There’s something different about the Hundred Acre Wood. Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet and Christopher Robin are there, as they’ve been since A.A. Milne first published the now-classic children’s tale in 1926. This time, though, they’re searching for hunny and adventure in a language their proper British author surely never imagined his creations would speak — Yiddish.
And this time they are Vini-der-Pu, Iya, Khazerl and Kristofer Robin.
The newest edition of “Winnie-the-Pooh” is a full-length translation of the time-honored favorite accompanied by Ernest Shepard’s original whimsical line drawings. It was translated — perhaps adapted is the more accurate term — by Leonard Wolf, a semi-retired professor of English literature and creative writing who taught at San Francisco State and now teaches occasional courses at New York University.
Bringing the British book out in Yiddish required more than word-for-word translation, said Wolf, who has written his own novels, short stories and poems and has translated the work of many Yiddish authors and poets. “Nonsense in English isn’t the same as nonsense in Yiddish,” he said.
A.A. Milne purposely misspelled words in English, when he wrote the story inspired by his young son, Christopher Robin. So Wolf had to find a way to misspell them in Yiddish, in a way that retained their original charm but kept them readable. He also took liberties like turning Milne’s Codding Pie into Warsaw Cake to keep the story in the cultural context of its new language.
Where Pooh originally sings a child-like nonsensical song in English, Wolf borrowed from chasidic chants to make it sound like Yiddish. And when the hapless Pooh falls off a tree branch, which he has climbed in search of the ever-elusive hunny, instead of “Oh help!” in this version “Vini-der-Pu” cries out in a much more evocative “Oy gevalt!”
This is the 31st language into which Pooh has been translated, said Stephanie Lurie, president and publisher of Dutton’s Children’s Books, ranging from all the Romance languages to Latin.
Putting it out in Yiddish “is a novelty,” admitted Lurie, “but just like the original Pooh works are classics that are great literature, we’re doing it seriously too for people who treasure Yiddish as well as this great work. We’re not trying to make a joke out of it.”
“Vini-der-Pu” is being published at a time of renewed interest in Yiddish, visible in crowded summer courses in the mama loshen at Columbia University, in Yiddish language and culture camps and retreats each year, and in the success of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.
“We have a renewed interest in Yiddish language, but it’s a conservatist interest. It’s right to conserve it, but I don’t have hopes that we’ll get a living Yiddish language once again,” Wolf said. “For that you need a living community. Languages live when people dream in them, make love in them, fight in them.”
He does hope that “Vini-der-Pu” is used by New York’s chasidic communities, where Yiddish remains a living language, in their schools, he said.
Wolf said that he also hopes that Yiddish speakers will read “Pu” to their children and grandchildren with the English and Yiddish versions side by side, so that the little ones can hear both.
More than a dozen new literary versions of Pooh are put out each year, from baby board books to an upcoming adult book presenting Pooh as a master psychologist on the level of Freud, said Lurie, which looks at the bear as the creature helping “every inhabitant of the Hundred Acre Wood with their little neuroses.”
Perusing the list of published Pooh languages while he was in discussions with Dutton about another project, Wolf noticed that Yiddish was absent and felt inspired to propose it. “The heartbreak for all of us who know Yiddish is that it has become associated in the minds of many with the Holocaust,” Wolf said. “I am glad to think that in 2000 here is a document that simply shines and that has nothing to do with the Holocaust.
“It’s nice to remind us that there were children who spoke Yiddish, and that Christopher Robin now does too.”