VCU Menorah Review
Current issue • Archive • Search
VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2009
Number 71
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Traduttore, Traditore?

Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation
By Naomi Seidman. University of Chicago Press.

A review essay by Peter J. Haas

In the epilogue to this book, Naomi Seidman notes that she once considered (whether seriously or not) calling her book “Entdecktes Judenthum (Judaism Unmasked)” in maybe a mocking reference to the famous late 17th century anti-Semitic composition of Johann Eisenmenger. The connection is that in the volume before us, Seidman “unmasks” the varieties of concealments that have been bound up with the translation of Jewish texts into non-Jewish languages. What differentiates Seidman’s book from Einsenmenger’s (among other things) is her premise that such disconnects and distortions are simply part of the translation enterprise altogether, an enterprise fraught with all sorts of social, ideological and theological baggage, especially when the translations runs from Jewish texts into Christian languages. I suppose to some extent this is obvious. But in the course of teasing out these complexities, Seidman introduces us in a compelling and fascinating way to the multi-layered and cultural entangled relations between Jews and Christians (or of Judaism and Christianity) over the past two millennia.

That speculative title aside, the actual title of the book also tells us a lot about the central problematic which animates this work. Let me spend a moment on deconstructing the title, a maneuver fully in accord with the way the book itself operates. On its simplest (dare I say “peshat”) level, the title “Faithful Renderings” suggests the issue of how one renders the meaning of one language into another language in a way that is responsible or “faithful” to the original. But the book is also about how the whole notion of translation is a central node of disagreement between the two great faiths of Judaism and Christianity. In other words, how writers within each community understand what it means to translate the Bible is itself a differentiating theme between these two faiths. This is true both on the micro scale that is, on how does one translates certain words or passages, such as Isaiah’s “betulah” (a “virgin” or just a “young woman”) and on the macro scale: Christianity as a (mis) translation of Judaism. The possibility of these two interpretations of “faithful” in the title already hints, as the author makes clear in her introduction, that this book is not merely about the pitfalls of translations, but about translation between faiths, and in particular how Judaism and Christianity differ at a very foundation level precisely over their diverse faiths’ attitudes toward translation and translations.

There is, however, another ambiguity in the title. We take the word “rendering” in the title to be referring to the act of interpreting a text. One can be said to be giving a good rendition of a piece of music, for example, if the musician does a commendable job of turning the notes on the score into the kind of sound the composer more or less had in mind. But “render” has another meaning as well, namely, giving something up “render unto Caesar”); or even in a more basic form “rend”, to tear up completely. So a faithful rendition is also a giving up of something in order to be more faithful to a higher need. Thus one could argue on several levels about what it means to say that Christianity is a “faithful rendition” of Judaism. It is in this very act of trying to “translate” the title that we enter into the central problematic of the book.

It should be clear by now, that Seidman’s central thesis is that a culture’s attitude to translation has something to do with its attitude about itself. Translation opens one’s work, of course, to the broader world. This is a parlous move, however, because breaking down barriers not only can diminish misunderstandings, but it also can expose the source to outside criticism and challenge. This openness to outsiders is especially fraught when the two religious traditions in question are Judaism and Christianity, with their long history of mutual suspicions. Examining the translation of Judaism (Bible, Talmud, etc.) into Christianity is thus to enter an extraordinarily complicated relationship. The book works through its problematic in roughly historical sequence, starting in the Greco-Roman world and ending in modern America, traversing the Lutheran Reformation, the Germany of Buber and Rosenzweig, and the Holocaust along the way. As one reaches the end it is clear that in some sense we are back at the beginning; the same issues continue as a thread throughout.

