Aa

Adjust size of text

Aa

Follow us and continue the conversation

Your saved articles

You haven't saved any articles

What are you looking for?

How could he say no? The man who translated Harry Potter into Yiddish

Aviva Lowy
Print this
12

Published: 29 June 2020

Last updated: 5 March 2024

AVIVA LOWY meets the remarkable Arun Viswanath, who grew up in New Jersey speaking Yiddish before English; his translation sold out in just two days

HE’S NOT YET a father but American Arun Viswanath is already stockpiling a library for his future children. It’s just that the books are in Yiddish, and he’s translating them himself.

That may sound a little DIY but the first book off the press was the official Yiddish translation of the publishing sensation Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And Arun’s version, published in February, has also been a best seller, albeit in the smaller pond of Yiddish publications.

So, what prompts a young business analyst to translate the fantastical world of Hogwarts School for Wizards and Witches into a language with such a small readership? Well, according to Arun, his wife put him up to it: Did he really want to raise their children in a world without Harry Potter in Yiddish?

For that to make sense as a challenge, you need know that Arun loves Yiddish. Though both his parents speak English, he grew up in a bilingual home in New Jersey speaking the unusual combination of Yiddish and Tamil.

“My mother spoke to us exclusively in Yiddish and the expectation was my sisters and I would answer in Yiddish, and my father spoke to us in Tamil and the expectation was that we would answer entirely in Tamil,” Arun says. (His father is a polyglot and speaks more than a dozen languages fluently.)

[gallery columns="1" size="large" ids="36454"]

How did he learn English? “By osmosis, probably. I must have had some friends already from a young age. I would go have playdates and my mum was friends with the other mums. I did not learn English from hearing my parents speak, that’s for sure.”

While Arun accepted his wife’s challenge almost immediately, did he envisage that his translation, a project that took 18 months, would eventually be available for a broad audience, or was it really a project for his children? “I told myself it was an exercise but, given the amount of work that I was putting into it, I knew that I was expecting it to be published.”

When Arun approached author J K Rowling’s agency for the rights, he discovered they’d already been granted to a publisher in Sweden, Nikolaj Olniansky. “They said, we gave the rights to the Swedish guys. Okay, that’s who I’m working with,” Arun recalls matter-of-factly.

Sweden may seem an unlikely country to be publishing children’s books in Yiddish. However, according to an article in Tablet magazine, it’s the epicentre of Yidkidlit.

The article explains that Yiddish is an official minority language in Sweden, along with a few others such as Romani and the Sami languages of northern Scandinavia, and the government encourages media output - video, internet, TV, books, etc  in these languages.
When Arun approached author J K Rowling’s agency for the rights, he discovered they’d already been granted to a publisher in Sweden, Nikolaj Olniansky. They said, we gave the rights to the Swedish guys.

Though it only has a tiny Jewish population (less than 0.2%), Jews have a long history in Sweden. The first official Jewish community dates back to the 1770s, and during WWII, almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark (over 8,000 people), was smuggled to safety in Sweden on fishing boats.

Another strange twist in the Yiddish Harry Potter story is that Olniansky is something of an accidental Yiddishist. Having graduated from university in Sweden but wanting to retain his cheap student digs, he enrolled in an evening class in Yiddish.

He wasn’t Jewish (he’s since converted) but the promise of a non-demanding course he could fit around his day job sealed the deal. Fast forward, and Olniansky has co-edited a pop culture Yiddish magazine, founded the Yiddish heavy metal band Dibbukim, and runs a Yiddish children’s publishing house.

[gallery columns="1" size="large" ids="36456"]

Arun enjoys the novelty of his translation being published in Sweden: “If you factor in Olniansky is a member of a Yiddish metal band, it’s a real head-scratcher,” Arun says. “And if you factor in that I have an incredibly Hindu name, and I’m a modern orthodox Jew from Teaneck, New Jersey, it’s a pretty funny story.”

The other twist in this tale is that the first print run of Harry Potter un der filosofisher shteyn sold out in two days. It was only 1,000 copies, but that’s a decent size for a Yiddish publication. (Another 1,000 copies have since been printed.)

“I was not surprised at all. I had modest hopes because I didn’t want to be disappointed, but there’s people who just collect Harry Potter books, so I knew there was going to be a big market.”

He’s right about the huge Potter fan base. One of the first “news sites” to announce the publication was Mugglenet (“Muggles” is the name Rowling gave to non-wizard folk) which claims the buzz it sent around the internet pushed the run on sales.

There’s another audience, too:  the international Yiddish-speaking community, but given that most of them are Chasidic Jews, I wondered if they might have difficulty with a text that deals with magic powers of humans.
I was chatting with a Chasidic woman who is so excited about it that she came up with her car to pick up a copy of the book in person. People are really excited about it.

