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World-View and Untranslatability (The Case of Yiddish)

Because of the deep historical and cultural connectedness between world-view and language in traditional societies, it has often been pointed out by anthropologists and linguists that words and phrases are not necessarily translatable from one language into another. Yiddish stands as a well-known exemplar of this situation, despite the steady penetration of Yiddish vocables into languages (like English or Russian) whose speakers include sizable Jewish segments.

It has been remarked that for Jews––and not only those from the ghetto––life consists of four elements, designated by the following Yiddish words (all derived from Hebrew originals): tsores (צרה) ‘troubles’, nakhes (מכּה) ‘pleasure, especially that of a parent from a child’, makes (מכות) ‘abcess; scourge, plague’, and yikhes (ייִחוס) ‘descent, lineage, pedigree’. Of these, perhaps the most familiar one to English speakers is tsores (also transliterated tsures and tsuris). But the translation ‘troubles’ cannot do justice to what the Yiddish word connotes in the Jewish worldview. Here is a piece of personal linguistic folklore that will illustrate this assertion.

A paternal distant cousin of Y-H-B known in the family only as “Uncle Misha” was routinely cited in the appropriate conversational context for his having excogitated the humorous rhyming couplet (a takeoff on Cicero), “[Latin] O tempora or mores/[Russian] O vremena, o tsores [О времена, о цорес].” The original has Cicero deploring the viciousness and corruption of his age, for which the literal translation is ‘oh what times!, oh what customs!’ The use of the Yiddish word tsores in Uncle Misha’s version immediately shifts the semantic dimension into the age-old experiential context of Eastern European Jewry, a world utterly incompatible with that of ancient Rome. (By the bye, this is the same Uncle Misha who made an appearance in an earlier post on the word continental, namely the picaresque personage who escaped death by firing squad in revolutionary Kiev, immigrated to Paris, and lived there into his hundreds as a wealthy arms dealer. Among his other (putative) witticisms was “Il y a une différance entre air et courant d’air.”)

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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