Free Yiddish Translations: Who Pays?

free yiddish translation
Grandma Malka's Yiddish letters are a precious inheritance for her descendents

Will you give me a free Yiddish translation?

This is one of the most frequently asked question that I get on this site.

My answer is: a competent Yiddish translator costs money.

Some people feel that I have a sacred duty to Jewish history translate their old Yiddish documents for free, while others wish they could pay, but simply don’t have the cash.

Both these groups tell me that they plan to find some amateur Yiddishists or someone from the Old Folks Home to translate their documents for free.

To them I say: “Good luck and Gezunteheit!”

Free Yiddish Translation: The Reality

Not everyone understands that translating old Yiddish documents is time-consuming and hard work. They don’t acknowledge that it is a rare skill that must be cultivated with study and practice. For this reason, most native speakers cannot read old Yiddish letters and will not be able to translate them properly.

But don’t take my word for it – I’m running in business, after all. Take the advice of the folks at They are a non-profit body with extensive experience in managing translations and they firmly recommend paying a professional, rather than looking for volunteers, as noted in this article:

Having become frustrated with the task of organizing volunteers to do translations, many people want a different approach. Typical problems are:

People volunteer to do work and then find many distractions which interfere with the task.

Problem: can’t meet any deadlines.

Volunteers have varying capabilities with the original language (Hebrew, Yiddish) and also with English. If their skills with the original language are poor, there will be many blank spaces and/or question marks to indicate untranslatable words or phrases. If their skills with English are poor, then the translation is not readable.

Problem: the quality of the translation is poor and the coordinator may have to do considerable editing and/or rewriting or ask someone else to work on the same passage.

Or, not wanting to hurt the volunteer’s feelings, the coordinator transmits the poor translation to the Translations Manager, perhaps knowing that the Manager will reject it. Thus, the coordinator can pass the responsibility of rejecting a translation to the Yizkor Book Project and be absolved of the unenviable task of relaying the truth.

Problem: The Translations Manager has to read the translation, determine if it can be salvaged, spend time trying to rewrite it or returning it to the coordinator. In such a scenario no one’s time is used productively and often the frustration level of the coordinator rises to the point that he/she wants to resign from this position.

Our conclusion is that working with volunteer translators – although less expensive than paying a translator – can be unnerving, frustrating, and unproductive. Sometimes we allow a poor quality translation to get online because we don’t want to hurt the translator’s feelings and because the amount of good may outweigh the bad. Then we receive private emails castigating us for not upholding certain standards…

If there is a group of volunteers more devoted to preserving Jewish history and translating historical documents than JewishGen, I am not aware of it. So I think you can trust their advice on this point.

Real Yiddish Translation costs money.

How to Find Affordable Translations

If you are like most people looking for Yiddish translations, you are doing it for personal and not business reasons. All the money comes out of your own pocket, so you are naturally going to be careful to get the best value. Over time I’ve found ways to help you keep it affordable.

Here are a few tips that will help you keep costs down if you are on a budget:

  1. Send a high-quality color scan: If you have an old handwritten Yiddish document, I need to see it before I can give you a quote. That’s because old Yiddish handwriting can be difficult to decipher or the document might be damaged, smudged, torn, etc. If your document is very hard to read, then it is extra time-consuming to translate it and it therefore cost more money. In many cases, a high-quality color scan solves some of the problems of illegibility. This means is that it will cost less!
  2. Start small: If you have 100 pages of letters, you may hesitate at the cost of translating them all at once. In that case, start by sending me a few letters. Reading your first translations will help you determine if it’s worthwhile to continue.
  3. Fund-raise from Relatives: If you are translating old family letters, chances are there will be other members of your family who will want to read the translations. Let them know that the letters will probably never be translated… unless they give their share. If you can split the cost two, three and four ways, it becomes very affordable.
  4. Ask for a Basic Translation: We offer a unique service, called basic translations, which means that we create a very literal translation, without editing or background research. This translation will not be so fun to read, but it’s fine if all you need is to extract genealogical information from the document: e.g. names, dates, places, etc. It is about 30% cheaper than a regular professional translation.

Remember: I’m giving you more than just a bunch of words typed on a page. It’s your family story, it’s a profound journey into your own history. Just read these testimonials to see what I mean.

As one woman wrote:

Naomi’s deft and thoughtful translations of old family letters, despite their profound sadness, gave powerful insight to my family struggles. Naomi was extraordinarily conscientious in her translations while, at the same time, very sensitive to my reaction following a reading of them. After a lifetime of these letters gathering dust in the closet, in less than a week Naomi has begun to remove the shroud that has concealed my family’s past. Absolutely priceless.

For something that’s priceless, I think our prices are pretty low :).

How do you feel about paying for Yiddish translation services?

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