Skip to comments.For Japanese Linguist, A Long And Lonely Schlep
Posted on 04/16/2012 9:09:10 PM PDT by nickcarraway
A smattering of Yiddish words has crept into the American vernacular: Non-Jews go for a nosh or schmooze over cocktails. Yet the language itself, once spoken by millions of Jews, is now in retreat.
But you don't have to be Jewish to love Yiddish. In Japan, a linguist has toiled quietly for decades to compile the world's first Yiddish-Japanese dictionary the first time the Jewish language has been translated into a non-European language other than Hebrew.
It was in the hills of Kyushu Island in southern Japan where Kazuo Ueda carried out his impressive and quixotic quest, devoting his life to a language few Jews understand, and even fewer Japanese have even heard of.
Now Japan's leading scholar of Yiddish, Ueda was originally a specialist in German. He stumbled upon the Jewish language while reading Franz Kafka, himself a fan of Yiddish theater.
Ueda was immediately smitten with the language that is written in Hebrew letters, but is a hybrid of German, Hebrew, Russian and other languages.
"Yiddish was full of puzzles for me," Ueda says. "That's what I love about it. Reading sentences in those strange letters it's like deciphering a code."
A Price For His Passion
Ueda made several trips to Israel, but most of his research was a lonely, solo affair. Isolated from actual speakers of the language, he taught himself, with the help of Yiddish newspapers and literature.
Ueda would later publish a series of books on the Jewish language and people, but he considers that a prelude to his magnum opus the 1,300-page, 28,000-entry Idishugo Jiten, or Yiddish-Japanese dictionary, published several years ago. His publisher wouldn't release details but conceded sales are most likely tiny for the dictionary, which costs more than $700.
"I actually think $700 is pretty cheap, considering," Ueda says.
Cheap, considering it took 20 years to finish the volume and that Ueda's doctors say the project may have shortened his life. As his dictionary neared completion, Ueda began to show signs of Parkinson's disease. Now 69, he was forced to retire from the faculty of Fukuoka University in March and struggles to walk and speak.
Ueda's wife, Kazuko, blames years of desk-bound devotion to the dictionary for aggravating his disease.
"Every day, he would sit down to work on his dictionary right after breakfast. He never took any time off," she says. "But for him, this wasn't work but sheer joy. So I thought, this is the way things had to be."
Jack Halpern, a Yiddish-speaking resident of Japan, admires Ueda but says his passion often baffles Jews.
"When Jews hear about Professor Ueda, they say, 'Why?' It's beyond their understanding," he says.
Defying Easy Translation
Just as Japan's population of 120 million is big and affluent enough to support exotic tastes like klezmer music performed by Japanese musicians Yiddish has perhaps a few dozen devotees, mostly those who discovered the language via Hebrew or German, like Ueda.
Halpern, himself a linguist and a publisher who used to teach Yiddish in Japan, describes taking a group of his young students on a field trip to New York, where they tried to mix at a traditional Hasidic wedding.
"They saw the Hasidim with black hats and coats, dancing away, and they're all speaking Yiddish to each other. So I approached one of the rabbis there, and I introduced him to this young man who's speaking Yiddish, and he just couldn't understand what's going on; it seemed so out of place for a Japanese person to be in a Hasidic wedding, speaking Yiddish," Halpern says. "It's always amazing to them."
By taking on Yiddish, Ueda grappled with a language that defies easy translation because of its many culturally specific words, like shlimazel, or "unlucky person."
"You can translate it, but you can't translate the connotation, the feeling, around the word," says Halpern. "There's something about shlimazel, that when you say it in Yiddish, it's the right language to say it in."
As for Ueda, who pats his dictionary every night before going to sleep, there are no regrets.
"I wrote it purely for the pursuit of learning," he says. "I don't expect a wave of people to start learning Yiddish."
Oy! That’s meshuggah.
Makes me think of the Japanese/Jewish restaurant, Sosumi.
I gotta wonder what kind of japanese person would give a care about yiddish. I’m trying to make a list in my mind of the most useful languages to learn and yiddish is way down on the list...far below japanese in fact.
then it gets vague...maybe a tie between german, dutch, and portugese.
Chinese would be on the list if it wasn’t such a ridiculously difficult language.
So excluding chinese, next is probably a tie between russian, arabic, and japanese.
then maybe 25 more languages
Why is French above German?
Swahili-Yiddish online dictionary
Where on the planet do you find native german speakers? germany, austria, and just a few other places near germany.
That’s it. Nowhere else. Sure there are minority enclaves in various places but they are insignificant.
various islands in the carribean
various islands all around the world
one tiny country in south america
parts of north africa
parts of west africa
france of course
French beats german easily.
In fact, in some ways French beats Spanish.
French is the language of diplomacy and also of seduction.
Could you imagine attempting a seduction of a woman in German? Even a German one would prefer French..
Most useful depends.... English and Spanish are at the top of the list, but I’d put Arabic ahead of French, but that would depend on where you are at. If you are in East Africa then Swahili. If in West Africa, then French. North Africa Arabic. In India Hindi would get you around. Russia would get you around all of the Russias yes, but nowhere else
Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (of Flemish origin) in thr 1500s supposedly said “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”
thanks for a fascinating article..
An inaccurate description of Yiddish, which is essentially German with some Hebrew vocabulary and smaller borrowings from Russian and French. Yiddish is immediately intelligible to German speakers.
My experience is that with standard German you can use in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and get by in the Netherlands, but most of those countries speak English as well. French is useful not only in France (where they’ll refuse to speak English), but also Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, West Africa etc. and it was also the preferred second language for most of the world until the internet age..
One of the major sources he dealt with were libraries owned by left-wing Jewish organizations that had been founded decades ago and were going out of business.
I thought it was the Franophile Frederick the Great who said he only spoke German to horses and children.
And why Spanish to God and not Latin or Greek or Hebrew, or some other liturical language?
Yiddish-Japanese ping.....yeah...thats right.
My list was with the assumption that english is your first language and you live in the USA.
Until the internet age? Hmmm, I think English overtook French a little before then. I’d put it somewhere between 1950 and 1970.
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