Quidditch in Yiddish.

Yair Rosenberg writes for Tablet about how Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (bzw. Sorcerer’s) Stone got a Yiddish version, saying “The work of an Indian-American Orthodox Jewish translator, and printed by a publishing house in Sweden, the story behind Harry Potter un der filosofisher shteyn is almost as remarkable as the story it tells”; that’s very true, but I’ll send you to the link to discover the tale of the rival would-be translators (the winner was Arun Viswanath, “a scion of one of America’s greatest Yiddish dynasties”) and pick up the story with decisions about particular translation problems:

One common question: What to do about names? […] As he examined prior foreign editions, Viswanath discovered that different translators had taken dramatically different approaches. “French went totally out there,” he said. “They renamed [Severus] Snape to ‘Rogue.’ In Italian they renamed him ‘Piton’ [snake]. French even changed the name of Hogwarts” to Poudlard, which means “bacon lice.” In his own work, Viswanath didn’t find such radical revisions necessary for the most part, because “Yiddish is a Germanic language, so the English sounds are not that foreign.” […]

In some cases, however, it was necessary to rename characters to preserve Rowling’s intent, which is how Quidditch captain Oliver Wood became Oliver Holtz. In the novel, Harry is introduced to Wood by professor Minerva McGonagall after he demonstrates remarkable skill chasing another student in midair on a broomstick. Thinking he is about to be disciplined for breaking the rules, he misinterprets her meaning when she asks another teacher if she can “borrow Wood for a moment,” wondering “was wood a cane she was going to use on him?” Needless to say, this wordplay would not work unless Wood’s name referred to wood—or holtz—in Yiddish, and so Viswanath rebranded the character, even though he’d found that many “other languages don’t try to do it,” leaving readers somewhat confused. […]

But Rowling didn’t just coin names, she coined many magical terms and concepts, and each of these required its own Yiddish rendering. Translating Quidditch, the fictional aerial sport played on broomsticks in which participants fire a ball through hoops to score points, posed its own challenge. “I could’ve just called it Quidditch [in Yiddish transliteration], but meh, we could do better than that,” Viswanath said. He cast about for something more authentically Yiddish. Inspiration struck when he “remembered that there’s this saying, ‘az got vil, sheest a bezem,’ which means, ‘if God wants, a broom shoots,’ and which possibly refers to somebody who’s impotent, or maybe to a gun.” And so, “shees-bezem”—or “shoot-broom”—was born. Along similar lines, rather than merely transliterate the name of the small flying “golden snitch,” whose capture ends a Quidditch match, Viswanath dubbed it the “goldene flaterl,” or “golden butterfly,” as butterflies are a common motif in Jewish and Yiddish folklore. By riffing off Yiddish sayings and symbols in this way, Viswanath hopes “people will feel the Yiddishe taam [taste].” […]

At the same time, Viswanath didn’t let the book’s Christian components prevent him from infusing the story with genuine Yiddish flavor. Often, this is reflected in how the characters express themselves. They may not be Jewish, but they talk like their Yiddish equivalents would. “I recast some of the characters as certain Jewish archetypes purely on linguistic grounds,” he explained. “I turned Dumbledore into this very lomdish [Jewishly learned] guy who speaks with a lot of loshen koydesh [Hebrew and rabbinic phrases].” In other words, Dumbledore speaks in the Yiddish register of a rabbinic dean of a yeshiva because that’s the role he plays at Hogwarts, not because he’s actually Jewish.

Likewise, “McGonagall and Snape, and especially [Argus] Filch, speak in a particularly Litvish [Lithuanian] register, so you can sort of really hear their dialect. The same thing with [Rubeus] Hagrid, who speaks with a very deep back country Polish register,” a Yiddish analogue to “his west country English accent” in the original books.

Splendid stuff! (For the Viswanath/Schaechter clan, see this LH post.)


  1. Jen in Edinburgh says

    It has never occurred to me that Snape has any particularly distinctive way of speaking, at least geographically. Although I suppose he could be politely northern without me noticing…

  2. The interesting point for me is spells and names of various magical paraphernalia. They are some comical pseudo-Latin words in the original and it would be tempting to cast them as some pseudo-Hebrew stuff in Yiddish translation. I wonder whether Russian translators reached to OCS for the magical vocabulary. Didn’t read the books in Russian, but someone (1/5/1? [it’s a joke, ok?]) around these parts did.

