You, Too, Can Speak Yiddish—Or Not

October 29th, ©2012 Marcus Brooks | Link
New York skyline, ca. 1925

Dig this 1925 New York skyline, from "The Rag Man."

Today I watched The Rag Man (1925), recorded from Turner Classic Movies. I almost called it an “early” Jackie Coogan vehicle, but by this time (age 11), he had already appeared in 13 other films!

For youngsters who haven’t learned yet: movies made before 1927 were all silent. You would see the actors talk, then if the line was important an “intertitle” would pop up to display the text. Music and sound effects, if any, were added by live performers every time the film played, although nowadays these are usually on a soundtrack added by the modern distributor.

One bit in this show has a junk dealer, Max, exchange some wry Yiddish banter with an old man. The intertitles display each Yiddish line first, then an English translation.

After the exchange, Jackie Coogan’s character asks Max how to say “goodbye” in “Jewish,” then delivers a Yiddish line. Unlike the adult lines, the kid’s “goodbye” wasn’t translated, and from the elder’s reaction I thought there might be some inside joke. This was a job for one of my favorite online toys: Google Translate!

The text in this case posed a new problem for me, it was in Hebrew script! Hebrew is phonetic, though, and Translate has a keyboard tool. I thought it should be pretty easy to pick out a couple of words, shouldn’t it? Hah!

"A Good Day" in Yiddish

The intertitle in question.

The first obstacle is typeface. The Google keyboard utility uses some sort of spartan, sans-serif script, but the movie text is ornate old-fashioned hand lettering. Which of those little flags and flourishes are just style, and which convey meaning? Are two not-quite-identical glyphs different because they’re different symbols, or because the calligrapher’s hand wavered? To illustrate my confusion, here are four possible resettings of the above sample:

Hebrew ambiguities.

Example of Hebrew lettering ambiguity (for this non-initiate).

To make things worse, the keyboard tool’s lettering is tiny, and gives no indication of a letter’s baseline, which would be the clearest distinction in some cases. Fortunately, this sample doesn’t have some of the worst head-scratchers.

As it turns out, the variation on the left above made the most sense, except when I use Hebrew to English translation the result looks sort of German: “a gute tag.’ So then I selected “Detect Language,” and Translate detected Yiddish (no surprise). The mysterious statement, in English? “A good day.”

OK, so there wasn’t any inside joke after all. I guess the old fellow was just surprised to hear Yiddish from a little goy. Then again, I can’t read lips, but that’s not what it looks like the kid is saying. Maybe there was an inside joke, but it was censored!

This mystery remains: why does Translate produce a German-looking result when trying to translate this Yiddish phrase to English with a Hebrew filter? The only guess I can make is that “a gute tag” is what you get when you transliterate the phrase from the Hebrew alphabet to our Roman alphabet. This makes some sense because (I gather) Yiddish takes some of its vocabulary from Old High German. (The modern German translation would be “Ein Guten Tag,” or just “Guten Tag.”) Still, if that’s the explanation, I don’t quite understand how Translate is mapping some of the characters.

Having satisfied myself about that as much as I could, I tried double-checking the movie’s translations of the other Yiddish lines, but it just got too messy. The keyboard tool isn’t available in Yiddish, so I had to keep switching to Hebrew and back. And I had trouble with Hebrew’s right-to-left script. It just feels weird when backspace deletes to the right. Insertion and drag selection can get crazy when Hebrew is next to Roman text. And will that space or carriage return be treated as Hebrew, or Roman? It seems to matter!

Yiddish Text

Movie translation: "Business is great!--I'm lying!

I just couldn’t get a sensible result from the longer text. It’s frustrating, because this Yiddish line just might be more colorful than the movie’s translation. Translate gave me words like “good,” “smell,” “gold is,” “ground,” and “deny.” Is he saying business is so good he smells gold in the ground? Then he denies it? I’d like that imagery, but I had to stretch the translation so far to get there, I really can’t trust it. (Then again, one stab at the “I’m lying” part yielded “lawyer.” Hmmm.) Maybe the movie’s translation is literal, and I’m misreading the characters. Or maybe Google is just giving me garbage.

Yiddish newsprint.

What the movie calls a "Jewish" newspaper seems to be Yiddish.
(Edit: Duh! "Yiddish" is Yiddish for "Jewish"!)

Later in the show, we see a Yiddish newspaper. I say Yiddish, not Hebrew, because I got Google to translate the word “Germany” in the headline using Yiddish, whereas Hebrew yielded “Diitsland.” That’s as far as I got, though, and because seemingly slight variations in newsprint surely indicate different symbols, it’s clear the letters in the text don’t all map easily to the keyboard tool. I can’t even be sure all Yiddish letters have a Hebrew counterpart!

Given all that, I’ve decided to let it go. For now!