The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is the most-translated book series of all time, having appeared in languages including Tamil, Ancient Greek, and Hawaiian. On March 1, 12 pm, Arun Viswanath will be in conversation with Benjamin Paloff of the University of Michigan. They will discuss the journey and challenge of translating Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone into Yiddish. His lecture is a part of the Frankel Institute 2020-2021 Theme Year, “Translating Jewish Cultures.”

Viswanath had done translation work in the past, but had never before translated literature and translating Harry Potter into Yiddish had unique challenges. He knew that no matter what choices he made in the translation, there would be critics. “Each genre has its quirks, I'm sure, but I don't think that Yiddish has ever confronted the ‘young adult fantasy’ genre the likes of Harry Potter,” he noted. “There was also a fair bit of work I had to do to develop a voice that fit Rowling's writing and narration style.”

Yiddish, like English, is a Germanic language, so many of the terms created by Rowling, like “Muggle” and “vingardium levisoa” felt at home in his translation, said Viswanath. However there were some terms specific to the world of Harry Potter that did need to be converted. For example, “Slytherin” which contains the ‘th’ sound that doesn’t exist in Yiddish, became “Samderin” which translates literally to “poison within” and “golden snitch” became “dos goldene flaterl” which translates as “the golden butterfly.”

The greatest challenge in translating the book was in adapting the story to be congruous with the Yiddish language. “As a Jewish language, Yiddish encodes Jewish concepts and culture into the language itself. In many ways it presupposes a certain worldview,” he stated. “But once you’re dealing with characters who are not Jewish or otherwise connected to Judaism, the Jewish-codedness of Yiddish can create some interesting pragmatic tension. So for me, the challenge was how to make this story, set very much in this classic Christian-European fantasy tradition with non-Jewish characters, seem at home in a language which is in many ways intrinsically linked with Jewish culture, history, and religion, without actually ‘converting’ any of the characters to Judaism.”

He intends to continue to translate the Harry Potter series, and is also considering expanding into other young adult fantasy series. “There's something special for me personally about taking two things that I grew up with and combining them to create something new. It's given me a lot of nachas, a lot of joy, to see that this translation has a similar valence for others as well, even if they didn't grow up speaking Yiddish or don't speak Yiddish at all but still want to have it on their bookshelf.”


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