From the What-A-Wonderful-World files: Yiddish-Japanese Dictionary/Yidish-Yapanish Verterbukh/Idisshu-go jiten, compiled and edited by Kazuo Ueda, with the aid of Holger Nath and Boris Kotlerman (Daigakusyorin, 1302 pages, ¥60,000), reviewed by Ross Perlin in (where else?) the Forward. Some excerpts:

Now a professor in the department of German at Fukuoka University (in the south of Japan), Ueda is the compiler and editor of an implausible opus: the world’s first Yiddish-Japanese dictionary. Its publication, in 2010, crowned decades of work, including a book about Yiddish grammar, a bilingual glossary, a cultural introduction to the language and a chrestomathy (a set of model texts). For those keeping score at home, the unidirectional Yidish-Yapanish Verterbukh clocks in at more than 28,000 entries, just beating out Max Weinreich’s classic “Modern English-Yiddish / Yiddish-English Dictionary” and falling only 9,000 entries short of Yitskhok Niborski’s gold-standard 2002 Dictionnaire Yiddish-Français.” But numbers miss the point — the Yidish-Yapanish Verterbukh is serious but accessible lexicography mit ale pitshevkes, or with all the trimmings: in Tokayer’s words, “a lifetime work.”
…Among the dictionary’s virtues are entries based on Weinreich and rendered in the standard orthography of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research; apposite example sentences, primarily from the legendary Moscow literary journal Sovietish Heymland (Yiddish for “Soviet homeland”); user-friendly transliteration, YIVO-style, for every entry, and special marking of all Germanisms, Slavisms and Hebraisms. Its cardinal vice is a price tag of 60,000 yen (nearly $770 at the current exchange rate) — not exactly a vilde metsie, or a great bargain, even in one of the world’s most expensive countries.

There’s interesting material on the history of Yiddish dictionaries (this is “the first time that the full wealth of the Yiddish lexicon has been made accessible in a non-European language [Hebrew aside]”) and on the history of Yiddish in Japan:

Yiddish first came to Japan in the early 20th century, when a trickle of Russian Jews, most of them from Siberia, settled in the port cities of Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. After World War I, Yiddish theater superstar Aaron Lebedeff took Japan by storm on an East Asian tour (a long-forgotten Yiddish operetta, “Mendl in Japan,” appears to have resulted). Two decades later, eminent Yiddishists and Bundists, as well as students and teachers of the famous Mir Yeshiva, were among the several thousand refugees saved by Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara. Most passed through Kobe en route to America, Palestine, the international settlements in Shanghai and other havens.

(A tip of the Languagehatlo hat to Jim Bisso.)


  1. Sugihara’s story is truly amazing.
    But who would be the ‘target audience’ of this dictionary?

  2. So should I pick up Japanese to learn Yiddish, or Yiddish to learn Japanese?

  3. rootlesscosmo says

    Ethnologue lists 6909 languages so the number of pairwise combinations = 6909 squared = 47 734 281. Onward to Xhosa-Estonian and Tamil-Basque!

  4. Soy vay!

  5. Several years ago at an antiquariat bookshop in Budapest I somehow resisted acquiring a two-volume Hungarian-Mongolian bilingual dictionary. Bulkwise, more than an AHD but less than an MW3. It may be salient that I know perhaps three words in Hungarian and none in Mongolian.
    I’m reminded of a sentence in National Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard’s Latin for Every Occasion: Si hoc signum legere potes, operis boni in rebus Latinis alacribus et fructuosis potiri potes! [If you can read this sign, you can get a good job in the fast-paced, high-paying world of Latin!]
    Hat: The article appeared in the Forward supplement to today’s English print edition of Ha’aretz. I couldn’t find it online this morning so thanks for posting; with link at hand I was able to send the article to a few friends.
    And speaking of newspapers, this just in: 152 newspapers shut down in 2011.

  6. When I saw the Moderní Perská Frazeologie a Konversace by Mansour Shaki in a Prague antikvariát, I had to have it; how many Persian-Czech phrasebooks are you likely to run across in one lifetime?

  7. John Emerson says

    There’s a considerable Mongolist literature in Hungarian. Two of the great Secret History scholars are Hungarian, Igor de Rachewiltz and Lajos Ligeti. de Rachewiltz’s Secret History is monumental accomplishment. My guess is that the dictionary was Ligeti’s.

  8. John Emerson says

    I suspect that during the Soviet era Orientalism was an area that people went into because it tended to be uncontroversial. I have an excellent book on the pre-Xiung Nu steppe naighbors of China by a Czech named Prusek.

