The Trou­ble With Trans­la­tion

Forward Magazine - - & - WORLD OF WORDS BY AVIYA KUSH­NER

As de­fined by Mer­riam-Web­ster’s, “translit­er­a­tion” means “to rep­re­sent or spell in the char­ac­ters of an­other al­pha­bet.” And, one un­ex­pected as­pect of writ­ing about lan­guage is learn­ing how many peo­ple around the world turn out to be pas­sion­ately con­cerned with translit­er­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, I have re­ceived nu­mer­ous mis­sives on the spell­ing of

ma­maloshn, or “mother tongue” in Yid­dish. A word to the wise: Don’t even try ma­maloshen, which one cor­re­spon­dent called “bas­tardized.”

I have also no­ticed that the con­cern with translit­er­a­tion is not lim­ited to adults.

Chil­dren, the ul­ti­mate lan­guage-learn­ers, are on high alert to the oc­ca­sional need to leave a lan­guage as is. My niece, at age three, was able to ex­plain, with in­to­na­tion, the diŒffer­ence be­tween oy vey and the much flat­ter oh no.

She in­tu­itively un­der­stood that some­times you just have to translit­er­ate, as op­posed to trans­late.

“One cat­e­gory of words for which I do this is those that get drained of all their Jewish fla­vor when trans­lated,” ex­plained Joel Berkowitz, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Jewish Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Mil­wau­kee and a trans­la­tor of Yid­dish plays, when I asked him about translit­er­a­tion.

“DiŒffer­ent trans­la­tors will draw that line at diŒffer­ent places, but for me, it would feel very odd to have a char­ac­ter in a play re­fer to his ‘phy­lac­ter­ies’ rather than tefillin, for which, by the way, you may have no­ticed that I just used a com­mon Ro­man­ized spell­ing rather than what YIVO [In­sti­tute for Jewish Re­search] would pre­scribe, or in­stead of a mezuze or mezuza, a — what would you say, ac­tu­ally?” Berkowitz asked. Good point.

“A parch­ment con­tain­ing verses from Deuteron­omy in­serted into a dec­o­ra­tive case that is then a…xed to one’s door­post?” Berkowitz con­tin­ued. “Some­times it’s best just to stick with the orig­i­nal word and pro­vide some sort of ex­plana­tory note for the reader.”

But stick­ing with the orig­i­nal word car­ries its own risks, in all lan­guages. To ad­dress them, The Univer­sity of Illi­nois li­brary sys­tem drafted an ar­ti­cle on “Translit­er­a­tion Woes,” lament­ing the di…ffi­culty of re­search­ing Dos­to­evsky be­cause of var­i­ous spellings of the man’s name.

The li­brary oŒers an ex­am­ple of a scholar try­ing to re­search “Dos­to­evsky and epilepsy”: Topic = (dos­toyevsky) AND Topic = (epilepsy) -> 7 —re­sults Topic = (dos­to­evsky) AND Topic = (epilepsy) -> 33˜˜ re­sults

Topic = (dos­to­evskii) AND Topic = (epilepsy) -> ™ 6 re­sults

And the li­brary even oŒers a moral, which seems apt for Dos­to­evsky.

“The moral of this story — if you are not get­ting any re­sults on a search where you re­ally be­lieve you should find some lit­er­a­ture, try diŒffer­ent search terms or diŒffer­ent translit­er­a­tion.”

Maybe the moral of the story is that we should try and un­der­stand the oc­ca­sions when peo­ple translit­er­ate in the first place.

“The ob­vi­ous translit­er­a­tions are proper nouns — names of char­ac­ters, which can some­times be tricky in English, and names of places, which are al­most al­ways tricky in English,” said Jes­sica Co­hen, who shared the Man Booker In­ter­na­tional Prize with David Gross­man for her trans­la­tion of his “A Horse Walks Into a Bar.”

“Oc­ca­sion­ally there might be other words I choose to translit­er­ate, like spe­cific Is­raeli cul­tural con­cepts that have no equiv­a­lent in English,” Co­hen said. “I do this more in non­fic­tion than in fic­tion, and I tend to keep words in translit­er­a­tion — some­times in ad­di­tion to a trans­la­tion — when there is a lin­guis­tic point to be made.

