Sholem Aleichem in Russian.

This piece by Julie Masis is full of interesting stuff. It starts (after a great picture of the magnificently mustachioed author) by describing a Sholem Aleichem short story called “Homesickness,” one of his stories that were censored in the Soviet Union and have been translated into Russian for the first time.

“This story expresses Zionist sentiments. It shows us the Sholem Aleichem that we didn’t know,” said Rabbi Boruch Gorin, editor of Knizhniki, the Moscow-based publishing house which translated the story from Yiddish. The story wasn’t included in the Soviet collections because “it didn’t fit with how Soviet authorities portrayed Sholem Aleichem,” he said.

Sholem Aleichem, best known for his “Tevye the Dairyman” story on which the film “Fiddler on the Roof” is based, was born in the Russian Empire in 1859 and died in 1916.

Yet while extensive collections of his work were published in the Soviet Union, some of his stories were never translated — sometimes for murky reasons. […]

In the pieces that were actually published in the USSR, chunks related to religion were cut, as were Hebrew passages that Soviet translators (who spoke Yiddish but not Hebrew) didn’t understand, Gorin said. In one story, published in the 1930s when there was hunger in the Soviet Union, even the Shabbat meal was censored.

“In the Soviet translation, half the dishes weren’t included. I think they didn’t want people to read about how well people ate in a poor shtetl,” Gorin said. […]

Despite Soviet shortcomings with Sholem Aleichem, the books of other Yiddish authors — many of whom lived and wrote about the Russian Empire — were even less likely to be translated to Russian.

For example, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who received the Nobel Prize in literature, was completely unknown in the Soviet Union. His books were not translated to Russian at all because of his anti-communist views, Gorin said.

The books of Isaac B. Singer and his older brother Israel J. Singer, who was also an acclaimed writer, were printed for the first time in Russian in recent years.

In the next six months, Knizhniki will publish Zalman Shneur’s historical novel about the arrest of the first head rabbi of the Chabad dynasty by the Russian tsar in the 18th century. The novel, entitled “The Rabbi and the Tsar” has never been printed in Russian.

“We want to introduce the public to a great European culture. It’s a forgotten culture that we need to return to the readers,” Gorin said. “Yiddish literature compares (in its sophistication) to English and Russian literature. Yet it appeared and died away within one generation. That’s a tragedy.” […]

Despite some problems with Soviet publications, more of Sholem Aleichem’s work has been translated to Russian than to English, said Itzik Gottesman, the president of the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in New York.

In addition, Russian translations were usually of better quality than the English ones because they were done by professional writers rather than by academics, Gorin said. For example, renowned Russian author Isaac Babel translated and edited some of Sholem Aleichem’s work but the translations were lost after he was arrested by Stalin’s police.

Incidentally, I notice that the cover of a magazine shown in a photo features an interview with “Эфраим Зурофф” [Efraim Zuroff]. It’s always seemed odd to me that foreigners of Russian descent get their surnames rendered in Russian with -офф rather than -ов; since the two endings are pronounced exactly the same, it seems to come from a need to emphasize that the person is Not Really One of Us.

Thanks for the link, Paul!


  1. Well, the -off ending seems to have been standard around the time of the first-wave Russian emigration in the early 20th century (cf. the Smirnoff vodka for instance). And if your ancestors had their name written down as Ivanoff when they came from Russia a couple of generations back, you wouldn’t want to change your name’s spelling every time the transliteration rules change – even though they become more precise as they do.

  2. Of course I know that early émigrés used the -off ending, just as they often used w for v and tsch for ch and all sorts of other oddities; I can’t see how any of that has to do with how their names are written in Russian. If Saul Bellow had moved to Russia, we wouldn’t start calling him Belov.

