Polly Is a Polyglot

download.pngWhat does an author need to transform a generally boring historical spoof on the state of pirates, global exploration, and religious persecution in the late fifteenth century? The obvious answer is an African gray parrot providing the narration and splattering it with more Yiddish terms than you’ll ever hear on the Grand Concourse.

Let’s face it, insertion of common and even obscure Yiddish allows the writer to forego any subtlety in his manufactured prose: just toss in a Yiddish exclamation and transform a clichéd pirate image into something that passes for new and fresh.

This inclusion of what are essentially foreign terms is just as problematic as if the author had kept inserting Spanish idioms or Nahuatl descriptions. Luckily my familiarity with Yiddish is sufficient that my reading and understanding suffered little, but unlike novels such as Clockwork Orange, is it really worth it?

Is it necessary? Integrated? Did it even make sense?


Yiddish For Pirates tells the story of a young Jew and his ever-present parrot as they escape religious persecution during the Spanish Inquisition, set sail with pirates, and run into Columbus on both sides of the ocean.

With the recent reassessment of Christopher Columbus, it is interesting to read how Barwin deals with Columbus and the discovery of the New World. If you want to know, read the book. But I will admit that the author refers to Columbus as a “great discoverer of what was already there.”

This novel, it seems, has received a number of accolades so my assessment might be suspect; then again, this novel seldom is as interesting as Hakluyt’s Voyages. You decide.

Gary Barwin is a Canadian poet, writer, composer, multimedia artist, performer and educator. Wkipedia offers this partial list of his works:

1995:  Cruelty to Fabulous Animals, poetry/fiction. Moonstone Press
1995:  The Mud Game, novel, collaboration with Stuart Ross. Mercury Press
1998:  Big Red Baby, short fiction. The Mercury Press
1998:  Outside the Hat, poetry. Coach House Books
2001:  Raising Eyebrows, poetry. Coach House Books
2004:  Doctor Weep and Other Strange Teeth, fiction. The Mercury Press
2005:  Frogments from the Frag Pool, poetry, collaboration with Derek Beaulieu). Mercury Press
2010:  The Porcupinity of the Stars, poetry. Coach House Books.
2011:  The Obvious Flap, poetry, collaboration with Gregory Betts, BookThug
2011:  Franzlations: the Imaginary Kafka Parables, (poetry, collaboration with Craig Conley and Hugh Thomas). New Star.
2014:  Moon Baboon Canoe, poetry. Mansfield Press.
2015:  The Wild and Unfathomable Always, visual poetry. Xexoxial Editions*
2015:  I, Dr. Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457, fiction. Anvil Press
2015:  Sonosyntactics: Selected and New Poetry of Paul Dutton,, poetry. Edited and introduced by Barwin. Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
2016:  Yiddish for Pirates, novel. Random House Canada
2017:  “No TV for Woodpeckers”, poetry. Buckrider Books, Wolsak and Wynn Press.

3 thoughts on “Polly Is a Polyglot

  1. Like yourself I have some knowledge of Yiddish, from a Polish Jewish Grandfather. However, I hate if when someone just sprinkles Yiddish as if it was pepper on a dish. If it adds something and is at least translated on the first occasion, its fine, but I hate authors who add Russian , Chinese or some other language (Rumanian anyone) as it smacks of laziness to me.


    1. Agreed. Laziness or misapplied (and often unearned) erudition?

      Actually the author does follow up a great deal of the Yiddish with an English version, but this is possibly more annoying. Remember, I dislike footnotes, especially when I go to all the trouble to flip to the back of the book or the bottom of the page and discover something I already know: something almost every one should know.


      1. Oh I think you are absolutely right, undigested knowledge is very alike stupidity in some cases. I agree about footnotes. I acquired a set of the Yale Jane Austen, the notes overwhelm the text, and in the main are totally superfluous.


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