New Perspective on the Goblin Problem Found in Yiddish Philosopher’s Stone

The Harry Potter ‘Goblin Problem,’ in brief, is that many people believe it is a demonstrated truth impossible to refute that the Gringotts Bankers are Rowling’s anti-Semitic portraits of the evil, hook-nosed Jewish money-lenders. It didn’t help that comedian Jon Stewart made comments last month that suggested he felt the Gringotts Goblins were definitely problematic for Jews.

Nick Jeffrey wroteThe Gringotts Goblins and accusations of anti-Semitism (again)‘ to explain the origin of this mistaken if still prevalent belief, the Warner Brothers film adaptation Goblins. He also explained the errors of certain “proofs” offered online for the assertion that Rowling is an anti-Semite, shared the statements of Jewish groups on this matter, and included the response of Jon Stewart to the news agencies who put out the word that he thought the writer was a bigot (pretty funny). Beatrice Groves in 2019 wrote two posts at ‘Bathilda’s Notebook’ about this issue, Rowling’s Goblin Problem? and The Sword Until Recently Known as Gryffindor’s, in which she clarified how the Gringotts Goblins were traditional artisans rather than rapacious usurers. I expanded on this idea in my post on traditional or sacred art (and how it differs from aesthetic and profane artistry), Christmas Pig 4: The Magic in Things, point three.

It’s still a live issue in some circles, however, especially as it is no longer an outrage for someone in Potter Fandom to assert that Rowling is a bigot; it is, though absurd and libelous, now almost a first principle on major fan sites, a sign of their “commitment.” I was being interviewed by the BBC last year when another guest, the host of a website dedicated to reading the Harry Potter novels as secular scripture, asserted off-hand that the Gringotts Goblins were obvious anti-Semitic tropes; Beatrice Groves was also on hand and set her straight in so compelling and gracious a fashion that the producers felt obliged to delete that exchange from the aired version.

All that background is the necessary context for something I read today about the translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into Yiddish (hat tip, David Martin!). The article in Tablet, ‘How Do You Say ‘Quidditch’ in Yiddish? The inside story of how ‘Harry Potter’ was translated into Yiddish,’ tells the delightful story of how the first entry of the Hogwarts Saga made its way into the native language of Isaac Asimov, Saul Bellow, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Read the whole thingit’s as good as the prompt for it says:  “How did such an unusual edition come to be produced nearly 23 years after its source material’s publication? The work of an Indian-American Orthodox Jewish translator, and printed by a publishing house in Sweden, the story behind Harry Potter un der filosofisher shteyn is almost as remarkable as the story it tells.” Dumbledore, for instance, as represented in Yiddish “speaks in the Yiddish register of a rabbinic dean of a yeshiva because that’s the role he plays at Hogwarts, not because he’s actually Jewish.”

What I found most interesting, though, is how the translator chose to represent the Goblins.

The most sensitive instance of this linguistic adaptation concerns the book’s goblins, who run the wizard bank Gringotts. In the past, some have suggested that these creatures are meant to evoke an anti-Semitic stereotype, though this claim has been dismissed by Jewish advocacy organizations (Rowling herself has spoken out at some length against anti-Semitism). Viswanath, having read the books many times, agreed. Though “the general goblin trope has been associated with anti-Semitic tropes in Christian lore, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s totally not anti-Semitic here,” he said. “There is no indication that they have long noses or that they love money. They guard the money. They don’t love money.” Instead, Viswanath imparted to the goblins a different aspect of the Jewish experience: The coded in-language of an oppressed minority in a hostile culture.

In Yiddish, the goblins refer to humans using the same terms that Jews in the Middle Ages often used among themselves to refer to non-Jews. “There was this tradition in the Middle Ages of Jews speaking Hebrew so the non-Jews wouldn’t understand what they were saying,” said Viswanath. “They couldn’t speak in Yiddish because it was too close to German, so there is this tradition of Jews in the presence of a non-Jew who didn’t understand Hebrew saying, ‘der adon is meyvin kol dibbur,’ meaning ‘watch out, this guy understands Yiddish.’” Thus, where medieval Jews might refer to non-Jews with the Hebrew word adon, the goblins refer to humans as adon. “I wanted to reflect that insularity in a very subtle way.”

The Goblins of Harry Potter un der filosofisher shteynin other words, are a persecuted minority living in something akin to a religious ghetto, as we know from Professor Binns, subject to periodic pogroms. I thought this very much in alignment with Professor Groves’ Marxist interpretation of their role as that of artisans rather than industrial manufacturers and my Perennialist reading of them as sacred artists working contra mundum.

Again, read the whole Tablet piece and, if you have a moment, listen to this interview with the translator — and then let us know what you think of Viswanath’s choices about how to portray the Grongotts bankers and craftsmen in the comment boxes below.






  1. i applaud you and Beatrice

  2. Nick Jeffery says

    One of the real pleasures of research is answering questions I had not considered before. In this case Beatrice Groves asked me if it was possible to know how well the Yiddish edition had sold.

    The first edition sold out within 48hrs:

    2nd edition first printing sold out within one month of pre-order:

  3. Thank you for this John & Nick (and for your comment Anon – much appreciated!). I was delighted to find out about Arun Viswanath’s translation – and the fascinating creative choices he made – and it is very pleasing, Nick, to discover that it has been been rewarded with such a successful book!

  4. Debby Downer here to note that these were very small print runs of one thousand books. I have no doubts that selling two thousand books in Yiddish is a lot but I wonder how many of the buyers were Harry Potter book collectors, whose number I expect may be over one thousand.

    I can testify, however, to the utility of such translations in learning neglected-if-not-quite-dead languages. I used the Latin version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in my classrooms for schoolers and unschoolers back in the day and student enthusiasm for learning about passive periphrastic, indirect discourse, and sequence of tenses was off the chart if understanding those ideas made grasping their favorite book in a different language easier.

    I’ve heard, too, that the Latin edition of the book has outsold every book ever written in Latin ever, i.e., that there are more copies of Harrius Potter than of the Aeneid or The Gallic Wars. I find that hard to believe — how does one calculate how many copies of The Consolation of Philosophy have sold across the centuries? — but that it is a credible rumor speaks to the translation’s popularity.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thank you for this! Delightful to know – and to read such an enjoyable article and listen to such an enjoyable interview! (Fascinating to read that Olniansky have also published a Yiddish translation of The Hobbit.)

    What a tantalizing article, too though… Just what did he do with “I am Lord Voldemort” and Tom Riddle’s name?

    Among the vivid details in both, and with Arun Viswanath’s description of searching the corpus of Yiddish texts for references to the word for magic’ in context, I am also tantalized that Yiddish folklore and the ‘magical’ matter of, e.g., some of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s historical fiction was not given explicit attention. Surely there’s some interesting scholarly work to be done, here.

    I am glad to see that it is being reprinted – I can imagine class-sets would be useful for Yiddish learners… and, for that matter, an audiobook!

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I now see that Arun (“Arele”) Schaechter Viswanath has read the whole first chapter, which is uploaded on the League for Yiddish channel at YouTube as “Harry Potter – Excerpt in Yiddish”. There are also at least four (as far as I have sampled them) lively and delightful interviews with/talks by him on the UConnJUDS, Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies, University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts, and City Congregation NYC channels with at least the first three including the Song of the Sorting Hat from chapter seven (the first comparing and showing text and translation).

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