  3. No we wouldn’t. Actually, his name is rendered in Russian as Беллоу – which is a queer story in its own right, come to think of it. My favourite case though is that of Murray Gell-Mann whose father emigrated to the US from Austria-Hungary and had had a perfectly common Ashkenazi name of Hellmann (traditionally rendered in Russian as Гельман – it’s still very widespread) before he changed it to the vaguely Celtic(?)-sounding version under which his son was to become famous.

  4. Great heavens! I never knew Murray Gell-Mann actually had the name of my favorite mayonnaise.

  5. May contain quarks.

  6. In college I knew a Green-Stock, who I took as Greenstock until I saw her name written down.

    Isaac Asimov is another notable whose name got changed; he avoided the -off, at least, but his birth name Исаак Озимов was rendered as Айзек Азимов when he became well known.

  7. One bit of Sholem Aleichem in Russian which I remember had a very timely piece of folk etymology, deriving “breakwast” from Yiddish “dreck” & English “fast” (as in, quick-n-sh*tty). Today the same idea may be employed to explain “brek” in “Brexit”

  8. SFReader says

    German aristocratic surname von Bellow is consistently rendered into Russian as фон Белов.

    Perhaps the von part helps to make clear that this is is not just an ordinary peasant-proletarian Belov

  9. Eli Nelson says

    Hmm. I’ve read a few papers that say that in Russian (as well as many other languages such as German), the neutralization between voiced and voiceless consonants can actually be incomplete (for example, underlyingly voiceless consonants tend to be phonetically longer on average than devoiced underlyingly voiced consonants). I was very skeptical when I first heard about this idea, but it seems to be backed up by a fair amount of experimental evidence.


    So possibly, the endings -офф and -ов are not pronounced exactly the same.

    Also, wouldn’t the declined forms where the фф or в is between vowels be clearly distinct in terms of pronunciation?

  10. Yes to oblique forms, but if you travel to English-speaking parts, you lose oblique forms as well…

  11. Did the Soviets censor references to early 20th/late 19th century pogroms? That is, did they consider such writing to be criticizing Russia, or merely czarist Russia? (Aside from Revolutionary era and later horrors.)

  12. SFReader says

    I have an impression that anything and everything could be censored in Soviet Russia. It all depended on imagination of a censor and current political atmosphere.

    For example, a history book on relations between Cambodia and Vietnam in 16th century was classified as confidential and for restricted publication only. There was nothing even remotely anti-Soviet in its content, of course, but it just happened to coincide with the period of tensions between Pol Pot’s Kampuchea and recently reunified Vietnam, a firm Soviet ally.

    So the censors thought it wise to keep the book away from attention of Soviet readers. Just in case.

  13. Also, wouldn’t the declined forms where the фф or в is between vowels be clearly distinct in terms of pronunciation?

    Sure, but why is this a reason to spell it -фф? It just seems to most natural thing in the world to me for a Russian name to be spelled like a Russian name in Russian.

  14. Did the Soviets censor references to early 20th/late 19th century pogroms? That is, did they consider such writing to be criticizing Russia, or merely czarist Russia?

    It wasn’t censored, possibly just de-emphasized, and links between pogroms and the grand struggle of monarchy and reaction vs. the Left were stronger emphasized. As opposed perhaps to rabbis and Torah scrolls. In Boris Zhidkov popular books on pre-revolutionary Odessa, they use a ditty, “Союз Русского народа – полицейская порода” (Union of Russian People [a pogrom vigilante group which hated, and equated, both Jews and the socialists] is a breed / ilk of policemen)

  15. In Boris Zhidkov popular books on pre-revolutionary Odessa

    That’s a particularly unfortunate typo for Zhitkov!

  16. When I brought up Asimov’s case, you said that it was normal for the names of the Russian-descended to be transliterated, and I pointed out that he was in fact Russia-born, but then the topic was overwhelmed by spam.

  17. Not sure what you mean; of course names originally written in different alphabets are transliterated.

  18. My point is that in Russia, Asimov appears under a name that is a transliteration of the (dodgy) English transcription of his original Russian name. The whole thing reminds me of Bill Safire’s call for a better English transcription of Polish.

