Correction: machine translation generates false irony

This Yiddish-language recruiting poster for a settlement in the Soviet Union’s Jewish Autonomous Region translates in part as, “Come to us in קאָלװירט.” But what might that last word, kolvirt, mean? The other day my own Yiddish wasn’t good enough to help, and I couldn’t find the word in any Yiddish dictionary. The source where I found the image,, translates the text as “Drive to the collective farm,” but that’s obviously wrong. You don’t drive a tractor to a farm, you drive it on a farm, and those first four words are an invitation to come, not to go.

Yiddish poster C

But online, the image links via image search to a machine translation of a Yiddish-language history of the Autonomous Region which translates kolvirt as the name of a settlement called, wait for it, Calvary.

“Calvary” is also the machine translation of the word in some other online Yiddish texts, so I went ahead and wrote an ironic blogpost about linking a Christian term by cartographic fiat to a Jewish woman praying (in the gray background, behind the Red tractor girls) over her Sabbath candles. After your shift is over, ladies of the sisterhood, won’t you join us in Calvary for mah jongg?

But קאָלװירט is scattered around Google’s machine-translation garage in other twentieth-century Yiddish texts, and it isn’t always rendered there as “Calvary.” Sometimes it comes out, meaninglessly, as “culvert,” and often it’s just left in transliteration. Besides, the usual Russian word for “Calvary” transliterates as Golgofa. And how much implausible Christian irony can one little Jewish population plausibly sustain, even if the Party has vouchsafed it its own Autonomous Region?

Besides (2, to be filed under “Funny, you don’t look Jewish”) in this version of the poster the tractor crew has been migrated candles and all to Mongolia, and there the Oirat-language word kolxosko at least looks to my uneducated eye like the Russian колхоз, kolkhoz, “collective farm.”


And finally (3) I couldn’t find the mystery Yiddish word in any of the Yiddish dictionaries I consulted, but here it is, long way around, in an English dictionary.


I’ve deleted my original post accordingly.