Yiddish-speaking wizards and dragons invade the Shire in ‘Der Hobit’

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tags: Judaism, The Hobbit, Yiddish language, translations, J.R.R. Tolkien



For one of his first translation projects after his retirement, Barry Goldstein, a former computer programmer, found an empty table at his local Starbucks in Boston and settled in to work on the “Treebeard” chapter from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But Goldstein soon realized that he needed something more sizable to occupy his time: 95,022 words later, he had translated the entire text of The Hobbit, the prequel to the Ring series, into Yiddish.

Only a little more than 130 copies of Goldstein’s translation have sold since it was released in December. But as Goldstein tells it, he always knew Der Hobit wouldn’t be a best-seller, and the sales were still double his original two-figure estimate.

In the heyday of Yiddish literature, the translation of literary classics into the mamaloshen was entirely commonplace. The prewar Yiddish readership is estimated at about 10 million—many of whom spoke Yiddish as their first language and had a rabid appetite for the classics of world literature. Some of the best-selling Yiddish adventure stories included gems like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Jack London’s Klondike series, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. “There was a sense that we had to catch Yiddish up with the world and modernism and that any important literary phenomenon that was taking place in the larger world had to be conveyed to the Yiddish-speaking world,” said Miriam Udel, a professor of Yiddish at Emory University. “The cultural ambitions of Ashkenazic Jewry were on the grandest scale, so they didn’t think of themselves as having a small or minority literature or a cultural complex.”...




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