  19. But that is his name — to use the original Russian name of his ancestors would be going way beyond using the proper Russian spelling of someone’s actual name.

  20. I don’t see why you talk about his ancestors. I’m talking about Asimov’s own original name, the name that would appear on his birth certificate if it were extant (it’s been lost, which is why there is some doubt about the initial letter). Why should a person not be known by his actual name, given that the name by which he is best known is in the wrong script? David Moser is still called David Moser in English, even if he is far better known as 莫大伟 (Mo Dawei). To call Asimov “Айзек” is absurd: is there even such a name in Russian? (Apparently there is now.)

    The article about Joseph Conrad in the Polish Wikipedia is named “Joseph Conrad”, which is reasonable — if you’re a Pole and you want to know about him, that’s the name you’d look for. But the rest of the article calls him “Korzeniowski” in the biographical sections and “Conrad” only in direct reference to his work. By contrast, the Russian WP gives Исаак Ю́дович Озимов (citing IMDB, as usual) as Asimov’s birth name at the beginning, and then uses the transliterated name throughout. Again, I don’t blame the WP editors: that’s the name by which he is actually known in Russia. But why was that done in the first place?

    The fictional Russian Michel Strogoff (in the eponymous Verne novel) is known in Russian as Михаил Строгов, just as I’d expect, not as some horrible and un-Russian *Мишел Строгофф. Didn’t Asimov deserve at least the same treatment? (Of course he, though born in the Soviet Union, was not an ethnic Russian, which was my original theory about the substitution.)

    ObHat: Verne’s publisher, worried that Michel Strogoff might offend Russians, sent it before publication to Turgenev for comments, at least some of which Verne made use of. Supposedly the published text is quite accurate, once you swallow the idea of a serious Tatar rebellion in the 19C.

    ObJoke, from the Mel Brooks movie To Be Or Not To Be:

    “You see, my husband is that great Polish actor, Frederick Bronski.”


    “He’s world-famous in Poland!”

  21. Ayzik is a Yiddish name

  22. SFReader says

    Supposedly, Turgenev said that Bukharan invasion of Russia described by Verne is as likely as Belgian invasion of France

  23. Although Айзик Ayzik is related to Ицко Isaac, they were considered separate names by Eastern Yiddish custom, and even two brothers in the same family could have been named Ayzik and Isaac. I was just reading about such case in the Bograd family of the agricultural colonists. BTW LANGUAGE, could you fix typo please?

  24. I just fixed “an Yiddish,” if that’s what you mean; if it’s something else, say the word and I’ll fix it.

  25. Likewise, there appears to have been a split between אליעזר (Eliezer), and לייזער (Leyzer). I had a great-grandfather by the latter name, from whom I get my middle name and Internet handle – spelled in the Russian fashion as Lazar, but with the somewhat Yiddishizing pronunciation [ˈleɪˌzɑɚ] (“rhymes with quasar“), rather than [ləˈzɑɚ], which most people seem to assume.

  26. Huh, I was vacillating between the Russian and Yiddish pronunciations. I will try to remember your personalized one.

  27. David Marjanović says


    I had the Serbian pronunciation in mind, of course… [ˈlazar]…

  28. When lasers were new it wasn’t rare to see them spelled lazer in Danish — z is more exotic, right? And in Danish it’s just an orthographic variant since there are no voiced sibilants, but unfortunate when applied to an initialism… the perpetrator I remember best was science fiction author Niels E. Nielsen, I thought he should know better at least. (Don’t blame me, I was 11 at the time).

  29. Anyone who would write under a name like “Niels E. Nielsen” would do anything. (I don’t care if it’s his real name.)

  30. It was his real name — Niels Erik Nielsen, bog standard Danish name for his generation (born 1926). There was a large overlap between the most common boys’ names and the boy names transparently underlying the most common surnames.

