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by Harry Bochner
For over forty years, English-speaking students of Yiddish and Yiddish literature have relied on two dictionaries, Weinreich (1968) and Harkavy (1928).
Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary is the familiar standard, and not only because Weinreich was also the author of College Yiddish (1949), a textbook still in use today. His dictionary uses the modern standardized spelling, is systematic in conveying grammatical information, brings out many fine differences in meaning, and provides details of pronunciation when that isn’t clear from the Yiddish spelling. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Anyone attempting to read Yiddish literature with Weinreich in hand, however, quickly discovers that there are an awful lot of words that Weinreich doesn’t have. Sometimes this appears to stem from prudery, e.g. Weinreich omits the common everyday word “tokhes” (“ass”), but primarily it’s a matter of space: there’s only so much you can fit into the four hundred and twenty pages of his Yiddish-English section. (Weinreich intended to revise the dictionary periodically, but alas we’ll never know what he might have done: he died tragically young of cancer before the dictionary was published.)
Other drawbacks of Weinreich’s dictionary also have to do with saving space. The intermixing of right-to-left and left-to-right text, while a remarkable feat of typesetting, has confused generations of Yiddishists. The abbreviations are obscure: Many people have used the book for decades without knowing that a little diamond shape with a dot in it is Weinreich’s way of saying, “The past participle of this verb is formed regularly.” (Ordinary users simply don’t pore over the front matter the way Weinreich hoped they would.)
The other dictionary we’ve relied on is Alexander Harkavy’s Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary. This book was out of print for many years until YIVO reissued it in 1988. It has many words that Weinreich doesn’t include, but it lacks a lot of Weinreich’s other virtues: The spelling isn’t up to modern standards, there’s less grammatical information (e.g., the gender of nouns is rarely specified), and the English definitions are sometimes so dated that they’re incomprehensible to modern ears.
Other Yiddish-English dictionaries have come out since 1968, but they are smaller, targeting one segment or another of the less serious student market; they don’t extend what’s accessible. Fortunately, the work of advancing Yiddish lexicography has been picked up by Yitskhok Niborski and his colleagues at the Bibliothèque Medem in Paris. Their first contribution was published in 1997, a dictionary of loshn-koydesh, i.e., Hebrew and Aramaic words used in Yiddish. It’s a gold mine for the serious student, with definitions in Yiddish and, in many cases, literary citations; the recent revised third edition runs to over five hundred pages.
In 2002, Niborski, Bernard Vaisbrot and Simon Neuberg published their Dictionnaire yiddish-français, which brings Weinreich’s systematic approach to a larger lexical corpus. The total of thirty-seven thousand words tells only part of the story; it also has many more idioms and examples of usage than the previous dictionaries. In addition, it’s easier to use, with a clearer layout and fewer obscure symbols. The problem with this dictionary for English-speakers, of course, is that the definitions are in French.
My colleague Solon (Sholem) Beinfeld has known Niborski since he arrived at Medem from Argentina thirty years ago. He told Niborski that an English version would be warmly received; they just needed to find someone comfortable with Yiddish, English and French. Niborski’s suggestion was that Beinfeld undertake it himself.
It’s no small matter to translate a seven-hundred-page manuscript with no organizational support. But Beinfeld gradually built up a team, with me as the first recruit, wearing my hats as both a linguist and software engineer. Our task was tricky: Yes, we always had the French definition available, but translation is fraught with the risk of misinterpretation. Whenever an earlier English definition was already available, either from Harkavy or Weinreich, we needed to take them into consideration; whenever there was a conflict between the English and French definitions and whenever no previous English definition was available, we had to dig deeper to confirm our understanding of the Yiddish word.
The four volumes of the Groyser verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh, the unfinished, unabridged Yiddish-Yiddish dictionary by Judah Achilles Joffe, were invaluable for words beginning with alef, about 20 percent of the vocabulary. Nokhem Stutshkov’s thesaurus, Oytser fun der yidisher shprakh (1950), often helped confirm our understanding of a word. Dictionaries of Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and German played a role. And when a definition remained unclear, we needed to search out literary examples of the word used in context, to determine the actual usage.
We decided early on to adapt the old adage, “many hands make light work,” to “many eyes make fewer errors.” Each word and definition needed to be looked at several times, particularly since the various team members brought different linguistic skills to the project. In our first pass at translation, we had two translators, working independently, prepare separate definitions. These were reconciled by a third team member, using a home-grown file format that made it possible simultaneously to see the Yiddish, the French definition, and the two independent English translations, and to click a button to accept or edit them as needed. The results of this process were then reviewed again, so that each definition (out of fifty-three thousand total) was looked at at least four times by at least three different team members.
Michael Rosenbush and Ana Berman did a great deal of the initial translating, together with Beinfeld and associate editors Barry Goldstein and Yankl Salant. I and the other three editors carried out the review process. Our project manager, Elizabeth Kessin Berman, made it all possible by raising money, including a substantial grant from the Yiddish Forverts, which made working on the project possible for those of us not yet at retirement age.
The print version of the dictionary is scheduled for release in December by Indiana University Press, which has a strong Judaica catalog and a strong marketing tradition. In addition to the printed book, it has been our intention from the beginning to make the dictionary accessible online. We hope to have our website ready for the general public shortly after the print version is released. More information will be posted at Verterbukh.org when it is available.
In just one respect, the state of the Yiddish lexicography is still stuck in 1968: our work covers only Yiddish-English, and leaves English-Yiddish untouched. But fear not! The League for Yiddish is working on a new English-Yiddish dictionary, and we hope to see the results of their work in another couple of years.
Harry Bochner holds a Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics from Harvard, and, when not working on Yiddish dictionaries, makes his living as a computer programmer.