  9. But who would be the ‘target audience’ of this dictionary?
    At 60,000 yen, university libraries and fanatical enthusiasts. At 6,000 yen, though, I bet you could sell a lot of copies to klezmer fans, people interested in European arcana, and all-round dilettantes like me. More than you’d think! I would think at least 10-20 times the number of purchasers who’d buy it at 60,000 yen, making the 60,000-yen price point self-defeating, but apparently the publisher disagrees or doesn’t care or has some 7-dimensional chess plan up its sleeve for squeezing money out of we plebes later (e.g. online version).

  10. Ethnologue lists 6909 languages so the number of pairwise combinations = 6909 squared = 47 734 281. Onward to Xhosa-Estonian and Tamil-Basque!
    With a little help from electronics, only 6909 dictionaries would be necessary to enable translation from any language to any other. One only needs to hyperlink the lemmas to create a large loop. As an example, suppose we had the following three dictionaries in electronic format:
    and the following hyperlinks for “pussy” lemmas:
    pussy [via English-German dictionary ->] Kätzchen
    Kätzchen [via German-French dictionary ->] petit chat
    petit chat [via French-French dictionary ->] pussy
    Starting from the word for “pussy” in any language, the loop software would find possible meanings in any other language by accumulating the hyperlinked information.
    I use the plural “meanings”, and the word “accumulate”, because of multiple meanings that words can have. For a given lookup operation from language A to language B, if you lucked out (6908 links to get from A to B) it might be the case that the word X in language A has at least 6908 accumulated possible meanings in language B.
    To help us solve this problem, we enter not just X, but a set of semantic-context words from A including X, and have the software make a best effort to maintain the context set at each translation step. We always use semantic context anyway, even when looking up a word in a dictionary that does not translate between languages, but from one language to itself.

  11. Hungarian-Mongolian connection can be explained through Attila the Hun, Hungarian-Yiddish is obvious, but Yiddish-Japanese? Has there been much cultural interaction between Japanese and Jewish Americans? or is it part of Japan’s interest in Russian/Soviet culture as the Sugihara story suggests?
    during the Soviet era Orientalism was an area that people went into because it tended to be uncontroversial.
    oh no, it has always been very controversial, from slavophiles vs westernisers debate to contemporary debate on ‘Eurasianism’ and Soviet vs Chinese reforming experience.
    You may have a point when you talk of Orientalism in strictly cultural and linguistic terms, but as soon as you step out into interpretation, you are stepping on hundreds of very tender toes.
    Gillian Slovo wonderfully captured this in The Ice Road: at the height of Stalin’s rule a Leningrad orientalist ‘discovers’ and ‘translates’ a Tamerlan period treatice extolling the progressive nature of dictatorial personal leadership.

  12. benedict.schmidl says

    Any language spoken by more than zero speakers is worth a dictionary. The less speakers, the more dictionaries. Not to speak of extinguished languages indeed.

  13. we enter not just X, but a set of semantic-context words from A including X …
    Let me put that more clearly. First I introduce a bit of notation. Let’s denote the n languages by L1, L2, … Ln. We assume that there is one translation [r,r+1] from each Lr to L(r+1) (by notational convention, Ly = Lx for 0<=x<n and y = x mod n. Similarly for the translations [r, r+1]). Finally, we denote by [r,s] the composition [r, r+1][r+1, r+2]…[s-1, s] – that is, “translate from Lr to L(r+1), then …, then from L(s-1) to Ls”.
    Suppose we want to translate word X in Lr to a word or words in Ls. Any spurious meanings that accumulate in the image of X in Ls under [r, s] (as explained in my original comment) could be identified as spurious by finding that their images under [s, r] do not contain X.
    Briefly, some “fairly plausible” translations of X going from Lr to Ls are a subset of those words in Ls that translate to X going from Ls to Lr (by a different translation path).

  14. The “modulo formula” convention is misstated because my language names start with “1” instead of “0”. It should nevertheless be clear what is meant.

  15. The dictionary I’ve long wanted to see is Chippewa-Chichewa.

  16. I would have liked to see in the Forward article some more discussion about how this dictionary actually came to be – not the lexicographic work (that was covered) but the original idea. That would help answer the questions above about intended audience.
    Maybe the Japanese-Yiddish connection is probably mediated by Birobizhan? Berl Kotlerman, metioned in the article, is also the editor of a Jewish journal of Asian studies, and has written about Birobizhan quite a bit. That would explain the sample sentences in the dictionary from Sovetish Heymland, certainly a weird choice.

