and of the Prophets he wrote nine full-length books for young people.
Three were already translated by him and by my uncle, at the time I began learning Yiddish in earnest—two in my grandfather’s lifetime, and one more recently. That leaves six, one of which I have now finished, one of which I have a first draft that still needs a lot of work, and a third one I have recently started on.
Having been away from Rochester for half a year now and so, without classes or our reading circle, I have also decided that this is the time, during these next two or three months, to make a renewed push to advance my skills. Though online learning has been tough for me in the past, I signed up for a couple of classes. The first one has already met, and we have been assigned a fair bit of homework for next time. I’m going to hold off on writing about my first impressions just yet, because there’s much to say, and if I expect to do that homework, not enough time before our next meeting.
In addition to my new online ‘frontier’ of Yiddish learning, I have another upcoming topic kicking around in my mind. What is the role of the individual in the context of folk storytelling? But I can’t take that on yet. I’m just dropping the teaser here because then it will be like a promise and I will have to do it. But for days such as this, when it’s time to post something, and I’m feeling pressed, the thing is to go back to whatever old stray bits I have kicking around. The most fun version of that is to gather and describe a few idioms on a theme. Not surprisingly, giving this long lead-in [I’m sorry I did not have time to write a shorter blog post], today’s theme is “time”. More specifically, a year.
Here are some idioms that have to do with a year:
In translating Amolike Yidn (Jews of Long Ago), I was confused by a passage in which a character has just returned from the city of Bobruysk. He is asked how his errand went, and he says, Bobruysk iz a stot aza yor oyf mir. A literal word for word translation: ‘Bobruysk is a city such a year on me’ makes no sense at all.
I talked elsewhere about oyf mir, in the idiom “Oyf mir gezogt”. Its literal meaning is, “It should only be said about me”. But it really means, I wish something like that would happen to me. What about the aza yor part?
Now a year, obviously, is a length of time. The idiom “A yor mit a Mitvokh” literally means “A year and a Wednesday”. It is equivalent to the English “A year and a day,” which is not intended to literally mean a year and a day (and yes, I had intended to post this on February 29), but just a very long time. Still, the year in ‘aza yor’ doesn’t really signify duration in that literal sense, but comes from the expressions like a gut yor or much more commonly, a shvarts yor. A black year or a dark year doesn’t literally mean a year-long period of bad luck. When you wish someone a shvarts yor, you are cursing them. The duration is used to imply that not one bad thing, but a series of bad things should befall them. Their life and their luck should turn against them. So in this sense, aza yor, would mean “such a run of [good] fortune”, and aza yor oyf mir, “I only wish my luck was as good”.
Even though I know an idiom is not meant to be taken literally, it still feels odd in English to say, “I wish my fortune was as good as this city.” That seems to be what is implied, though. In the end, I gave up on conveying that flavor in any sentence that would read like normal English. I chose simply to render Bobruysk iz a stot aza yor oyf mir as “I tell you, Bobruysk is a city beyond belief.” There are times when a tactical retreat before the impossibility of translation is in order.
Another expression, Fun a gants yor, literally “from the whole year” means “ordinary”. This clearly comes from the Four Questions in the Passover seder where, in the English “on all other nights of the year”. I also somehow only recently learned that A gut yor (A good year) is not only a reply to a gut yontif (happy holiday- a situation in which literally wishing someone a good year makes sense) but also to gut morgn, or Good Morning. Very generous.
Finally, the expression dergeyn mir di yorn really got on my nerves. In my grandfather’s book, The Clever Little Tailor (more about that soon, I hope), a band of giants has set up outside the capitol city. The king tells him that the giants dergeyn mir di yorn. They kill and pillage and in general do their giant-y things. The king sends soldiers against them, but the giants defeat the soldiers.
At first I was not sure exactly sure why “dergeyn di yorn” meant “to bother”, or “to torment”. What was its source, and what its specific quality? By itself the word “dergeyn” can means ‘to reach as far as’, ‘to ripen’ or come to maturity, or ‘to reach the point’. I think, but am not sure, that the implication is that something has reached the point where it’s an ongoing torment, where it is creating a shvarts yor. Here, the “black” or “dark” in “dark year” or “bad year” is implied. That is, it is ushering in a run of bad luck or even “ruining my life”.
I was amused by the timing coincidence of encountering a similar expression immediately after wrestling with dergeyn di yorn. Three days ago, I was reading Sholem Aleichem’s book Motl the Cantor’s Son for class. Having joined class mid year, I received an abridged chapter two in my curricular materials, but wanted to catch up by reading chapter one, which I did not have. So I downloaded a different version of the story. But the one I found, though still a ‘student version’, instead of having the vocabulary words in English at the ends of the chapter, has them in Yiddish.
Now this is both annoying and real progress. After all, in a more natural language-learning environment when a child asks a parent or teacher what a word means, the parent or teacher explains it in simple words in that same language, not by reference to some other language. It’s true that definition by a synonym or an equivalent is less exact. The dictionary probably gives a more precise equivalent. But you don’t have to break out of the mindset of the language you’re reading. You get an approximation and move on. So I decided to stick with this version.
Anyway, in chapter two the neighbor wants Motl to stay with her. She urges Motl’s mother and won’t leave her alone. The exact words are: “Zi tsugetchepet vi a kleshtsh”. She latches on to her like a ___? Like a tick? I go to look it up in the glossary at the end of the chapter, and for the expression tsugetchepet vi a kleshtsh, it gives, shtark tseshteyn (to importune strongly) and also, dergeyn di yorn.
When I thought this post would be done yesterday, Monday, I was going to conclude with the expression yeder montik un donershtik. But, if I have started out this post already out of time, I’m now a bal-khoyv, a debtor. Having missed Monday, it will have to wait until next time.
As an aside, I can’t just uncritically report on shvarts yor as a year of suffering or of bad luck, and beyond that, hell in general, without some note that color-bias in language has real effects. I’m not going to judge nineteenth century literature by twentieth or twenty-first century values. But for a couple of minutes, starting at the two minute mark, this clip of an interview with Muhammed Ali provides a healthy corrective.