    The books are sufficiently inconsequential to allow a translator a great deal of latitude to amuse their readers, but casting Dumbledore as someone who speaks an elevated language misses the point. He holds the position and looks the part of such a person, but mostly speaks very plainly as a good teacher should.

  3. Bathrobe says

    European languages are so historically linked, it seems easier for translators to get into and play with the spirit of the original English. When English-speaking writers discuss the way wordplay and puns in Harry Potter are dealt with by translators, they almost invariably turn to European languages (usually French, because the French translator made so many adjustments).

    Non-European translations get short shrift. Just not as much fun.

    Chinese (Mainland) calls Wood 伍德 wǔdé and has to cover Harry’s misunderstanding with a footnote that the English surname ‘Wood’ (伍德) means 木头 mùtóu ‘wood’. Strangely, Google Translate now gives ‘Wood’ as the English translation of 伍德.

    Chinese (Taiwan) calls Wood 木透 mùtòu. It’s not a surname but has a kind of meaning (which I think is maybe thoroughly wood? wood through and through? thoroughly stupid?) and works — sort of. Or maybe not….

    Japanese calls Wood ウッド uddo — it virtually has to under name transliteration conventions — but has Harry wondering: ‘Uddo? Is that wood (木 ki)? Could that be a stick to hit me with?’ Essentially, it appeals to the reader’s knowledge (or expected knowledge) of English.

    There are two Mongolian translations. The first doesn’t even explain why Harry would have thought of Вүүд  vüüd as a cane to beat him with. The second has a brief parenthetical note that Вүүд means ‘мод’ mod ‘wood’.

    Languages outside the European tradition simply don’t possess familiar, fascinating ways of dancing around the English original.

    When it comes to rendering the speech of characters, the Japanese translator reaches into stereotyped speech patterns. A favourite that non-Japanese people like to point out is that Hagrid speaks in Tohoku dialect, making sure to point out that this is kind of discriminatory. (Why do these things catch on so easily among non-speakers?) Dumbledore uses a kind of speech typical of ‘rustic old codgers’ that is commonplace in manga and animé. It’s based on a particular dialect in Western Japan (it may have been Hiroshima) and is instantly recognisable.

  4. January First-of-May says

    French even changed the name of Hogwarts” to Poudlard, which means “bacon lice.”

    (I’m seriously considering whether I accidentally ended up in an alternate universe and didn’t notice.)

    I wonder whether Russian translators reached to OCS for the magical vocabulary. Didn’t read the books in Russian, but someone (1/5/1? [it’s a joke, ok?]) around these parts did.

    As the self-proclaimed news robot XX/01-01/05, I have no problem with the joke.
    But no, to the best of my knowledge, the faux-Latin just stayed faux-Latin in both versions.
    (…Complete with the faux-English bits. Вингардиум Левиоса!)

    Severus Snape became Severus Snegg (“Snowe”, as a pun with his first name) in the old translation, and Zloteus Zley in the new translation (an earlier version had him be named Zlodeus Zley “Villainus Vile”, which had to be slightly revised as he turned out not to be that evil).
    As for Oliver Wood, the old translation didn’t change the name (I forgot how it dealt with the pun [EDIT: it just had Harry think something to the effect of “Vud? What’s that?”]), while the new one just translated it directly(-ish) to Oliver Drev.

  5. So the Yiddish for broom is ‘bezem’? Well, the English word ‘besom’ is a witch’s broom.

  6. John Cowan says

    Anyone’s broom, really: it’s Common West Germanic (G Besen, Du bezem. Broom is traceable to Proto-Germanic, and it is a doublet with bramble. Cf. Brombeere ‘blackberry’. Brush, which has taken over some of the senses of broom, is < F brosse < Late Latin, but there a Germanic borrowing related to ME brust, which survives in ModE bristle.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Strange, then, that the -m is still there in Yiddish and hasn’t turned into -n.

    Or is that a typo?

  8. huispaus
    Coined by Jaana Kapari as a blend of huis (interjection imitating something quick) +‎ sieppaus (“act of catching”, which is the objective of the game).


  9. PlasticPaddy says

    So m is not a typo. My recollection is that Dutch also has bezem.

  10. Or is that a typo?

    No, it’s definitely -m. But Yiddish is, after all, not German.

  11. Pipped by PP!

  12. Christopher Culver says

    “I wonder whether Russian translators reached to OCS for the magical vocabulary.”

