The Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary has garnered significant attention in 2016, even drawing an in-depth look from the New York Times. But how does someone go about creating such a dictionary? IU Press spoke with editors Gitl Schaechter-Viswanth and Paul Glasser about the creative process, the history behind the dictionary, and who might find their work useful.
IUP: Gitl, it's our understanding that the English-Yiddish Dictionary really started with your father, Mordkhe Schaechter. He began collect words through conversations with everyday people, right?
Gitl Schaechter-Viswanth: Correct, and reading everyday literature. And after decades of doing this, he had hundreds of thousands of words, and after the many other books that he had written, his goal was to write a new dictionary that would cover all of these words that hadn’t been included in previous dictionaries, including neologisms, new coinages that thad come up since the last English-Yiddish dictionary was published in 1968.
So he started this project towards the end of the 20th century. I was one of his assistants, and when he became unable to continue with the project, I took it over, trying to do the best I could to do what he would have wanted. In the end, I spent 16 years working on it. Paul, how many years did you spend?
Paul Glasser: More or less full time, close to three years, but I was consulting or consulted probably for five years before that.
GVS: And I essentially spent my spare time working on this dictionary. I had access to all my fathers’ files, which originally were on index cards that I had computerized it years before. I just went through all of the words and worked to confirm or verify these words. If I could, great. If I couldn’t, I consulted with Paul or other people. Words that we just could not verify didn’t make it into the dictionary.
IUP: Tell us a little bit more about that process of creating the dictionary. In any language, people define certain words differently or use them differently. How do you sort out exactly what the definition is so you can use it in an authoritative source like a dictionary?
GVS: Well, in many of these cards, my father provided a translation or he had the word with the translation. We had to verify, first of all, that he had the correct translation. My father was not a native English speaker, so sometimes his English needed to be double checked. But most of his words had English and Yiddish on the card. Those that didn’t, we had to go through various other English dictionaries to find the definition. It wasn’t so much the question of looking for the definition of the words. The words were there and the translations were there; it was more a question of verifying.
PG: And I can add to that. Because it’s a bilingual dictionary, you’re not giving definitions so much as equivalents. It’s not the same thing as if it's a monolingual dictionary. In that case, you’ll generally give a whole sentence to define a word. Here, you’re just giving a one or two word equivalent.
But sometimes we had an English word and we didn’t have a Yiddish equivalent, so we would look for Yiddish equivalents in other dictionaries. The best dictionaries that had been published over the last hundred years usually start in Yiddish, so you have Yiddish-French, Yiddish-English, and so on. But since we have relatively few dictionaries where Yiddish is the target language, we had to find our own path to the word. We do have a very good Russian-Yiddish dictionary, but neither of us knows Russian perfectly. In order to get to the Russian and then to find the Yiddish equivalent, we would sometimes have to take the scenic route, so to speak. We would go, say, English to French, French to German, German to Polish, Polish to Russian if we couldn’t go directly into the Russian. And we did find quite a few words like that, when we didn’t know the Yiddish equivalent for an English word by finding our way from English to Russian. Once you got to the Russian, frequently the word was there in this dictionary. Obviously if there were more dictionaries with Yiddish as the target language that would have been simpler, but there aren’t that many and the ones where Yiddish is the source language tend to be better.
We are very pleased that in the process we were able to match up a lot of english idioms with older Yiddish dictionaries that were in this thesaurus. That’s something that I’m particularly proud of. People ask what our favorite aspect of this dictionary is, and I say tracking down older equivalents for newer English phrases.
GVS: Right. And I’ll give you an example, if maybe this is a bit abstract. And this is more relevant to expressions than words themselves, so for example, there’s an English expression “to have butterflies in ones stomach." There are a variety of ways in Yiddish to say “I'm nervous” or “I’m nauseous” but we would want an expression that mimics or captures the idiom. So in English it’s butterflies in the stomach, and in our dictionary I've included the Yiddish phrase that translates to “my intestines are trembling.” It is, actually, the same expression, except it’s a different part of the anatomy. So we really tried hard to make the equivalents in terms of the description of how the expression fits.
IUP: Who would you say this dictionary is for? You mentioned the reality that there aren’t a lot of dictionaries with the target language of Yiddish, so who is the sort of person that would be using this dictionary?
GVS: Our dictionary is English=Yiddish, so it’s for a whole range of people. It’s for people like Paul and myself who know Yiddish but certainly don’t know many thousands of these words that are in the dictionary, and we’ve been struggling our whole lives with how you say something in Yiddish. Now we have a dictionary to help us.
It’s for Yiddish teachers. It’s for Yiddish students. It’s for parents who are raising their children with Yiddish and need to be able to say all of the words for the objects that come with raising children, from items of clothing to toys to body anatomy, whatever. When you’re raising your child, there’s a certain terminology that you need. We have included those in this dictionary.
PG: In the 21st century, we have all the new objects that have come along, the new computer terms and modern scientific terminology. As much of that as we could include, we did. So people want to be able to speak about any subject, and for those people that want to do it in Yiddish, this is the perfect dictionary for expanding their vocabulary for things that people talk about in this century.