“For ex­am­ple, in Amos Oz’s lat­est col­lec­tion of es­says, which will be out in the U.S. next month, there is this pas­sage: ‘More than three thou­sand years ago, there was a cul­ture here that saw fit to de­mand from the strong that they re­spect the weak. It de­manded not

My three- year-old niece in­tu­itively un­der­stood that some­times you just have to translit­er­ate, as op­posed to trans­late.

‘The ob­vi­ous translit­er­a­tions are proper nouns — names of char­ac­ters, which can some­times be tricky in English.’

only char­ity ( tzedaka) but also jus­tice ( tzedek).’ The two words in He­brew, un­like in other lan­guages, are closely con­nected.”

There are o›cial translit­er­a­tion rules in many lan­guages. In Yid­dish, the rules come from YIVO, and in He­brew, the Acad­emy of He­brew Lan­guage has five pages of guide­lines. The Li­brary of Congress also oœers a Ro­man­iza­tion ta­ble for He­braic lan­guages.

But that doesn’t mean the rules are fol­lowed by all.

“Yes, there are def­i­nitely rules, and I mostly ig­nore them,” Co­hen said. “I go with what seems right to me, try­ing to translit­er­ate in a way that would help an English reader (who doesn’t know He­brew) pro­nounce the word cor­rectly, or as close as pos­si­ble to that.”

Co­hen doesn’t worry about it too much, be­cause the fi­nal de­ci­sions are made by an ed­i­tor fol­low­ing a par­tic­u­lar style guide.

Bar­bara Har­shav, the He­brew and Yid­dish trans­la­tor who was hon­ored with the pres­ti­gious PEN/Ralph Man­heim Medal for Trans­la­tion for life­time achieve­ment in trans­la­tion this year, also goes with what sounds right to her: “If I have to translit­er­ate — which I try to avoid as much as pos­si­ble — I just use what sounds right. But how do you spell Chanukah in English? Hanukkah?”

Har­shav added this par­en­thet­i­cal: (“What other ex­am­ple of kk is there?”)

An ex­cel­lent point, I re­al­ize as I brain­storm for other English words with “kk” twice. (Let’s not think about k three times any more than we have to, in this post-Char­lottesville world.) And translit­er­at­ing into English also in­volves Amer­i­can ver­sus United King­dom us­age.

“In ‘The Loves of Ju­dith,’ the sec­ond Meir Shalev book I trans­lated, one of the char­ac­ters uses the Yid­dish word farkakte, which I left in Yid­dish and spelled pho­net­i­cally,” Har­shav re­called.

“The Amer­i­can ed­i­tor had no prob­lem with it; but the Bri­tish ed­i­tor ob­jected that a U.K. reader was likely to pro­nounce it as ‘far-cake-tee.’ Shalev ar­gued to leave it as is and let the Brits pro­nounce it any way they like.

“As I look at it now, I would prob­a­bly spell it ‘farkahk­teh.’”

If the U.S.-U.K. di­vide isn’t enough, aca­demics both fol­low and break the rules.

“Most aca­demics — and some oth­ers when they ask an aca­demic — fol­low YIVO guide­lines,” Berkowitz ex­plained. “How­ever — what fun would this be with­out a “how­ever,” right? — al­most every scholar I know who works with Yid­dish translit­er­a­tion makes some ex­cep­tions to the YIVO stan­dards, pri­mar­ily for proper names of peo­ple and places, as well as some other words for which there is a com­monly ac­cepted Ro­man­ized spell­ing. For ex­am­ple, if you fol­low YIVO or­thog­ra­phy re­li­giously, you would write, say, Moris Sh­varts in­stead of Mau­rice

Schwartz. Given that Schwartz him­self used the lat­ter spell­ing when he wrote his name in English, most peo­ple will al­low them­selves a slight de­par­ture from the ‘rules’ in the name of user­friend­li­ness and com­mon sense.”

There also may be some ten­sion be­tween aca­demic and nonaca­demic ap­proaches to translit­er­a­tion — or be­tween what Berkowitz called “peo­ple who care about a mean­ing­ful and con­sis­tent sys­tem of trans­mit­ting words from one al­pha­bet to an­other” and a more what-feels-right process.

This is where spell­ing can mean much more than spell­ing, and when it some­times can be un­der­stood as part of a larger at­ti­tude to­ward a lan­guage.

