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Characters speak different dialects based on background

For young translator of sold-out ‘Harry Potter,’ Yiddish is truly his mamaloshen

How Arun Viswanath, the 29-year-old scion of a US literary dynasty, translated series opener ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ into the language of Sholem Aleichem is a story in itself

Yiddish linguist Arun Viswanath has brought the first of the Harry Potter series to speakers of the mamaloshen around the globe. (Courtesy)
Yiddish linguist Arun Viswanath has brought the first of the Harry Potter series to speakers of the mamaloshen around the globe. (Courtesy)

The worldwide bestseller “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” has been published in 80 languages, including Latin and Ancient Greek. In February, a Yiddish translation joined the mix — and sold out in 48 hours.

How the first book of the iconic J.K. Rowling series was translated into the language of Sholem Aleichem by Arun Viswanath, the 29-year-old scion of one of America’s greatest Yiddish dynasties, is a story in itself.

“I grew up with Yiddish as my first language,” Viswanath told The Times of Israel. “Although I spoke English essentially natively, I always wanted to experience the magical world of sorcery in a language that was close to my heart.”

Viswanath’s mother, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, is a Yiddish-language poet who created the 856-page “Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary.” Viswanath’s grandfather, Mordkhe Schaechter, was a leading Yiddish linguist who devoted his life to the propagation of the Yiddish language and its literature. And his Kerala, India-born polyglot father, Prof. P. V. Viswanath, met his mother at a Catskills Yiddishist retreat.

Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Viswanath spent many hours reading Yiddish stories, but could not find anything comparable to “Harry Potter.”

Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath holding her ‘Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary.’ (The Jewish Standard)

“I always imagined that it would be wonderful to have something like this in Yiddish. Four years ago my wife, who is a very big ‘Harry Potter’ fan, suddenly said during a discussion of our future, are you really planning on raising your children in a world without ‘Harry Potter’ in Yiddish?” Viswanath said. “That was really the reason why I started on the project immediately after the conversation. And I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.”

Viswanath’s day job is in business analytics. He started translating “Harry Potter” on nights and weekends without hope for much return on the time investment other than the experience gained in translation. In 2018, he sent a request for the publication of his translation to Rowling’s agency but received no response.

“I worked on this project for over a year without knowing whether it was going to be published,” Viswanath said. “Finally, I received an answer. They told me that they had given the rights to somebody else. It was like, we guess you will be very happy to hear that there will be a Yiddish ‘Harry Potter.’ But not yours!”

Viswanath subsequently sent an email to Nikolaj Olniansky, owner of the Yiddish publishing house Olniansky Tekst, which was preparing to release a translation of the title.

Olniansky, who is not only a publisher but also a vocalist for the heavy metal band Dibbukim, was extremely surprised to learn that not just one, but two Yiddish translations of “Harry Potter” were independently produced in the same year.

Eventually, Rowling’s agents asked Olniansky to choose between two translations. To do this, he called on the help of leading Yiddish experts from Sweden and Israel, who decided to go with Viswanath’s translation.

Hagrid speaks in a backcountry Polish-Yiddish dialect, Filch, Snape, and Minerva McGonagall speak in a particularly Lithuanian register, and Dumbledore’s speech is similar to the well-educated Torah scholar

Viswanath said that his process “was less about being creative and more about being flexible and figuring out how to translate the tone and sound of the original language correctly in Yiddish.”

“I had certain characters talk in ways that readers would recognize as being typical of certain regional dialects or social registers of Yiddish,” he said. “They may not be Jewish, but they talk like their Yiddish equivalents would. So Hagrid speaks in a backcountry Polish-Yiddish dialect, Filch, Snape, and Minerva McGonagall speak in a particularly Lithuanian register, and Dumbledore’s speech is similar to the well-educated Torah scholar.”

In an earlier interview with Potter fan site Mugglenet.com, Viswanath explained how he translated some of the choice terms. “‘Slytherin’ – which has both a ‘th’ sound that doesn’t exist in Yiddish and obviously references the English word ‘slither’ – became ‘Samderin,’ which literally means ‘poison within,’ he said.

“Golden [S]nitch,’ which to my Yiddish ear felt a bit harsh, became ‘dos goldene flaterl’ [‘the golden butterfly’], which I hoped would convey its airborne elegance. Butterflies also play a role in a lot of Yiddish folksongs I grew up with, so it felt appropriate in that sense as well,” he told Mugglenet.

It was also important to Viswanath to transfer the cultural references to Yiddish. For example, in the original, Uncle Vernon sings the popular song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” In Viswanath’s version, he chants a well-known Yiddish song.

Viswanath believes that Yiddish culture has long been ready for Western books such as “Harry Potter.”

There were sci-fi and fantasy Yiddish stories written in 1910 and 1920, long before ‘Lord of the Rings’

“Yiddish literature has been at the vanguard of many genres,” Visnawath said. “There were sci-fi and fantasy Yiddish stories written in 1910 and 1920, long before ‘Lord of the Rings.’ This literature has always been very advanced in that sense.”

“Many people perceive Yiddish culture as something old, sluggish, not ready to develop. Perhaps some of this may be related to the Hasidic community, but the Yiddishist community is very modern,” he said.

“Today Jews and non-Jews who are not familiar with Yiddish see Yiddish as basically Hasidim plus ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ But this is far from all that you need to know about Yiddish culture today,” he said.

Yiddish linguist Arun Viswanath is the 29-year-old scion of a Yiddish language dynasty in the US. (Courtesy)

Viswanath plans to translate the entire “Harry Potter” series.

“I have the rights to all of them. We will see if I have koah [strength] and time to do it. Of course, it will be a life project,” he said.

Viswanath is  currently translating “Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.” According to Olniansky, his publishing house will print the new edition as soon as it’s finished.

In the meantime, Olniansky Tekst is focused on selling the third printing of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” which was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to books about the wizard boy, Viswanath dreams of translating “The Chronicles of Narnia” — another of his wife’s favorites. He’s also got an eye on the work of popular American author Neil Gaiman, whom he loves.

“I think my goal is not to create high art,” says Viswanath. “My goal is to create a body of texts from popular Western culture that will allow children living in the Yiddish world to feel like, ‘Yes, this is also mine and this can also be done in my language.'”

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