Yiddish Language and Culture

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference

Description of Activity

Abstract: The art of translation has intrigued mankind since the time of Babel. In modern times debates on translating culture gained momentum whenever periods of vast migration coincided with economic constraints, as the former intensify the need for communication between members of different language communities while the latter reduce the scope for professional standards of translation, and lower its priority within national institutions. At the same time, the creativity of immigrants can be a catalyst. The writings of Nabokov, Ishiguro and Said are cases in point demonstrating how different use of language can provoke recipients into a new awareness of reading and criticism. The question is, what can we learn from past debates? One such debate is the topic of my proposed paper. It took place in the journal Bikher-velt in late 1920s Warsaw between translators and publishers, community activists and readers, on how to reconcile the modern standards of literary translation with the heritage of a language that had emerged as a translator per se: Yiddish. As the vernacular component in the traditional diglossia within Jewish diasporic culture Yiddish was the best medium for many to understand Hebrew religious texts. But losing its role as a medium of interpretation, and exposed to the harsh light of a different culture, Yiddish had to face the scrutiny of secularization and publicity and to function as a vehicle for interaction with European culture. While it had started to assume this role around the 1860s, debates on translation gained momentum in 1928, when there was more prose published in Yiddish from translation than written originally in Yiddish. In this paper I undertake to: 1. unravel the various layers of this debate around the changing status of Yiddish – from a translator to a modernizer; 2. juxtapose local conventions and the arrival of fresh standards carried to Warsaw by Jewish activists from Kiev; 3. develop a critical faculty for understanding the nature of translation across cultures and provide a tool for further academic enquiry.
Period13 Feb 201614 Feb 2016
Event typeConference
LocationVienna, Austria


  • Yiddish language and culture