'Harry Potter' series receives official Yiddish translation

Translated by an Indian-American Orthodox Jew and published in Sweden, the story behind the translation is fascinating in its own right

The books in the 'Harry Potter' series. (photo credit: FLICKR/LOZIKIKI)
The books in the 'Harry Potter' series.
(photo credit: FLICKR/LOZIKIKI)
More than two decades after captivating readers all over the world and being translated into over 80 languages, the world of Harry Potter will now be available in Yiddish.
The books of the Harry Potter series are some of the most popular in history, and have been translated into languages from Spanish and Greek to less common languages like Faroese and Occitan. As such, a Yiddish translation isn’t so unbelievable.
According to the Tablet, in October 2018, Neil Blair, author J.K. Rowling’s agent, received an inquiry from someone wishing to translate the first book in the series – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – to Yiddish. The translator in question was Arun “Arele” Schaechter Viswanath, an Indian-American Orthodox Jew and a member of the prominent Schaechter family of Yiddish scholars.
However, before Blair could approve it, he found out that the rights to a Yiddish translation were already given to a Swedish publisher, Olniansky Tekst Farlag.
As surprising as this might seem, there is precedence for this. Yiddish has been an official minority language in Sweden since 1999, and government legislation and funds have ensured that there are translations into all of Sweden’s officially recognized minority languages.
The founder and owner of Olniansky Tekst Farlag, Nikolaj Olniansky, is also active in the Yiddish world, being the founder of the Yiddish heavy metal band Dibbukim.
His company would later print a Yiddish translation of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Blair put Viswanath in touch with Olniansky, but then discovered that the Swedish publisher already had a translator working on the book. However, after both translations were reviewed by the Swedish Institute for Language and Folklore’s Yiddish expert Jean Hessel, and Israel-based Yiddish postmodern novelist Mikhoel Felsenbaum, Viswanath’s translation was chosen.
As is often the case, though, names do not always translate well into other languages.
This is something many translators of the Harry Potter series tried to find ways around. For instance, the character of Severus Snape was named “Rogue” in the French translation, and Hogwarts was translated as “Poudlard.”
Despite not using any Yiddish terminology in the series, English, like Yiddish, is a Germanic language with many similarities, which made some translations easier. However, Viswanath confirmed to The Jerusalem Post that the surname of the character Neville Longbottom will not be translated as “Longtuchus,” despite initial reports to the contrary.
His greatest name-translation challenge, however, comes in the second book, with the name Tom Marvolo Riddle being an anagram of “I Am Lord Voldemort,” a key plot point in the series that has frustrated several translations.
Even more challenging than names, however, is magical terminology, something that is a challenge in most fantasy translations.
For example, a notable element in the series is the game of Quidditch, a fictional sport where players fly on broomsticks and throw a ball through hoops to score points.
“I could’ve just called it Quidditch [in Yiddish transliteration], but meh, we could do better than that,” Viswanath told Tablet.
He remembered a saying [in Yiddish], “Az Got vil, sheest a bezem,” which means, “If God wants, a broom shoots,” and possibly refers to somebody who’s impotent, or maybe to a gun. This became the root of the Yiddish translation of Quidditch: “shees-bezem.”
While not wishing to change the Christian fantasy elements of the original story, Viswanath added several elements of Yiddish tradition.
“I recast some of the characters as certain Jewish archetypes purely on linguistic grounds,” he explained to Tablet. “I turned Dumbledore into this very lomdish [Jewishly learned] guy who speaks with a lot of loshen koydesh [Hebrew and rabbinic phrases]... McGonagall and Snape, and especially [Argus] Filch, speak in a particularly Litvish [Lithuanian] register, so you can sort of really hear their dialect. The same thing with [Rubeus] Hagrid, who speaks with a very deep back-country Polish register.”
The book, which will be called Harry Potter un der Filosofisher Shteyn, took more than a year to translate and is now available for pre-order, though it is limited to 1,000 first edition copies. Viswanath has already started work on the sequel.