Chapter One (“Immaculate Translation: Sexual Fidelity, Textual Transmission and the Virgin Birth”) deals with Matthew 1:23’s citation of Isaiah 7:14 concerning the birth of a child to a certain woman. Matthew has “virgin,” drawing upon the Septuagint’s Greek translation (“parthenos”) of what is taken to be the original Hebrew “alma,” which presumably means something like “maiden.” This pivotal disagreement in the two languages as to the status of the mother gives Seidman the occasion to examine exactly what is a translation and what is not. The chapter is thick with discussion about whether the Greek is a “translation” or an “interpretation,” whether the Hebrew we now have (“alma”) is really original or is itself a Jewish back (mis-) translation and whether at the end of the day the answers to any of these questions really makes a difference. This discussion recapitulates in many ways the whole relationship between Judaism and Christianity (is one a translation of the other, a mistranslation of the other, an interpretation of the other, does it even matter?) The chapter also spends considerable time considering the “foundation myth” of the Septuagint, namely the Letter of Aristeas and the long tradition of similar stories of the 70 (or 72) Jewish translators who were gathered in Egypt and miraculously produced a single consensus translation. What the story and its offspring are all about, Seidman tells us, is the very nature of translation enterprise altogether. The story, and its variations, are all meant to tell us that fully accurate translations are in fact possible, at least for the Bible. What is at issue among the variations is what exactly it is that is being translated: the words of the original, the meaning of the original, or in a sense the Urtext, that is the divine Word (or Logos) that was first “translated” into Hebrew and now is being translated into Greek. And what are we to make of the later rabbinic tradition that the translators in Egypt purposely introduced “mistakes”; or Jerome’s contention to his Christian readers that it was not the Septuagint that was authentic after all, but the Hebrew? Interlaced with all these questions is the image of the virgin, and the constant reference to sexuality and gender intertwined with the whole process of bringing a text and a translator together into a holy bond to produce a translation/offspring. In one of her several allusions along these lines, Seidman cites Derrida, for example, who proclaims that we “will never have, and in fact have never had, any 'transfer' of pure signifieds from one language to another, or within one language which would be left virgin and intact by the signifying instruments of 'vehicles.'” (p. 65).

Just as the Septuagint represents a model of a truly inspired translation that preserves the meaning of the original Sense (with a capital “S”) in another language, so does Aquilas (or Onqelos as he is known in the rabbinic tradition) represent the slavish, literalist approach that translates word for word, creating in the end a translation that is in a barely understandable “artificial” language. This is the subject of the second Chapter (“The Beauty of Greece in the Tents of Shem’: Aquila between the Camps”). Aquilas in fact went so far as to create a new Aramaic word (“yat”) to translate the untranslatable Hebrew word that marks the direct object (“et”). Seidman’s question, of course, is what are we to make of this strange translation. Set against a complex theological and historical background, the perception has emerged that a translation of the “spirit” of the text is more characteristic of Christianity, while Judaism tends toward a literalist approach. Seidman rightly notes that Paul’s distinction between letter and spirit could not have been meant to separate Jews from Christians, since he did not yet know of that religious difference. Yet these two distinct approaches to translation did indeed exist among Jews, as it did among Greeks. Nonetheless, Siedman goes on to argue, there is some truth in the claim that there was a “Jewish” emphasis on letters and words as bearers of meaning, just as there was a notion of the Jewish body as being the bearer of the divine, in the form of (physical) circumcision. In the context of this understanding, Seidman cites a passage from the midrash (Exodus Rabbah 30:12) in which Aquilas himself wanted to be circumcised before studying Torah. Here then lies the answer to the question of how we are to think of Aquilas as translator. Aquilas’ translation of the Torah into a kind of Hebraized Greek was an act, as it were, of Judaizing or “circumcising” the Greek language. Not only that, but in so doing, Aquilas was asserting Jewish superiority over the (Greek-speaking) Roman Empire. In this regard the act of translation, especially of Aquilas’ sort, can be seen as a profoundly political (one might say anti-colonialist) act.

