Jewish Translation in Early Modern Europe: Strange Encounters on the Threshold of Modernity

Research project by Dr. Iris Idelson-Shein

The early modern period saw the development of a rich corpus of Hebrew and Yiddish translations of non-Jewish texts, primarily from German but also from Latin, Italian, English, and other languages. This literary endeavour encompassed writers from all corners of the Jewish literary world; from the writers of popular Yiddish chapbooks, such as the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century translations of Eulenspiegel or the Arabian Nights, through respected Jewish physicians, such as Jacob Zahalon or Tuviah Ha-Cohen, to members of the Jewish Haskalah like Moses Mendelssohn and Aaron Halle Wolfssohn. Significantly, such translations were not solely the product of “secular” writers. There is evidence to suggest, for instance, that even the Vilna Gaon was an ardent supporter of Hebrew translations of non-Jewish scientific works, and that he encouraged his disciples to produce such translations of their own.

Contrary to modern sensitivities, translation was perceived by early modern Jews as creative work, so much so that few translators made note of their works being a translation at all. The non-Jewish source text was most often viewed as a starting point from which a new and often radically different work would spring. Consequently, one of the first aims of this research project will be to unravel the scope of the early modern Jewish translation project, to identify its various participants, and their different cultural, national, linguistic, religious and social backgrounds.

This endeavour often yields surprising results. A few years ago, for instance, I discovered a Hebrew translation of the magnum opus of the famous French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc De Buffon, the Histoire Naturelle. Curiously, the translation was produced not by a member of the early Haskalah, but rather by a rabbinical scholar—Abraham Ben Elijah of Vilna, son of the Vilna Gaon. That the Gaon’s son would translate the work of a French deist suggests a remarkable openness to secular knowledge, which far exceeds the expectations of contemporary historians. I am convinced that further research will yield many more such hidden translations, raising further insights into early modern Jews’ access to non-Jewish science, literature and culture, and their interest in them.

Translation, it is often said, is a negotiation of meanings, the outcome of which is hybridity and newness. Early modern Jewish translations in Hebrew and Yiddish offer a prime example. In their attitude towards the hegemonic, non-Jewish culture, Jewish translators were deeply ambivalent; they were simultaneously submissive and subversive; they accepted, yet they adapted; they at once embraced and rejected their sources. It is here—in the slight deviations, omissions, mistranslations and adaptations, which Jewish translators made as they sought to adapt their works to their various Jewish readerships—that the power and limitations of Jewish-Christian exchange are most vividly revealed. Indeed, translations expose, in the clearest possible way, not only what Jewish authors wished to convey to their readers, but also what they chose to leave unsaid. In this manner we are able to identify the limitations and expectations that existed in these authors’ various cultural, religious, social and literary communities.

The anticipated result of this project is a book on Jewish translation in the early modern period, encompassing Hebrew, Yiddish and German translations from German, Latin, English and French.