A YIVO scholar translates a popular sea-shanty to “yam-narishkaytn”.
(JTA) — Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
ShvomBob Kvadrat-hoyzn, of course.
And now the Jewish world knows how to say “SpongeBob SquarePants” in Yiddish, thanks to a translation of the animated children’s show’s theme song by Eddy Portnoy, Academic Advisor and Director of Exhibits at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. in Manhattan.
Last week, Portnoy’s college-aged daughter put “SpongeBob” on TV, and Portnoy was inspired. He typed the lyrics into his Notes app and posted the translation on Twitter, and let the algorithm do the rest.
“I can choose anything to translate,” he said, “but it’s kind of funny, because it’s not something you expect to hear in Yiddish.”
The lyrics alone were well received, then vocalized by Yiddish TikToker Cameron Bernstein, communications officer at the Yiddish Book Center, who recorded herself singing the translation.
The Nickelodeon animated comedy series features a medley of undersea characters, including the titular SpongeBob (an eternally optimistic sponge); his best friend Patrick, a dark but loyal starfish; and SpongeBob’s dyspeptic colleague and nemesis, Squidward (a squid).
After 21 years and 276 episodes, the series is the fifth longest-running anime series of all time, and its tongue-in-cheek theme song, loosely based on the sea song “Blow the Man Down” and sung by a pirate, is familiar. to at least two generations of viewers.
In the original, the pirate sings, “If it’s nautical nonsense, be anything you wish, / So drop it on the deck and flop like a fish!” In Yiddish, it becomes “Oyb yam-narishkaytn iz epes ir vintsht,/Falt arop af der erd via a meshugenem fish!”
“People can take this stuff and run with it,” Portnoy said. “For me, it’s just kind of a fun exercise; to see if I can do it, to make it rhyme, to see if it works.
The study of Yiddish outside of Haredi Orthodox communities, where it is often spoken as a first language, has seen a revival in recent years. YIVO’s online summer learning program saw the highest number of enrollments in its 54-year history in 2020 and 2021, and just last week the institute hosted a webinar posing this question: Are we in the midst of a Yiddish renaissance? The Workers’ Circle also saw record enrollment for its Yiddish classes.
Portnoy is not the first to associate Yiddish with American pop culture. On her 1998 album, “Mamaloshen”, Mandy Patinkin sings a Yiddish version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. Last year, Rokhl Kafrissen, another Yiddishist, translated the lyrics to Jimmy Buffet’s “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” which was then performed by a trio of klezmer musicians commissioned by the Congress for Jewish Culture. Kafrissen’s version is not a word-for-word translation of the original because her goal was to create a “cultural translation,” she writes on her blog.
Yiddish is “sort of associated with older generations and Eastern Europe and so on,” Portnoy said. “But obviously there is this very American Yiddish and obviously the ultra-Orthodox communities still use it. But they definitely don’t watch “SpongeBob.” Or if they are, they do it in secret. I don’t know if there’s a huge SpongeBob SquarePants basement in Williamsburg or Borough Park.
Will Portnoy start again soon, however?
“If it becomes a regular thing, it’s a lot less interesting for people,” he said. “You can’t have lightning strike twice.”
By Jackie Hajdenberg