Jewish Review of Books

The Last Word

Translating and Remembering Chaim Grade


This past year marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Vilna's greatest sons, the Yiddish poet and novelist, Chaim Grade. Born in Vilna in 1910, Grade died in New York as an old man, at the relatively young age of 72.

I translated three of Grade's most important books. In doing so, I came to understand that this actually required knowledge of four languages: not only Yiddish and English, but also Hebrew and Jewish. By Jewish I mean knowledge of the cycle of Jewish life from birth and bris through bar mitzvah, wedding, and end of life; the Shabbes and the calendar of Jewish holidays; a familiarity with Jewish liturgy, ritual, and customs; and a working knowledge of some of the basic texts of Yiddishkeyt.

Let me make an analogy. In addition to knowing English, a translator of Hamlet into Greek has to know Englishkeyt in order to understand what Hamlet means when he tells Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery." Otherwise he'll translate it as if it said: "Get thee to a Catholic convent," which would just show that Shakespearean English is Greek to him. Those who know Englishkeyt know that "nunnery" here means just the opposite—a brothel.

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