Translating the Mayrent Collection: An Interview with Andrew Gaines

This is the first in a multi-part series focusing on the people who are making possible the digitization, archiving, and preservation of the Mayrent Collection. This month I interview Andrew Gaines, a recent UW-Madison graduate whose work on the Collection allowed us to provide metadata in its original, transliterated, and translated forms. 


Tell me a little about yourself and what brought you to UW-Madison.

I grew up all over the country. As the son of an Air Force doctor, I spent most of my childhood moving from place to place every few years. I had the privilege of living in and experiencing places as disparate as Alaska, Mississippi, and New Mexico. Ending up in Wisconsin was actually a happy accident—my mom wanted to return to her native Midwest, and I wanted to stay closer to home for college.

I’ve always had a passion for languages and linguistics, so it took me no time at all to decide on a major. One of the great things about studying at UW-Madison was the huge number of languages it offered. In addition to Hebrew, I took four semesters of Persian with the thought of someday working for the State Department.


Did you work on other projects while you were a student at UW?

As a student, I used my familiarity with a variety of lesser-known languages to decipher and catalog many of the foreign language books that had been donated to Memorial Library.


What is your background in Yiddish? Were you fluent or conversant before starting at UW?

Among Yiddishists both amateur and professional, I think my familial background is fairly unique. My family converted to Judaism when I was a child, so Yiddish wasn’t a part of my heritage growing up. Same goes for Hebrew—I learned some of the language as a middle schooler at a Jewish day school, but I was by no means fluent by the time I started college.

I explored Hebrew and Jewish literature on campus for cultural reasons, and my interest in Yiddish language in particular was sparked while taking courses in Eastern European Jewish literature in translation with Professor Philip Hollander. I took to Memorial Library to check out those works in the original Yiddish, along with a few dictionaries and grammars of the language, and set to work puzzling them out on my own. For better or worse, most of my Yiddish is self-taught.


How did you get involved working with the Mayrent Collection? What were some of the challenges you encountered?

My work as a “rare” language cataloguer segued neatly into working on the Collection. I graduated from college and was very lucky to immediately find such a large-scale project in need of someone who could “do” Yiddish. I worked on it for the better part of two years, both in person and remotely, and enjoyed my work immensely. My work was not without a few challenges, however.

Context is king when you’re translating between languages, all the more so with a language like Yiddish, which is so rich in references and allusions to Jewish culture and religion. Despite my goyishe background, I received a decent education in Judaism, but some of the references I encountered went over my head, and I had to spend a lot of time doing research.

Another difficulty is the incredible diversity of language that is called “Yiddish.” The language had tens or hundreds of dialects spanning from the Netherlands to Russia, notwithstanding the new varieties of Yiddish that cropped up in places like New York and Argentina. Thankfully, a lot of this diversity is preserved in the Mayrent collection. Grappling with it using only the Max Weinrich-esque “Standard Yiddish” books I had at hand was a satisfying but very tough endeavor.

A lot of my ultimate satisfaction in working on this project came from knowing that I was helping to preserve Yiddish culture for future generations.


What have you been doing since graduation?

I’m currently working on becoming a software developer, focusing for now on web development. Ultimately, I’m hoping to use my skills in programming to start a career in natural language processing, a branch of linguistics that relies on computers to analyze linguistic data. My goal is to use those tools to study the huge corpus of Yiddish text that exists to study the evolution of the language over time, and compare it with other languages that have developed in close contact situations. Hopefully, I’ll be able to generalize some of the grammatical effects of language contact across languages and language families.


Andrew Gaines (UW‑Madison ’14, Linguistics) worked as a translator for the Mayrent Collection of Yiddish Recordings from 2014-2016. He’s currently training in web development and software engineering with plans to study the development of the Yiddish language using digital humanities methodologies.