    I would suspect that for many ordinary readers, Old Church Slavonic or Church Slavonic would not have a purely old-timey connotation, but rather it would necessarily have a religious element to it, and that might be a turnoff for readers. Occasionally I have asked a Russian speaker about an old Russian word, one not specifically religious but something that has hung on in liturgical contexts, and I received a knee-jerk response “I don’t like the Orthodox Church.” The same has happened in Romanian when asking about words that mainly got purged from active usage in the 19th century, but are known to people today from the Church.

    In Western Europe, Latin has a more secular air of antiquity about it because there was a huge amount of writing on secular matters (politics, sciences, philosophy) in Latin. But Old Church Slavonic and Church Slavonic were mainly used for religious contexts, and the exceptions (chronicles, etc.) are things that the average man in the street is not really aware of.

  13. AJP Crown says


    Bésame Mucho

  14. Strange, then, that the -m is still there in Yiddish and hasn’t turned into -n.

    Or is that a typo?
    Grimm has forms with final /m/ into the 16th century and also notes that it survives in dialects, so it’s not especially strange that Yiddish has it as well.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Oh. In that case…

    The -m > -n change happened in OHG, but I don’t actually have any idea how far west or north it went.

  16. George Grady says

    Re: ‘If God wants, a broom shoots.’

    I don’t know Yiddish at all, so I don’t know if it’s a possible meaning there, but I’d heard this saying in English before, and I’d thought “shoot” referred to sprouting fresh shoots. That is, I took the saying to mean that if God wanted, he could cause even wood as dead as that in a broom to begin to grow again.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Aaron’s rod, in fact. (Numbers 17:8)

  18. @George Grady, David Eddyshaw: Yes, that is the meaning in Yiddish as well. I suppose, in extended use, it could refer to gunplay or ejaculation though.

  19. @brett: where do you get that from? i’ve never met /shisn/ meaning anything like ‘sprout’ (haven’t checked *all* my dictionaries tonight, tho); and never met the idiom in a context that wasn’t pretty specifically a rifle reference…

    @jen: it’s not about northernness, but about the connotations of litvishness – erudition, dryness, reserve…

    @D.O.: weighting vocabulary towards loshn-koydesh isn’t at all about ‘more elevated’ language. for that, you’d push towards the germanisms now dismissed as /daytshmerish/. LK vocabulary signifies a lot of things, but that’s not really one of them, unless it’s in some pretty specific (yeshivish/talmudic) rhetorical forms.

  20. Rozele, fair enough, I don’t know a thing about the varieties of Yiddish, but it was described as high in Hebrew and rabbinic phrases and it ought to struck a Jewish child from the street as a bit alien, isn’t it?

    Because I am already here, let me add a Russian saying that “once a year even a rod fires”.

  21. @Rozele: Of course it means “shoot,” but that’s the wrong sense. The relevant sense of English shoot is (per the OED): “Of a plant, bud, etc.: To emerge from the soil (also with up) or from the stem, etc.; to sprout, grow.” (This is the OED‘s sense 6.a, but it is nonetheless quite old—recorded all the way back to Middle English.) This same sense is standard, although certainly much less common than the firearms sense, in the Yiddish I am familiar with.

  22. John Cowan says

    Russian saying that “once a year even a rod fires”.

    Is that anything like “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day”?

  23. No. It means unlikely (mostly unpleasant) accidents sometimes still happen. But it doesn’t carry an idea of someone being right by accident. I always wanted to pair it up with the famous Chekhov’s quote “If in the first act a pistol is hanging on the wall, in the last one it must fire.” but didn’t find a good enough set up.

  24. John Cowan says

    “If a rod is hanging on the wall, once a year it must fire.” Chekhov’s gun is pretty well known to anglophone writers and playwrights.

  25. A nice follow-up by Alex Surin for the Times of Israel:

    Viswanath believes that Yiddish culture has long been ready for Western books such as “Harry Potter.”

    “Yiddish literature has been at the vanguard of many genres,” Visnawath said. “There were sci-fi and fantasy Yiddish stories written in 1910 and 1920, long before ‘Lord of the Rings.’ This literature has always been very advanced in that sense.”

    “Many people perceive Yiddish culture as something old, sluggish, not ready to develop. Perhaps some of this may be related to the Hasidic community, but the Yiddishist community is very modern,” he said.

    Thanks, Yoram!

  26. David Marjanović says

    Viswanath […] Visnawath

    Ouch. 🙂

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