Yiddish Handwriting – Why is it so hard to read?

yiddish handwritingOne 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!

14 thoughts on “Yiddish Handwriting – Why is it so hard to read?

  1. I have several letters written by hand in Yiddish to my grandmother in USA from her brother in Ratno, Poland in 1930’s, until they stopped arriving. I’d like to get them translated. I live in Los Angeles area (Sherman Oaks, CA.)
    Samuel Veta
    Sherman Oaks,CA

  2. I have old photos that I would love to have translated. Most are in yiddish script, but some may be in Russian/Ukrainian. What do you charge to translate Yiddish photos and letters? Also, do you know anyone who can help me with the other photos?

    Many thanks,

  3. I am looking for a translator to work on translating Yiddish script of one hundred years ago to English. These are family documents, letters, postcards, etc. Thank you. Please let me know about the services you provide and your schedule of fees.

    1. Hi Basya,
      Thanks for contacting Yiddish Translation.
      I’ll be happy to help you with the translation of these documents. The first step is for me to see the docs so that I can determine if they are properly legible.
      After that I will send you a quote for the translation.
      Please send me good-quality color scans of a few of the documents and I’ll let you know what I think.
      Looking forward!

  4. Hello,

    I have a family praye book with some Yiddish written in the front that I can’t read. Can you help me?

  5. I have some old photos with yiddish written on the back. These were written in the 1940s or 50s. Can you help with the translation? What do you charge?

  6. I have three short letters written in (I think) Yiddish. I think these were to my grandmother in the 1920s. Would you be willing to look at them and give me an idea of translation costs?

  7. So happy to have found you! I have two handwritten letters, one from 1922 and the other from 1934 from written by relatives in Russia to my family in Los Angeles. I would love get them translated. Please contact me.

    Thank you!
    Cita Trueblood

  8. I just had a translation done by Lena of a long note that completely covered the back of a 8″x10″ photograph. We now think that this family photo probably dates to about 1910, and the back is covered from edge to edge with sprawling Yiddish script… including smeared areas that proved very difficult to read. Lena took it on and cracked the code in spectacular fashion. It wasn’t a laundry list (as I feared) but a wonderful snap-shot of the family and its condition in Omsk, Russia at that time. I couldn’t have asked for a more professional translation (complete with some of her own interpretations of what it all might mean)! I’m very lucky to have found you folks.

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