Chapter Three (“False Friends: Conversion and Translation from Jerome to Luther”) turns our attention to much later translators, especially Martin Luther. The interesting point about Martin Luther’s translation, for Seidman, is that he, in effect, tried to erase the presence of Judaism altogether. To illustrate this point, Seidman shows the lengths to which Luther went to demystify the tetragrammaton and the notion of the “Shem HaMeforash” (the secret name of the deity made up of a special arrangement of Hebrew letters). The peculiarities of Hebrew and Jewish tradition Re thereby shown to be irrelevant. The result was that under his hand, Hebrew emerged as just another language with nothing particularly “Judaic” about it, thus making the Bible fully translatable, without remainder, into any other human language. On one level, Luther excluded the Jew from his translation simply by not relying on Jewish tutors or experts, in contrast to the standard practice of so many of his humanist contemporaries. On another level, however, Luther excluded the Jews by virtually manufacturing a vernacular German language so that the figures of the Bible not only spoke German directly, but as Seidman puts it, so that they would speak as Germans. Jews and Judaism were simply not relevant, and their Torah just another text.

The other side of making Hebrew just another language, was to at least imply that the Judaic tradition was not in principle secret or closed off to others. In theory, anyone could learn Hebrew and read the allegedly esoteric Hebrew literature for oneself. This in turn often put Jews in an awkward position. Translators who had converted from Judaism, for example, had as their strongest selling point their supposed knowledge of the “secret code” of Hebrew and so would be able to tell Christians what was really being said in the rabbinic texts. Hence, ironically, “Jewish” translators like Johannes Pfefferkorn had a built-in reason to denigrate the Judaism they left, while on the other hand Christian Hebraists like Johannes Reuchlin saw nothing particularly sinister in the Jewish texts at all. Jewish disputants like Jehiel of Paris, who was involved in a famous disputation with Nicholas Donin, could argue along the same lines that there was nothing evil or secret about the Talmud at all, and in fact if Christians were to read it they would find nothing of particular interest in it. Thus translation came to be a very political and loaded act during the Reformation. But the implications can be pressed even further. For Seidman, the falsity of the convert-translator is parallel to the falsity of Luther’s translation in which the angels speak German, but also parallel to the very act of conversion itself. Conversion is, after all, a kind of translation in its own way, as shown by the change of names (Saul to Paul, for example). And just like there were a variety of translations, and mutual mistrust about what was being translated and why, so too were there suspicions on both sides as to the sincerity of the convert.

Chapter Four (“A Translator Culture”) deals with the “translation culture” of Mendelssohn, Buber and Rosenzweig. The thesis of the chapter can be easily summarized as built on the premise that Hebrew-German textual translation is a reflection of the nineteenth century Jewish-German cultural conversation (p. 155). Thus, for example, Mendelssohn’s Bible translation was, like Mendelssohn himself, a moment allowing the Jews entry into Germanhood. This may be what Mendelssohn meant when he referred to his translation as a first step in bringing his Jewish readers toward culture. In this sense, the translation can be seen, drawing on Homi Bhabha, as the gift of the assimilated natives to their colonizers. Or, to take a slightly different tack, the translation from the Hebrew of the (male) yeshivah student to the common language of the (female) market and home, could be taken as a gesture towards feminizing the Jewish male. But this premise, Seidman points out, is suspect. It assumes that Jews and Hebrew are sort of organically linked, as might be the German language and the German volk. That equivalence is, of course, false; although to be sure it was taken up by some Zionists. If there was a language that masses of Jews spoke, it was not Hebrew but Yiddish, itself taken to be a butchered German. Furthermore, the Buber-Rosenzweig German-language Bible was meant not just for German Christians, but also (or especially?) for German-speaking Jews. Thus, like Mendelssohn’s work, it was a kind of hybrid. But while Mendelssohn’s translation was to make Jews similar to Germans, the Buber-Rosenzweig translation, by emphasizing the Jewishness of the Bible, was designed to make room for Jews as Jews in German culture (a sort of anti-Luther, as it were). If Mendelssohn was the good colonial; