Suggested Guidelines for
Translation of Yizkor Material from Yiddish

Sonia Kovitz, Ph.D. in Slavic Languages & Literatures

Faithfulness to the Original

Accuracy of denotative meaning is the primary goal.

Translate idiomatic Yiddish into idiomatic English. Retain tone, tam (flavor), and diction (informal vs. formal, conversational vs. scholarly) to the extent possible.

Bridging Cultures

Many Yiddish and Hebrew terms for features of Jewish life in Eastern Europe have no exact English equivalent:

khevra kadisha, nigun, treyf, pilpul, gemora, shtibl, kloiz, gaon, gegesn teg, pinkes, maskil, apikoyris, bund, magid, kiddush hashem, shames, misnagdim, musar, mikvah, daven, loshn koydesh.

My preference is to retain and italicize such words, followed by a brief explanation in brackets.

Once a translation has been provided for the initial occurence, there is no need to add the translation every time the word occurs. If the word is unfamiliar and occurs infrequently in a lengthy piece, of course the translator may choose to do so.

Culturally-specific terms in other languages may be handled similarly:

Consistent Format

BRACKETS—explanatory insertion by translator, e.g. magid [preacher-storyteller]

PARENTHESES—authorial use, never for insertion by translator

ITALICS—all non-English words or phrases regardless of:

        Frequency of occurrence in the text
        Whether or not followed by a translation

Do not use quotation marks in place of italics.
Do not use both quotation marks and italics.

Non-English Yiddish or Hebrew words that have entered English usage may be used without italics and in familiar rather than YIVO spelling: Chanukah, shtetl, yeshiva.

Familiar words or phrases in European languages (French, German, Italian, Spanish) should be restored rather than phonetically transliterated from the Yiddish spelling: weltanschauung, auto-da-fe.

Transliteration from Non-Latin Alphabets

YIDDISH: use the YIVO system.

When transliterating names, remember:

        Pasekh alef > a
        Komets alef > o

HEBREW: use the YIVO system following ASHKENAZIC pronunciation.
“You say shabbat, I say shabbes.”

[excerpt] There are three particularly significant differences: the vowel pronounced as “aw” in Ashkenazic is pronounced as “ah” in Sephardic; the vowel sometimes pronounced as “oy” in Ashkenazic is pronounced as “oh” in Sephardic. Lastly, the consonent Tav, which is always pronounced as “t” in Sephardic, differs in Ashkenazic pronunciation - Tav also has a soft sound, and is pronounced as an “s” when it does not have a dagesh.

Ashkenazic Modern Sephardic
mitsvos mitsvot
kashrus kashrut
havdolah havdalah
bas mitsvah bat mitsvah
misnagdim mitnagdim

Final “h” (hay) for Hebrew feminine nouns ending in kametz-katon + hay [the sound “ah”]: whether or not to retain varies widely. Whatever you decide, be consistent.

RUSSIAN: Library of Congress system.


Since Hebrew and Yiddish have no capitals, I prefer to use lower case in transliteration. Practice differs from translator to translator. Whatever you decide, be consistent.

Even if the transliterated Hebrew or Yiddish is not capitalized, the bracketed translation should use capitals when appropriate in English:

Historical Consistency

Where the Yiddish uses the present tense to describe conditions at the time of writing—for example, in a piece written in the 1930s—retain the present tense in English.

Follow the author's usage in references to “Palestine” in pieces written before 1948. To change this to “Israel” in translation would be an anachronism. Similarly, follow the author's usage of “Leningrad” or “Petersburg,” etc.

Reference to erets yisroel is retained regardless of when the piece was written.


Very short Yiddish “paragraphs” consisting of one or two sentences may be combined into a single paragraph in the translation when they are closely related.


Indicate the presence of a photograph as follows, bold and centered, with the caption following the colon.

Photograph with caption: The Rogova shul, over 300 years old

Do not place this text mid-paragraph; regardless of the placement on the page in the original, insert the text after the paragraph.


1-10: spell out (one, two, three, four….ten)

11 and above: arabic numerals (11, 12, 13…), e.g., where the Yiddish has “three thousand four hundred and twenty-two,” the translation should have 3,422.

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Updated 4 Apr 2014 by LA