This article will examine the United States as a ‘translation nation’, that is, as a nation influenced by particular languages and cultures which have left their imprint on the national character.
We will focus on the influence of certain languages, particularly Italian and Yiddish. There are several links to clips which are worth watching throughout the writing; as ever, art offers a very acute examination of cultural issues.
But if you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:
Translation Nation Yiddish
Yiddish was the language of Ashkenazi Jews. It came into being in the 9th century, more or less, and had a strong presence in Europe with as much as 13 million speakers. After the Second World War and the Holocaust, the use of the language declined irreversibly.
Listen to the very poignant song, ‘Belz, Mayn Shtetele Belz’ very aptly representing the end of Yiddish life in the east of Europe.
After the war, things did not improve for Yiddish. The State of Israel decided to use Modern Hebrew as the official language of the country. This is because Yiddish was seen primarily as the language of European Jews and the country was looking to welcome Jews from other places in the world too. Yiddish, therefore, could never quite make a comeback in force.
Today, Haredi Jews (Hasidic for instance) still use Yiddish as their day-to-day language whilst Hebrew is reserved for religious use. There are, consequently, some areas in the United States with a prolific use of Yiddish such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn or the town of Kiryas Joel in New York State.
Yiddish is a language but it also represents a culture. Indeed, it was deeply intertwined with Ashkenazi culture for around one thousand years. ‘Yiddishkeit’ is the name of this way of life which included folk traditions, cuisine, humor, klezmer music and life in the shtetls (Jewish towns) of Central and Eastern Europe.
Jewish immigrants started moving to the United States and eventually entered the mainstream of American life. They carried over much of this ‘yiddishkeit’, which still lingers within the translation nation of America. If you are interested in this period of history, check out this remarkable book, edited by Harvey Pekar (of ‘American Splendor’ fame).
An interesting dualism, resulting from this migration, is the difference between degrees of assimilation, so to speak. Check out this clip by the great Larry David, where he tries to pass off as more Orthodox and not appear too American and secular in front of a more practicing co-religionist.
Slang and Vocabulary
Yiddish is firmly entrenched in American English. Here is a list of words you will know which have entered the English vocabulary in the United States. Many of these words are widely used and yet their origins elude most Americans.
For a while, not only written language, but also Yiddish speakers survived. Actor Leonard Nimoy, who played ‘Spock’, was totally fluent in Yiddish, for one. His friend William Shatner, who played ‘Captain Kirk’, comments on this ability: “Leonard Nimoy was the only man I have ever known who could perform Shakespeare in Yiddish; he could make you appreciate the beauty even if you didn’t understand a word beyond Oy gevalt, Hamlet.”
Although some written language survives today, speakers are increasingly harder to find:
“While Yiddish words and phrases pepper modern American English, the future of the language is uncertain. The 2007 American Community Survey on Language Use counted just 158,991 people who spoke Yiddish at home in the United States, a drop of nearly 50 percent from 1980 to 2007; a 2011 update on the same report recorded 154,763 Yiddish speakers, a drop of approximately 1000 Yiddish speakers per year.”
Goodfellas and Schnucks
Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ ends with a Yiddish word: “schnuck” (Not even with the more popular and common “schmuck”). This is interesting because this is an Italian-American film and yet it ends with a singularly Yiddish word.
Perhaps it is the final admission by Scorsese that this film is neither Italian, perhaps not even Italian-American, but rather just American. The use of the word “schnuck” represents a Henry Hill (himself of both Irish and Italian ancestry) who belongs to a time, a place and a neighborhood that are essentially American. We will examine these themes further when we talk about Italian-Americans.
This is the core of the concept of the United States as a translation nation: a plethora of languages and cultures, and yet only one broad American identity.
A great film which captures this transition from languages/cultures from Europe towards ‘Americana’ is ‘Once Upon a Time in America’. This is arguably a film equal in stature to ‘The Godfather’, though strangely overlooked nowadays.
There is not much throughout the film, particularly as it progresses, to remind us that these characters are Jewish and sons and daughters of immigrants from Eastern Europe. As the story advances, they become more and more American, eventually becoming part and parcel of the new nation (and thoroughly enmeshed in the turmoil of their new home). As this happens, their language loses all signs of the old country.
A particularly moving, and telling scene, is the return of David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson from Buffalo, New York, after decades of living there. In many ways, for better or worse ‘Noodles’ is fully Americanized now, and indeed ensconced in his new identity as an American.
Translation Nation Italian
Italian-Americans are another community which opens up a good opportunity to assess the USA as a translation nation.
One of the preeminent television shows in history is ‘The Sopranos’. It is a phenomenal exploration of life for Italian-Americans and organized crime, sure, but most importantly, of contemporary America itself.
Perhaps the best episode exploring the dualism between Italian-Americans and Italians is ‘Commendatori’ (Season 2, Episode 4). In this particular episode, Tony travels to Naples to make a deal with the Camorra.
There are several things in the episode that elicit the tension between the ‘old country’ and ‘translation nation’ USA, so to speak. The first one is Paulie attempting to rediscover his roots.
Paulie and his Roots
The writing in this show was first-rate and the themes of the episodes are explored in the most minute details. Take a look at this clip and note for example how Paulie asks for “gravy”, to go with his pasta. Such a request inarguably places him firmly in the United States, radically alien to the customs and ways of his ancestral homeland.
The trip reveals a vast chasm between Paulie and Italy and yet when he returns he cannot dare describe this to others. He quickly admonishes a character over how he needs to go and see Italy, for example.
Furio in America
The trip to Naples brings about Furio Giunta’s move to the United States, to work for Tony. He embodies many characteristics of the Italian and particularly of the Italian ‘Camorrista’. The dualism between him and Americans is played for effect constantly throughout his run in the series. The clash between Naples and the new translation nation is inevitably jarring.
Notice this clip of Furio and Tony simultaneously preparing food (Season 4, Episode 10, ‘The Strong, Silent Type’). Their differences, arguably the differences between the two cultures, are examined. Furio cooks with care and know-how and drinks a glass of wine with his dinner. Tony re-heats leftovers on the microwave and washes them down with milk.
We cannot examine U.S translation nation issues without taking a look at ‘The Godfather’. The trilogy of films is a meditation on identity and on the sojourn from Europe and into the ‘mainstream’ of American life.
A particularly illustrative moment occurs at the beginning of ‘Godfather II’. Frank Pentangeli asks the band to play a tarantella, a traditional Italian song/dance. The band, however, cannot fulfill the request. The most they can muster is a rendition of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, an English/American song.
Although there is certainly some foreshadowing of Frank’s fate in the story (‘pop goes the weasel’) there is probably another layer of commentary on the ‘Americanization’ of Italians. The band cannot play songs from the ‘old country’ but rather only American tunes. The transition of Italian-Americans into Americans is clear.
It is also interesting that this time around the band does not know the Italian song. In ‘Godfather I’, they were able to perform the tarantella ‘C’è la luna mezzo mare’ while Mrs. Corleone and others sang along. Perhaps this signals the evermore ‘Americanization’ of the Corleones (and of Italians in America in general) as they move towards the mainstream of translation nation USA.
The Gist of It
We have examined the concept of the United States as a translation nation. We have ascertained some of the different influences that have made the U.S the place it is. Jewish and Italian immigrants shed many facets of their identity and became Americans. The echoes of their travels and history linger on and still inform their experience and also give form to American culture at large. The objective of the piece was simply to observe the United States as a translation nation: a place that is the sum of several languages and cultures and yet something quite unique altogether.
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