Can you say that again?

Can you say that again?

Authors’ ‘passion for Passover’ spurs unique collection

Talk about doing something from A to Z: In "300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions" authors Murray Spiegel and Ricky Stein parlay a shared passion into a potpourri of translations, with versions of the traditional Pesach questions in languages from Abkhaz to Zulu.

Offering renditions of the text in living languages, ancient languages, sign languages, and "constructed" languages (such Klingon), the authors want readers to "have fun," said Spiegel, who called the book "a modern-day Rosetta stone — all the languages and tongues living together in the same document, all trying to convey more or less the same thing."

Spiegel, with a background in speech research for telecommunications, and Stein, a longtime pharmacist, did not set out to collect hundreds of translations. The idea evolved after the two New Jersey residents met in a choir and discovered that they were both involved in the same activity, gathering the questions in a few languages from friends.

"I’m the ‘baby’ here," said Spiegel, interviewed by phone on Tuesday. He has been collecting these for 17 years. "Rickey’s been doing it for 36 years, so we generally average the number and call this a ‘5- to 30-year effort."

"We’re the only two people on earth collecting [the translations] privately," he said, describing their efforts as "a catalyst for translations. A lot of people do different translations," he said. "We’re the only ones who went overboard."

Spiegel, who prides himself on holding innovative seders — one year, his seder focused on Egyptian archaeology, and clues to finding the afikomen were written in hieroglyphics on a broken clay tablet — said he always likes to have new themes at his seder table. He pointed out that the book, containing ‘0 suggestions for use on the holiday, will give readers something new to do on Pesach for the next two decades.

"It would take about ‘5 years to read the book fully," said Spiegel. Still, he said, he has seen young children pick up the volume and pore over every word. "They were fascinated," he said.

The author, who said he has field-tested all the suggestions, proposed that seder participants might try to learn some of the chants to use at their seder. "The Judeo-Iraqi and Libyan are two of the most beautiful," he said. Or they might make flags for everyone at the table so that they can recite the Four Questions using Hebrew Semaphore, "pretending you’re on Israeli navy ships in the Mediterranean."

Spiegel pointed out that social themes can be integrated with particular translations. For example, he said, groups might select a South African language and discuss the fight against apartheid; or, in keeping with the holiday’s theme of slavery, they might choose a language, such as Malinke, spoken by slaves brought to the United Nations from Africa.

In compiling the book, which contains not only translations but photos and information about native speakers of each language, the authors sought help from people all over the world, both Jews and non-Jews.

"People bent over backwards to help," said Spiegel, reeling off instances where total strangers went above and beyond in their efforts to find native speakers of languages yet to be tapped by the authors.

While Spiegel said he had access to linguists through his job, and the two authors also made good use of Summer Institute of Linguistics workshops, many contacts were made informally through friends, family members, and new acquaintances. In addition, with the growth of the World Wide Web, he said, they have been able to approach a wider range of potential translators.

With few exceptions, the authors obtained recordings for each of the translations, though, said Spiegel — since they fill about seven CDs, and only one CD and one DVD are packaged with book — they were forced to include only highlights. In two cases, said Spiegel, it was not sufficient to send tapes to the potential translators, the authors’ usual practice. Since the translators did not have tape recorders, it proved necessary to send those as well.

"We’ve had a lot of fun doing this and we want others to have fun as well," said Spiegel. "There’s also lots to learn."

What he learned, he said, "was how helpful people are around the world." He gives three examples. One, he said, was a British linguist he met at a speech conference who was so eager to help that — once she ascertained that he had received both Manx (from the Isle of Man) and Gaelic Scots translations — took it upon herself to approach the chief translator of the Cornish Language Board to secure a Cornish translation. A second was a member of the Bukharin community who was so excited about the project that he tried to record the entire seder service in Bukharin — filling the tape before he even got to the Ma Nishtana. Third was a group devoted to Old English who posted notices on an Internet bulletin board (prior to the development of the Web) questioning its raison d’?tre until receiving the authors’ request for a translation. (It took seven members one year to provide it.)

Copies of "300 Ways to ask the Four Questions" ($39.95) can be ordered through the Website