  17. Maybe someone here can also explain why Yiddish is often classed, in Russian/FSU libraries, with “Oriental” languages.

  18. black mold removal says

    First of all I want to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I’ve had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips? Cheers!
    [Spam URL removed like black mold—LH]

  19. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I’ve had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin.
    You seem to be asking how to start before you begin. The answer to that is: you can’t.
    One is often in the process of doing something – thinking, not thinking, eating, sleeping … There are exceptions, though, for instance “begin” and “end” . “Begin” and “end” are not processes.
    So your first 15 minutes are not wasted. After all, you are composing the text during that time. What you end up with is a text with a beginning and an end. Nobody expects the beginning of the final text to reflect what you were thinking when you began to compose it.

  20. Texts do not have to be speech records – and even when they are, there is no need to treat them merely as such. Historically it took a long time before a majority of readers (and writers) got used to these ideas. They became easier to accept after the invention of printed books, but there was no immediate, universal change of views.
    Some “fundamentalist” believers in Christianity and Islam still maintain a nature reserve of special texts to which those ideas must not be applied.

  21. Grumbly is really overthinking this problem. Start by removing the black mold from your mind.

  22. Yeah, I had already thought of that – but I have promised to be nice in the new year.

  23. why Yiddish is often classed, in Russian/FSU libraries, with “Oriental” languages.
    That followed from geographical and political classification. Put Yiddish with Israel, Israel in the ‘Near East’ – Ближний Восток, East in Asia and you get an Oriental language.

  24. @Zackary Sholem Berger: Library filing systems tend to place Jewish languages next to Hebrew. No, it doesn’t make any sense linguistically.

  25. Zackary: I’ve noticed in Western libraries that books on/in Yiddish or other Jewish languages are often found in the same section where books on/in Hebrew and other Semitic languages are found.
    One University library had an odd (but consistent) system: books which referred to “Judeo-German” or “Judeo-Spanish” in the title were in the Germanic and Romance sections (respectively), but books referring to the languages as “Yiddish” or “Judezmo” were in the Semitic section.
    I suspect some kind of “alphabetical bias” is at work: the languages are written in the Hebrew script, ergo it is assumed that they are related to the Hebrew language. I have likewise found books on Mozarabic (i.e. Old Spanish written in Arabic script) in the Semitic (Arabic) section of some libraries.
    Whether the above explanation holds true for Russian/FSU libraries is something I’ll leave for others to discuss: I’ve never had the pleasure of book browsing in that part of the world.

  26. @ Paul Ogden:
    Wasn’t it the one-volume Mongolian-Hungarian dictionary (by György Kara)? I have the old edition (a flimsy thing on grey paper) from the 1980s (a new flashier-looking hardback edition in a funny-looking but handy format, something the size and shape of a brick) came out in 1998, but I’ve never seen a Hungarian-Mongolian dictionary. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is one; as John Emerson, said, Mongolian (and other Altaic) studies have a long tradition in Hungary. There’s a Mongolian-Czech dictionary too, I guess I still have it somewhere.

  27. Sashura, Rodger, Etienne: I suspect it’s because the librarians can’t tell one Hebrew-script language from another. We should be glad that Hebrew and Yiddish novels are not interfiled.

  28. John Cowan: this classification involved books ON Jewish languages as well as IN Jewish languages, so librarians’ ignorance isn’t to blame in this instance.
    Not that there isn’t a lot of ignorance on non-Roman scripts: I once discovered (at a respectable University library) that four different Russian authors in their catalogue were in fact a single author, whose name had been Romanized in four different ways.

  29. John Emerson says

    Czajkowski, Tchaikovsky,Tschaikowski, Čajkovskij, Ciajkovskij, Chaikovski, Tsjaikovski,Tjajkovskij, Tchaikovski, Chaikovsky, Chaykovsky, Chaikovskiy, Chaykovskiy, Chaikovskii, Čajkovskij, Čajkovski.

  30. @ Fred:
    I don’t recall the author/compiler’s name. All I remember is that both volumes were pale blue or light grey.
    In searching for information about the dictionary, I came across this site, which has available for free download some 250 Hungarian-X bilingual dictionaries, including Hungarian-Cornish and Hungarian-Zulu. Don’t leave home without them!

