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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Cultural Translation and the Problem of Language: Yiddish in Joseph Roth’s Juden auf Wanderschaft

  • Author(s): Bailey, Sarah
  • et al.

In 2000, W.W. Norton and Company released a new English-language edition of Joseph Roth’s 1927 compilation of essays entitled, Juden auf Wanderschaft. The edition’s dustcover proclaims in large, bold typeface: “A masterpiece of Jewish identity emerges in English 70 years after it was first written.” While it can’t be denied that Roth’s tale, which documents the mass movement of eastern Jews westward across the European continent in the early twentieth century, has today captured both public and scholarly interest in German- and English-speaking lands, the quotation still begs the question: Why are we reading Roth again now? Even the most tentative of answers to this question should include the fact that Roth’s concerns in Juden auf Wanderschaft, including the forcible displacement of a people and their subsequent dispersal throughout the world and Roth’s suggestion of a tyranny inherent in Western culture, find remarkable resonance in our contemporary reality. Global migrations and Westernization today inform research, not just, as the quote above anticipates, on identity politics, but also on topics which seek to move beyond or reinvigorate discussions of identity—topics such as mobility, diaspora, and migration. Written by one who was both an assimilated Viennese and a Galician Jew born in the eastern-most reaches of the Hapsburg Empire, Roth’s work offers an extraordinarily complex and informative perspective on issues that remain current today. And yet, Roth’s Juden auf Wanderschaft is rarely analyzed in a manner which reflects this complexity in all its nuance. Most reviewers, in celebratory response to the work’s topical themes, see it as a poignant declaration of love for the vanishing eastern Jewish culture with which Roth had grown up. Upon closer examination, however, an important part of eastern European Jewish culture does not fall within Roth’s romanticization: the language of eastern European Jewry, the Yiddish language itself. In an age of scholarship increasingly interested in the intersection of multiculturalism and multilingualism, Roth’s (mis)treatment of Yiddish makes Juden auf Wanderschaft a cautionary tale which speaks not only to the themes of contemporary criticism, but also to the very methodologies which seek to shape this criticism.

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