I registered a complaint about this phenomenon when I came across it in a translation of a wonderful book called Ali and Nino; now I find it again in a translation of Sorstalanság (Fateless) by Imre Kertész (as quoted in the NYRB review by István Deák):

I made the surprising discovery that Jews don’t have just one language, namely Hebrew, as I had believed. I slowly gathered that their question was “Reds di jiddis, reds di jiddis, reds di jiddis?” [Do you speak Yiddish?] The boys and I answered “Nein.”

(The protagonist is a 14-year-old boy who, like the author, has just arrived in Auschwitz as a totally assimilated Hungarian Jew and discovered how alien he is to his fellow inmates.) In Hungarian, j is pronounced like English y and s is pronounced like English sh, so a Hungarian would read the repeated phrase as /redsh di yiddish/. An English speaker, however, would read it as /reds di jiddis/, although context would provide a clue that the mysterious “jiddis” was actually Yiddish. My question is, why on earth would a translator not render such things in a way that makes sense to the target audience?

Interestingly, later in the review the following passage occurs:

They reject his attempts to curry favor because he speaks no Yiddish: “‘Di bist nisht ka Yid, d’bist a sheygets’ [You are not a Jew, you are a goy]… That was a rather strange feeling, because, after all, I was among Jews in a concentration camp.”

When I read this, I was struck by the very different transliteration; if it were rendered along the lines of the first quote, the Yiddish would read “Di biszt nist ka jid, d’biszt a sejgec.” Then I looked at the footnote and found:

Because the translators omitted the Yiddish quote from the English version, I use here the quote in the original Hungarian as it might appear in an English-language text.

[Emphasis added.] So Deák, a Hungarian, has the sense to retransliterate for English-speakers; why don’t the translators of the book, Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson? Do any of you translators out there have thoughts on this?


  1. Bezobrazie. :-)
    Seriously though, I think Deák is in the right and the translators made a terrible choice. It’s easy to get turned around, though. Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable altering the original non-Hungarian text at all for whatever reason.

  2. The transliteration issue is annoying. Right now I’m reading Helene Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing [Columbia UP] and her translators kept the French forms for Russian names: Rogojine… Nadejda.
    And I’m not certain whether the passages originally from German, Russian and Spanish are translated from the original language into English, or from Helene Cixous’ French. I suspect the latter. It’s like bathing in someone else’s bathwater actually.

  3. By the way, why did he reply “Nein”? Was it because Yiddish sounded like a dialect of German to him, or because the other boys were German speakers?

  4. Probably a blend of Yiddish being clearly closely related to German and German being most likely the only language they knew besides Hungarian (and all Hungarian speakers are well aware that nobody but Hungarians speaks Hungarian).

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