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  • When Dickens Spoke Yiddish: Translations of Dickens into the Language of East European Jews
  • Goldie Morgentaler (bio)

Dickens was one of the most popular non-Jewish writers among the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Between 1894, the date of the first translation of Dickens’s work into Yiddish, and 1939, the date of the last, numerous translations appeared in Yiddish, both in serialized form in the Yiddish press and in book form. Versions of Dickens’s works were also widely taught in the secular Yiddish-language schools of Poland and Russia. In Poland, in particular, which between the two world wars had a large and well-developed network of Yiddish schools known as the TsiSho schools, readings from European literature were a required aspect of the curriculum, with Dombey and Son mandated for the fifth grade and Oliver Twist and The Fire in the Tower of London [Barnaby Rudge] mandated for the sixth. My own mother first encountered Dombey and Son as Dombi un zun when she was a schoolgirl in Lodz, Poland in the 1920s, where an abridged form of the novel was required reading.1 According to the Yiddish literary scholar, Leonard Prager, these school translations would have been of a high order, because shoddy translations would not have passed muster in the Yiddishist schools, most of whose teachers were writers and intellectuals.2 Not only was Dickens popular with the Jewish masses, he was also revered by the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia, including two of the three classical writers of Yiddish literature, Mendele Mokher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem, as well as the generation of Yiddish writers who came after them.

In all, six of Dickens’s novels were translated into Yiddish, beginning [End Page 85] with David Copperfield in 1894. The other five novels were Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Barnaby Rudge, Dombey and Son and Great Expectations. Most of these translations appeared in the decade of the 1920s, which saw the flowering of Yiddish culture in Eastern Europe and in North America. I will return to these translations in a minute, but first I would like to say a little about Yiddish itself and the literature that was written in this language, especially within the context of European literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Yiddish is and has always been a language without a country, and this homeless state makes it a perfect symbol of the precarious status that the Jews have historically experienced in Europe. In fact, Michael Hollington’s impressive two-volume anthology of The Reception of Charles Dickens in Europe does not include a single study of Dickens’s reception among Yiddish-speaking Jews, even though with 11 million speakers and readers world-wide prior to World War Two, the majority of them in Europe, there were more Yiddish speakers in pre-war Europe than there were speakers of their native tongues in Iceland and Norway combined, each of which is represented in Hollington’s anthology. According to Michael Hollington, Yiddish was not included in his anthology precisely because it did not have a national homeland.3

While Yiddish was spoken throughout central Europe wherever there were substantial Ashkenazic populations, it was primarily the lingua franca of East European Jews, that is, of the majority of Jews in the world up until the outbreak of World War II. It was “the only language that was fully understood by many European Jews and the language that was best understood by most” (Prager 167). When these eastern European Jews, often fleeing pogroms and economic hardship migrated in large numbers to the Americas, they brought their language with them with the result that its influence on American English has been considerable and can be seen in such common words and phrases as chutzpa, maven, zaftik, shlep, nosh, kosher, the bottom line, etc.

Yiddish is a Germanic language that dates from about the twelfth century. It has a large admixture of Hebrew vocabulary as well as many Slavicisms. It is written with Hebrew characters, although the spelling system is phonetical and differs quite dramatically from written Hebrew. [End Page 86] Jewish literature – as opposed to Yiddish...


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