English-Yiddish Dictionary Breathes New Life Into a Historic Language

Flip through the Modern English-Yiddish/Yiddish-English Dictionary, published by Uriel Weinreich in 1968, and you’ll notice it’s missing plenty of now-ubiquitous words. You won’t find “email” or “texting,” of course, and certainly not “transgender.” To update a historic tongue for modern speakers, The Times of Israel reports two language lovers have created a new translation resource for all things Yiddish.

Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Dr. Paul Glasser teamed up with Indiana University Press and the League for Yiddish to publish the Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary. With 50,000 entries and 33,000 sub-entries, it’s more than twice the length of Weinreich’s dictionary. Even more importantly, it's the first work in 50 years to breathe new life into a language that experts believe to be around 1100 years old.

Schaechter-Viswanath, a poet and editor, and Glasser, a former dean of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, contributed words to the dictionary, as did their Yiddish-speaking colleagues. The two also relied heavily on notes compiled by Schaechter-Viswanath’s father—noted Yiddish linguist Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter—and borrowed phrases from an old Yiddish thesaurus, European reference books, and French and Russian-Yiddish dictionaries.

As for the dictionary’s brand-new entries, the editors combined already existing Yiddish words into compound words, or canonized unofficial words or slang used among Jews today. For example, email is blitspost, binge watch is shlingen epizodn—literally translated to “wolf down episodes”—and flip-flops is fingershikh, or finger-shoes.

The 2010 census found that only 154,433 Americans still speak Yiddish at home. Still, the dictionary's initial sales look promising: 1200 copies were published in June, and have since sold out. Another 1000 are currently in the works.

For Schaechter-Viswanath, the work was a labor of love. “I did it for my children, my grandson, my colleagues in the Yiddish world, and myself,” she told The Times of Israel. “Most of all, I did it for my father.”

According to The New York Times, the dictionary’s debut will be officially celebrated at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan on November 13. (Fittingly, the event’s keynote speech and a panel discussion among the dictionary’s editors will be offered in both English and Yiddish.) Tickets are free, and available online.

[h/t The Times of Israel]

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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The Internet Archive is Making 62 Obscure, Out-of-Print Books Available Online
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Dozens of of obscure, out-of-print books are about to become much more accessible thanks to the Internet Archive, the digital archive of public domain media. But to do it, they’ll have to exploit a loophole in a controversial copyright law, as Ars Technica reports.

The Internet Archive is releasing the Sonny Bono Memorial Collection, a group of books from the 1920s and 1930s that are out of print, but still technically under copyright—meaning they’re extremely difficult to get a hold of.

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was a copyright extension law passed in 1998 to extend copyright protections to works published after 1923 (which would otherwise have already entered the public domain) by 20 years. Unfortunately, while Disney may be happy that Mickey Mouse still falls under copyright protections, that also means that less-famous books that are now out of print can’t be made available to the public. But a provision of the law provides for public access for research, allowing nonprofit libraries to distribute the works if they cannot be found elsewhere for a reasonable price.

A screenshot of an online collection of books from the Internet Archive
Screenshot, Internet Archive

The Internet Archive explains:

We believe the works in this collection are eligible for free public access under 17 U.S.C. Section 108(h) which allows for non-profit libraries and archives to reproduce, distribute, display, and publicly perform a work if it meets the criteria of: a published work in the last 20 years of copyright, and after conducting a reasonable investigation, no commercial exploitation or copy at a reasonable price could be found.

Libraries don’t tend to take advantage of the law because it takes considerable resources to track down which works are eligible. However, the Internet Archive collaborated with Elizabeth Townsend Gard, a Tulane copyright expert, and a pair of interns to find books that could be scanned and uploaded online legally. Gard has released guidelines for libraries based on this work to help other archives do the same.

The Internet Archive is starting out with 62 books published between 1923 and 1941 (meaning they’re within 20 years of their copyright expiring) and plan to release up to 10,000 more in the near future to be downloaded and read by online users. And the collection will grow each January as more books enter that 20-year window.

[h/t Ars Technica]


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