    And while diluted by new naming practices, examples are still numerous. For instance, I have a nephew once removed named Mathias (Sprogøe) and another named (Rune) Larsen, and there are currently 470 males named Mathias Larsen in Denmark as compared to 110 named Lars Mathiesen (and variants).

    And no aversion to ‘doublets’ — right now, one in every 1000 Danish males is a Niels Nielsen (2800 of them), and Lars Larsen clocks in at 1000 people. There are even about ten people currently calling themselves Mathias Mathiesen.

  31. We still have 17 Jan Jansens, if Wisconsin needs more.

  32. I immediately thought of that song too, although I had never actually heard it before. I only knew it from one of John Bellairs’ horror novels for children. (I don’t remember which one; it was after they had become totally formulaic.) The young main characters are being driven through a snowstorm by a man who won’t stop singing that song.

  33. Lars: I think this is a Swedish Jon Jonsson whose name has gone through American English back vowel unrounding, or conceivably a Jon Jönsson or Icelandic Jón Jónsson.

  34. The WP excerpt on Youtube says Jan Sophus Jansen, born 1870 on Amager.

    But the claim has been removed from Wikipedia itself. It seems such a person did work in a lumberyard in Wisconsin, but no external sources connect him to the song — that seems to be a known fact in his family only. (Which doesn’t disprove it, of course, but disqualifies it from WP).

    You have a point that in current Danish, unlike Swedish aso, the name is [jæ̘n jæ̘nsn̩] so Yan Yanson would be a better transcription, but for an 1893 emigré it was further back. (The fronting started in Copenhagen working class speech, but Amager was firmly rural in 1870. In the recording on this page I hear for instance kassen [kɑsn̩] which is [kæ̘sn̩] in my speech).

  35. Neils Neilsen would have been fine, but look at the first and last seven letters of “Niels E. Neilsen”. Not exactly a palindrome, but something closely related.

    The prequel to the 1890 play Yon Yonson by Gus Heege (which probably has nothing to do with the song) was called Ole Olson. Heege was himself of German origin, but spent a lot of time in the lut(e)fisk belt.

  36. David Marjanović says

    the recording on this page

    Wow. It took me ten seconds to even recognize this as probably Germanic, and half a minute to maybe recognize a word; by the end of it (1:31) I had noticed perhaps three. After a while I recognized a few individual sounds from my visit to Copenhagen six years ago… but…

  37. David Marjanović says

    Jón Jónsson

    Ó seems to be [ou] nowadays, so that Yone Yoneson would have required putting the cone in Wis-cone-sin…

  38. I listened to the Amager recording, and while I don’t understand a word, it sound exactly like Stereotype-Scandihoovian, which itself was a pretty merged accent: tones rather than stød, but otherwise hard to pin down. [ou] > [ɑ] in particular cases wouldn’t surprise me at all, especially as a kind of etymological nativization.

    There are plenty of Pinus resinosa trees in Wisconsin, and therefore plenty of cones already. Interestingly, one of its trivial names is Norway pine, although it’s native to North America.

  39. I never realized before that there was a stød-free dialect so close to Copenhagen — but it seems the eastern parts of Amager kept some of their old Öresund-type trai(t)s (shared with Bornholm and old Skånska) well into the 20th century. (But that sample is pretty close to Standard Danish as dialects go, lexically and grammatically there’s very little to separate it from the working-class sociolects of Standard Danish further in on the island). I don’t hear phonemic tone, but it is more sing-song than Standard Danish.

    @David, try the Tåsingsk one on for size. Hint: it’s about warming milk in a “kettle” on a tripod in the chimney and adding rennet made by soaking in milk a specific piece of calf’s (fourth) stomach that was dried on a stick, to make some kind of cheese.

  40. Trond Engen says

    It may be a different species for the latinate, but it looks exactly the same as the Pinus sylvestris around here.

  41. David Marjanović says

    @David, try the Tåsingsk one on for size.

