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Some Beloved Children's Classics Return, This Time in Yiddish

December 25, 2008 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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The Cat in the Hat, but Di Kats der Payats?

That's the Yiddish translation by Zackary Sholem Berger who, along with his wife, Celeste Sollod, runs Yiddish House LLC. Since 2003, Yiddish House has published Yiddish translations of children's classics like The Cat in the Hat, Curious George (George der Naygeriker) and, most recently, another Dr. Seuss -- One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (Eyn Fish, Tsvey Fish, Royter Fish, Bloyer Fish).

An argument could be made that Yiddish is, if not a dead language, at least on life support. So, is there really a market for this sort of thing?

Yes and no, said Berger. While there's a comparatively low number of Yiddish speakers worldwide, it is spoken, he stressed.

But why translate into Yiddish? As far as Berger is concerned, that question has the same answer as the question of why translate into Japanese or any other language. Someone may get something from it and deepen a connection to Jewish and Yiddish culture. And, while Yiddish isn't widely spoken around the world, "there's more than a minyan" of Yiddish speakers worldwide.

"One reason to translate, broadly speaking, is the same as the reason [Jews] go to Israel or Eastern Europe ... it fosters a cultural connection," said Berger.

"The majority of our buyers are not buying for Yiddish-reading kids." They're looking for some sort of connection to Judaism and Jewish culture, he added.

Other companies publish Yiddish originals (as well as other books geared more towards Orthodox audiences), but "we're the only ones doing what we're doing on the secular end. With the ultra-Orthodox market, we don't really compete," said Berger. While there's conceivably a -- relatively -- large audience for Berger's translations outside of North America, Berger said that prohibitive shipping costs had thus far impeded efforts to make the books widely available abroad.

Yiddish originals don't make enough money to make it worthwhile for the company, so Yiddish House has stuck to big names like Dr. Seuss. But Berger isn't about to translate just any old children's book -- it's got to be a classic and a bestseller.

"My wife says it has to be popular enough to have plush toys associated with it," joked the publisher.

The books retail for around $15, and while the company did not offer financial data, Berger said that "we break even after we sell about $2,000 worth of books, with each book we publish."

Di Kats der Payats has sold more than 7,500 copies since it was published in 2003 -- far beyond Berger's expectations -- and that success has allowed them to continue to translate.

"We thought we were going to do one book, and then people actually bought it," said the entrepreneur.

Berger, who is also an epidemiologist, pointed out that the books' Yiddish versions are at a slightly higher reading level than the English originals, if only because it's harder to rhyme in Yiddish.

He also noted that Yiddish words for "cat" and "hat" don't rhyme.

So he's rhymed kats with payats -- Yiddish, he said, for someone who acts like a clown.

He also added that the translation process generally takes between 20 and 30 hours, although more time is spent securing the rights to the books, working with designers on layouts and, of course, marketing the merchandise.

In the end, he said, the business model is pretty simple: "Make enough money to publish more books." 

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