Berkowitz and his col­leagues “con­stantly bump up against a pro­nounced flip­pancy about Yid­dish that I’d say not only bor­ders on con­tempt, but even crosses that bor­der — for ex­am­ple, the wide­spread per­cep­tion that Yid­dish is a par­tic­u­larly funny lan­guage rather than one that em­braces the same broad and nu­anced spec­trum of feel­ings and ideas that one can find in any lan­guage.

“Per­haps that phe­nom­e­non makes those of us who take Yid­dish se­ri­ously par­tic­u­larly pro­tec­tive and our con­cern with proper translit­er­a­tion may be one of the re­sults of that pro­tec­tive­ness.”

Translit­er­a­tion can also be es­pe­cially prob­lem­atic in the case of mul­ti­lin­gual writ­ers, and writ­ers who mix lan­guages.

“A Bos­nian col­league and I are trans­lat­ing a story col­lec­tion by a Bos­nian writer, Mil­jenko Jer­govic, in which the writer uses Bos­nian-Turk­ish words, like aršija, or dže­hen­nem, or džen­net, which have Ara­bic and Turk­ish equiv­a­lents,” said Ellen EliasBur­sac, a well-known trans­la­tor of Bos­nian, Croa­t­ian and Ser­bian.

Džen­net means “heaven,” dže­hen­nem means “hell,” and aršija means many things: street, town, vil­lage, com­mu­nity, neigh­bor­hood, so­ci­ety, Elias-Bur­sac ex­plained. “While some words, like sheikh or madrasah, have en­tered into English and can be treated as English words, these oth­ers aren’t known out­side the Ara­bic-Per­sianTur­kic Mid­dle East,” she said. “We were torn, be­cause dže­hen­nem [hell] is much bet­ter known in the typ­i­cal Ara­bic translit­er­a­tion, ja­han­nam, and, the same with džen­net: Jan­nah. aršija comes from Per­sian (carsu) through Turk­ish: ( çarsı). Some­times the choice to leave a word in its orig­i­nal form ac­knowl­edges a word’s cul­tural power. “We fi­nally set­tled on giv­ing the words in their Bos­nian spell­ing with a glos­sary.”

There is also an homage fac­tor in translit­er­a­tion. Some­times the choice to leave a word in its orig­i­nal form ac­knowl­edges a word’s cul­tural power.

“I think we tend to translit­er­ate when a word is a cul­tural marker, in def­er­ence to its cul­tural speci­ficity,” said Aron Aji, the award-win­ning Turk­ish trans­la­tor and di­rec­tor of the Master of Fine Arts pro­gram in lit­er­ary trans­la­tion at The Univer­sity of Iowa. “But, again, is this a for­eigniz­ing or a do­mes­ti­cat­ing ges­ture? One rule I have is to al­ways trans­late or gloss terms that can­not a¡ord se­man­tic slip­page. ‘Ji­had‘ is such a word.”

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to con­sider that our sense of ji­had comes from a re­peated de­ci­sion to translit­er­ate in­stead of trans­late.

Per­haps what is truly at stake in translit­er­a­tion is lay­ers of mean­ing. It’s not just about a word’s def­i­ni­tion and its cul­tural con­text, but its look and its sound. This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant in the­ater — where it ab­so­lutely has to sound right.

The “small­est and most com­mon words and ex­pres­sions in Yid­dish” can be trick­i­est in English, Berkowitz noted.

“When we pre­pared our an­thol­ogy ‘Land­mark Yid­dish Plays,’ Jeremy Dauber and I had count­less con­ver­sa­tions about what to do with a word like “Nu?” he said. “That short word not only means di¡er­ent things at di¡er­ent times, but there are di¡er­ent im­pli­ca­tions to whether you have a char­ac­ter ask ‘Well?’ or ‘So?’” Berkowitz con­tin­ued, “or whether you leave it as ‘Nu?’ And you might go to bed hav­ing made one of those choices, only to wake up the next morn­ing and won­der whether you got it com­pletely wrong. Oy vey in­deed.” Cer­tainly not oh no.

Nu, my lit­tle niece was on to some­thing, wasn’t she?

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to con­sider that our sense of ji­had comes from a re­peated de­ci­sion to translit­er­ate in­stead of trans­late.


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