How Harry Potter and a writer of strange short stories are helping to keep Yiddish alive
An endangeredlanguage recently made headlines – twice – for two major literary events.
First, acclaimed (and, in this writer’s opinion, AMAZING) Israeli author Etgar Keret won a literary award that allowed him to choose a language to have his latest book translated into. He opted for Yiddish, even though he doesn’t speak it.
For Keret, whose work has been translated into 47 other languages, the choice of Yiddish was an homage to his ancestors, and a sign of appreciation for a “language of religion, doubt, displacement and comedy”.
Yiddish’s cultural and linguistic origins go back to at least the Middle Ages. While it’s generally considered a language in its own right, some classify it as a German dialect. Whatever the case, Yiddish literature has a rich history, and was once widely read. By the early 20thcentury, there were an estimated11 to 13 million speakers of Yiddish around the world. But this population was decimated by the Holocaust (85% of victims were Yiddish-speaking Jews), as well as integration into other global cultures.
Today, there are about 1 million speakers of Yiddish around the world. Many are students who want to learn a language once spoken fluently by their ancestors. Others, as this fascinating article reveals, feel different, often unique connections to it.
One thing students and native speakers of any language appreciate is a wide variety of literature they can learn from and enjoy. For many decades, Yiddish books were rare, having been destroyed or lost as speakers were killed or their families simply lost interest in keeping the tomes they’d acquired. Aaron Lansky’s memoir Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books is an astonishing look at the way many Yiddish books and other reading materials were recovered and saved, starting in the 1980’s.
Writers continue to publish in Yiddish today – or, like Keret, to have their works translated into it. In fact, another major Yiddish translation recently made the news: that of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Within 48 hours, the book sold out its first edition run.
This may seem slightly less impressive when you realize that only 1,000 books were printed. But as The Jerusalem Post’s Aaron Reich points out, few Yiddish books sell that many copies in a single year.
Popular books like Keret’s works and those in the Harry Potter series are great reading materiall for current Yiddish speakers, and may also motivate more people to learn the language, helping its survival and diversity.
Read on to learn more about the Yiddish translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg