One of the most challenging aspects of Yiddish translation is that the majority of the texts are handwritten. In other language pairs, many translators won’t even touch handwritten texts – they are too time-consuming and frustrating to decipher. But when working with Yiddish, handwriting is a translator’s bread and butter.
Yiddish is usually written using Hebrew characters, but while there are close to 10 million people in the world who can read Hebrew, most of those people can’t read old Yiddish handwriting. In fact, even people who grow up as fluent Yiddish speakers today, can’t read it. I know this because I’m regularly approached by mother-tongue Yiddish speakers who are interested in joining our translation team, but when I give them a moderately challenging hand-written Yiddish letter to translate as a sample, usually they can’t translate it simply because they can’t read it.
Why is old Yiddish Handwriting so hard to read?
Here are a few obvious reasons: writers were unschooled and had poor penmanship; there was no standardized spelling in Yiddish; writers crammed their words together to save on ink and paper; words from other languages were liberally mixed in, and other reasons. The fact that the docs are often faded, smudged or damaged certainly adds to the challenge!
But I think that the main problem is that Hebrew script in pre-war Europe just looked different than any Hebrew script we are are used to seeing today. Yiddish translators have to work hard to learn this way of writing, but once they’ve cracked the code they find that they can read most old hand-written Yiddish documents (though some only with great effort).
I once translated a biography of the 19th Jewish leader, Rabbi Yosef Haim of Baghdad (known as the Ben Ish Hai), from Hebrew to English. The Rabbi was a prolific writer in Hebrew and had many published works, as well as surviving handwritten manuscripts. The problem is that there is almost no one around that can read them, because his Hebrew script is of a kind that is never used anymore. In fact, when I first saw it I thought it was Arabic and couldn’t read a word. The same goes for Yiddish – even though I am constantly receiving and examining scans of old Yiddish handwriting, sometimes at first glance I still think I’m looking at Chinese. The script is almost unrecognizable!
Handwriting styles vary hugely from era to era and place to place. And this is the main reason, in my opinion, why Yiddish handwriting is so hard for most people to read.
If you need help deciphering some old Yiddish handwriting, contact me. I’ll be happy to help you out!