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  32. What the hell!
    What was he thinking?
    Spent his whole life writing a
    Yiddish-Japanese dictionary:
    Twenty-eight thousand entries,
    Sixty thousand yen,

  33. Grumbly: You are basically re-creating Google Translate, but it’s well-known that loops of the kind you describe are often drowned in semantic noise. See “Translation Party”, especially the comments. The website is now offline, because the Google Translate API is no longer available for free, but you can do it yourself by cutting and pasting, as I have just done. Still, things have improved since 2009:
    Where one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence.
    Where one can not speak, who may need to leave this.
    Where one can not speak, who may have to leave this.
    Where one can not speak, one must leave this.
    Where one can not speak, one must pass over in silence.
    And here we are again! Compare how bad things looked back in the day.

  34. rootlesscosmo, you are off by more than a factor of 2. If there are 6909 languages, then there are 6909 x 6908 / 2 = 23863686 possible bilingual dictionaries. A much more reasonable number to aim for, I think you’ll agree.

  35. TonyK: I briefly considered jumping on rootlesscosmo’s case because of the factor of 2. But since he doesn’t actually say “bilingual” dictionaries, I figured I didn’t have a case either.
    His dictionaries are unidirectional – not unusual when you’re dealing with Xhosa and Estonian, I daresay, because the culturofinancial substructures of these languages are so different. There might be Estonian-speaking linguists who want help in understanding Xhosa, but probably no Xhosa linguists who want to read an Estonian newspaper. The market doesn’t justify a bidirectional Xhosa-Estonian dictionary.

  36. The Japanese make fantastic dictionaries. It’s their attention to detail. My Kenkyusha Russo-Japanese dictionary is far better than any other Russian dictionary I have.
    There doesn’t have to be a target audience for this kind of thing. The Japanese have a desire for completeness. That’s why you can find, for example, the entire corpus of Christian theological writing translated into Japanese, with an extensive critical apparatus attached. (Here’s a collection of the early Scholastic writings, for example.)
    My Dictionary of Islam is the most complete such work I know of in a single volume: it has entries covering everything from Plotinian emanationism, the Liber de Causis, and material (hayula; madda) (in the Aristotelian sense) to Jet Airplane (because of the effect of air travel on pilgrimages) and the Ba’ath Party, not to mention the fullest treatment of Chinese Islam I’ve ever seen.
    The woman who wrote the only Japanese Basque textbook I know of, Hiromi Yoshida, mastered the language to such a high level of proficiency that she is now translating Mishima into Basque. (That’s the entirety of Arratsaldeko Atoiontzia, aka 午後の曳航 (“Afternoon Towing”), aka The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.)

  37. Stefan Pugh says

    Re the existence of Hungarian-Mongolian dictionaries: no surprise there to a linguist, since for a long time there was thought to be a genetic relationship between Uralic (here represented by Hungarian) and Altaic (here: Mongolian, with Turkic et al. in between).

  38. John Emerson says

    On Birobidzhan and Yiddish Japanese dictionaries:
    Birobidzhan is in the middle of nowhere, quite a ways inland north of China, west of Khabarovsk, and 1500 miles south of Yakutsk, which might be the coldest city in the world.
    Between Yakutsk and Birobidzhan there’s apparently almost nothing, except for Chegdomyn (pop 14,000) ~500 miles borth.
    Birobidzhan is expected to fall below -25 F. every day this week except two.
    [Also posted on wrong thread above]

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, the longitude of Birobidzhan would seem to be supporting evidence for classifying Yiddish as “Oriental” . . . There were some substantial number of Yiddish speakers in Manchuria in the ’30’s (100,000 Jews in Harbin says a probably unreliable internet source that was the first one I clicked through to; 15,000 to 20,000 says a more plausible-seeming second one), which would perhaps have been a more likely place for interaction with Japanese speakers before WW2 was fully up and running (I know a Jewish lady now living in California who was a little girl in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, although I suspect her family may have been so assimilated into Weimar society that they spoke only proper Hochdeutsch and had no Yiddish). Not that any such historical connection is actually necessary to justify this awesome/wacky project . . .

  40. Incidentally, Adolf, about a Jewish boy growing up in Kobe during WWII, is a great read.
    (It’s one of two manga series I’ve enjoyed, so please don’t mistake me for some manga-fanatic. Blech.)

  41. The woman who wrote the only Japanese Basque textbook I know of, Hiromi Yoshida, mastered the language to such a high level of proficiency that she is now translating Mishima into Basque. (That’s the entirety of Arratsaldeko Atoiontzia, aka 午後の曳航 (“Afternoon Towing”), aka The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.)
    I love stories like that. Your whole comment is eye-opening and makes me wish I’d learned Japanese.

  42. Never too late!

  43. I checked to see if the dictionary is still available, and Japanese Amazon has it for ¥80,550 (currently $587.33).

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