“Chasidim is an incredibly diverse group of people. We are talking about millions of people, and there’s always going to be fringes there. I think more than opposition, the biggest danger for me is apathy or ignorance, so it’s more about getting the word out. A lot of these kids have already read Harry Potter in English. You know, they’re not quite as ideologically driven throughout as one might think.

“Just yesterday I was chatting with a Chasidic woman who is so excited about it that she came up with her car to pick up a copy of the book in person. People are really excited about it.”

This is Arun’s first “literary” translation into Yiddish. Previously, he’d written some press releases and fund-raising letters. “Otherwise, it’s been entirely Yiddish to English, usually not the most important documents, like old letters which everybody seems to have.”

He was able to enlist help from his mother, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, who created the weighty Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary. (The Times of Israel has described Arun as the 29-year-old scion of one of America’s greatest Yiddish dynasties. His maternal grandfather, Mordkhe Schaechter, devoted his life to the propagation of Yiddish. All 16 of his grandchildren are fluent speakers.)

“I [also] had an editor to point out stylistic or idiomatic inaccuracies. And I also had at my disposal the entire corpus of Yiddish literature which has been digitised by the Yiddish Book Centre in Massachussetts. If I wasn’t quite sure if a certain phrase was idiomatic or not, I could just Google it. So, I had human help, and I also felt like I had the help of all the Yiddish writers before me.”
He was able to enlist help from his mother, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, who created the Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary. His maternal grandfather, Mordkhe Schaechter, devoted his life to the propagation of Yiddish.

I ask Arun what words or ideas he found the hardest to translate and he says it was getting a handle on the British idiom. “As an Australian, you’ll appreciate the fact that English is not the same everywhere. There were times where I almost made an error in translation because I misunderstood what the British English was saying. My wife’s mother is from Leeds and I have two brothers-in-law who are from London, and so I have an expert panel for British English that really helped me avoid a number of errors.”

And the translation solutions that gave him the greatest pleasure? The poems, he answers. “And there are quite a number of poems in the first book. There’s the sorting hat song, the poem that’s inscribed at the entrance to the Gringots wizarding bank, the riddles … with the various potions. I had a lot more flexibility and freedom (than with the rest of the text) which meant I could make my rendition sound a lot more natural in Yiddish. That gave me a lot of satisfaction.”

With magic being central to Harry Potter, how did the numerous spells respond to translation?

“There were only four spells that show up in the book: alohomora, wingardium leviosa, petrificus totalus and locomotor mortis. They all have that faux Latin feel. There were people on social media (asking), ‘why didn’t you make the spells in Aramaic?’

“Well, Yiddish is a modern language and [it] has a very robust Latin component. It felt very at home to have these transcribed, more or less, as they were in the original because I’m  not trying to create a Jewish Harry Potter. I’m trying to render the Harry Potter that everybody knows in a way which feels natural to Yiddish.”

While Yiddish today is most closely associated with Chasidic Jews, who choose to express their religiosity through it, it is also popular with some secular Jews, who see it as a way of carrying on the traditions of their culture without the religious orthodoxy.

Melbourne’s vibrant Bundist community, established nearly a century ago, is a case in point. In its own words, “the Bund focuses on creating and nurturing a strong sense of secular Jewish identity through Yiddish language and culture.”

Dvora Zylberman, Vice President of the Bund, is quick to point out that Melbourne also has Sholem Aleichem College, a secular Jewish preschool and primary school with the study of Yiddish at its heart, and Kadimah, the biggest Yiddish library in the Southern Hemisphere. “We have our own Yiddish base, and everyone has a place to go no matter what they’re interested in.”

Arun’s project has presented Dvora with the opportunity to speak with him, not once but twice, in the coming weeks.

On July 5, she will interview him in English, for an online event organised by Shalom and the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival.

A week later, on July 12, the Yiddishkeit audience will be able to hear Dvora interview Arun in Yiddish.

Though the two already know each other through Yiddish circles (Dvora’s mother grew up in New York and knew Arun’s mother), this will be their first professional exchange. And she’s excited.

“Everyone loves Harry Potter. To bring Yiddish into it takes it to the next level!”

SEE ARUN VISWANATH LIVE IN CONVERSATION
July 5: Tickets and details for interview in English
July 12: Tickets and details for interview in Yiddish

WATCH ARUN READING HARRY POTTER IN YIDDISH  

 

About the author

Aviva Lowy

Aviva Lowy started her career as a radio journalist with 2JJJ and the ABC. She has written on a broad range of subjects, from food and travel to science and health.

Keep our publication free:
Support quality journalism with your donation

Since 2015, TJI has provided an independent voice on Australia, Israel and the Jewish World at zero cost to our readers.

Your contribution — big or small — is critical in helping us create a platform for diverse content, fresh voices and regular coverage on issues that matter to you.

SELECT FREQUENCY
AUSTRALIA AU$

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

Enter site