Wednesday, September 30, 2015

phrase of the day: Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess

In Bernard Cooper’s novel, A Year of Rhymes, the young narrator has an aunt who occasionally lets out a Yiddish word or phrase. I am familiar with Yiddish only in the most banal sort of way — oy vey, say, or mensch.

When I came across Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess I didn’t know what to do with it.

Here’s the context: The young teen narrator has a brother almost ten years his elder and this brother is dating a young woman of whom the family doesn’t quite approve. Marion and Bob step out to the patio thinking they are having a private argument but, of course, everybody in the house overhears. Aunt Ida, disgusted by the scene, prods the younger brother to retreat to his bedroom:

”Say good night,” she commanded.


“Because,” said Ida, “the sun has sunk.” … Ida stomped through the dining room, dragging me behind her. … All the way down the hall, Ida spat Yiddish invective. She shut the door to my bedroom behind us, leaned against it, and glared toward God. “Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess.

This is Yiddish invective? I tried Googling the whole phrase but got nothing. I tried Google Translate and got — nothing. I approached my husband for ideas. He suggested trying just the phrase “toyten bahkess, as he thought it might be the most important part.

I did get something then. Maybe my lack of result earlier had to do with Cooper’s nonstandard spelling — if there is a standard. The best explanation I found for the phrase spells it rather differently: ES VET HELFN VI A TOYTN BANKES. That’s so close to Cooper’s phrase that I figure it must be the same thing. Right?

Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe translates it: "It will help like blood-cupping a corpse; it's absolutely hopeless; wasted effort; useless.”

Blood-cupping. This is what Wikipedia says about that, “Cupping therapy is an ancient form of alternative medicine in which a local suction is created on the skin; practitioners believe this mobilizes blood flow in order to promote healing. Suction is created using heat (fire) or mechanical devices (hand or electrical pumps).” The suction is used to affix cup or small bowl to the skin, presumably to help draw illness out of the body.

Since cupping is a treatment for sickness I suppose, like any treatment for sickness, cupping would be pointless when used on a corpse.

Before the internet developed its many useful and easy tools I wouldn’t have done more than shrug at this bit of language. What could I have done to make it accessible? Get out the phone book and find a Yiddish language expert? Write a letter to the author? It’s common in literature to encounter bits of other languages plopped untranslated into English. Typically it’s Latin or, even worse, Greek. But I’ve stumbled (or skipped blithely) over French and German, too. When reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer I put in placemarks wherever I came across untranslated French. Later I typed up all the bits and made them a DIR post. A less-than-useful post, I’m sure, as I didn’t know how to include the curlies and hooks on the letters to make them authentically French.

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