11 Years in 11 Weeks!

Our wonderful summer interns, Emilie Amar-Zifkin and Rachel Wetter, continue their conversation about translating an Eldridge Street Synagogue minute book that is written in a maddening mix of Yiddish, Hebrew, German, English and Yinglish. We are amazed and completely delighted that they have gotten through an entire volume — 11 years of meetings in just 11 weeks!

What’s your process for doing the translations?

Emilie: We weren’t even sure if we were going to be able to translate anything at first. We had to look at the language being used, as well as the handwriting, and luckily the recording secretary’s handwriting is generally pretty legible.

Rachel: The first couple of passages were difficult because there were many abbreviations and things that weren’t really words that were being used.

Emilie: Neither of us had experience with Yiddish in a business context, so we had to learn a lot of new vocabulary like income and expenses, proposal, etc. Eventually we realized that certain word combinations and formats appeared over and over again so we checked the work of the previous translators to get an accurate translation and went from there.

Rachel: The typical process begins with gathering our dictionaries. We have two Yiddish dictionaries, one German dictionary, and one Hebrew dictionary. And we use them all! We often read the entries out loud, especially when we run into unfamiliar words.

Emilie: Sometimes, after reading an unfamiliar word out loud a couple of times we’ll realize the word is actually English, transliterated in Yiddish characters, which is frustrating but hilarious.

Rachel: “Apontet, apuntet, apoyntet… appointed!” Sometimes we’ll even look up the word in the Yiddish dictionary, find a translation, and when translation doesn’t make sense we finally realize that it is actually an English word.

Emilie: It’s always a victory to get to the secretary’s “With that, the meeting is adjourned.”

What’s it like working together?

Rachel: It has been very helpful to work with Emilie. I would have given up early on had I not had anyone to bounce ideas off, just having somebody to talk with and read it out loud with was incredibly helpful.

Emilie: We both learned Yiddish in different ways, so sometimes I know something she doesn’t and she knows something I don’t because of the different ways we were taught Yiddish. Having a working knowledge of Hebrew has also been helpful.

Can you describe the linguistic peculiarities you’ve discovered?

Emilie and Rachel: Dealing with Moishe Groob’s [the congregation’s secretary who wrote the minutes] Yiddish has been really interesting. Whenever matters of Jewish or ceremonial importance come up, a lot of Hebrew words suddenly come up: grave records, Jewish holidays and abbreviations meaning “may they rest in peace” or “heaven protect them” become very common. Oddly enough, German words pop up in the more business-like matters, even though the congregation was almost entirely made up of Eastern European Jews. Using German words in the context of membership dues, income and expenditures may have been a way of sounding a bit classier, a bit more formal. And of course, there’s the “Yinglish”. Everything from “vice-president” to “Mister” to the word “Eldridge” are written out in Yiddish characters, even though they’re obviously English words. He even abbreviates “New York” as NY and “Street” as St., using Yiddish characters, which was something that took us a bit of sounding out before we understood what Moishe Groob was doing!

How do you feel about coming to the end of the project?

Rachel: Victorious but also sad. It is affecting to see the decline of the congregation reflected in the minutes, the entries getting shorter and shorter, then meetings getting less and less frequent, and Moishe Groob’s handwriting getting more and more shaky!

Emilie: It was very exciting to finally finish translating all 11 years of the minutes in the book we were working on, even if it meant that we watched the congregation dwindle and finally taper off to not holding board meetings. The fact that a small congregation still exists here at Eldridge Street is an even more amazing fact in light of that. And of course, finishing these minutes isn’t goodbye: we just discovered that the previous translators left 1934 through 1942 untranslated, so I’ll be back!

Categories: Historic Preservation, Lower East Side

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