    Thanks, that’s more recognizable; it sounds like I could eventually learn to understand it. :-þ

    It may be a different species for the latinate, but it looks exactly the same as the Pinus sylvestris around here.

    Coincidence? I think not!!!1!1!11

  42. Trond Engen says

    I don’t hear phonemic tone, but it is more sing-song than Standard Danish.

    Yes, I hear a clear pitch on some words, but that’s for emphasis or sentence prosody. And, anyway, in words that have the “flatter” tone 2/grave in Swedish and Norwegian. I just can’t detect any words where I’d expect a clear tone 1/acute.

  43. I am watching the Tour de France this week. One of the teams is the Tinkoff team, sponsored by Tinkoff Bank, owned by the Russian oligarch Oleg Tinkoff. Tinkoff apparently spells his name Тиньков but the team shirts say (in addition to Tinkoff in Roman characters) Тинькофф. For a pic (check the shoulder) see

    I checked the bank’s site and they seem to useТинькофф as well.

  44. Bizarre — thanks for passing it along! The world of Russian names is stranger than I ever suspected.

  45. Why is it bizarre? Monsieur Tinkov has adopted a business name Тинькофф/Tinkoff for his bank presumably on the analogy with beef Stroganoff and vodka Smirnoff. Yes, he is showing off.

  46. It’s not the Tinkoff that’s bizarre — that’s just retro Westernizing — it’s the Тинькофф. That’s never going to look normal to me.

  47. David Marjanović says

    That’s never going to look normal to me.

    Аффтар жжот.

  48. Первым аффтаром, который жёг, является Гоголь.

  49. “Аффтар жжот”

    Okay, what’s the story? GT makes this “Preshendetje Radio”. Googling the first word finds only përshëndetje, Albanian for ‘hello’ (lit. ‘friend’).

  50. Okay, what’s the story? GT makes this “Preshendetje Radio”. Googling the first word finds only përshëndetje, Albanian for ‘hello’ (lit. ‘friend’).

    Аффтар жжот is a comic misspelling of автор жжет (lit. ‘the author burns [with the word],’ whimsically grand/ironic praise for something written in an internet forum) that reads the same phonetically. Pushkin’s “The Prophet” ends with, in one translation, “Burn thou men’s hearts with this, my Word.”

    It’s great that an Albanian word comes up on Google Translate, and I wonder if that’s coincidence or mischief. This type of deliberately misspelled internet language is sometimes referred to as “Albanian”/‘Olbanian” in Russian.

  51. Oddly, GT is fine with аффтаром as ‘author’, but can’t handle жёг at all, simply transliterating it as zhёg. When I remove the diaeresis, all is well. Statistical MT is all about erratic blocks.

  52. One of the teams is the Tinkoff team, sponsored by Tinkoff Bank, owned by the Russian oligarch Oleg Tinkoff.

    Several years later I wound up editing a translation of a book by this guy! Funny old world…

  53. Pointless addendum to my earlier comment: The Bellairs novel from which I learned of the song, “My name is Yon Yonson,” was The Dark Secret of Weatherend, one of the author’s weaker efforts, I must say. It introduced Bellairs’ characteristic evil magic to a series whose first book, The Tresure of Alpheus Winterborn, had been a non-fantastical mystery. I had thought it was nice that Bellairs was trying something different with that first book, but for some readers, the magic was the principal appeal of his books. I remember a brief conversation between myself and my seventh-grade locker partner, when he showed me that he had checked The Tresure of Alpheus Winterborn out of the library:

    Me: You know there’s no magic in that one.
    Him: Really? Dang it!

  54. There is no such thing as a pointless addendum.

  55. John Cowan says

    Per datum volum myxybl quid!

  56. To distinguish it from pointed addenda.

  57. Several years later I wound up editing a translation of a book by this guy!

    And now he’s reportedly living in fear of being assassinated. “Once I lived the life of a millionaire…”

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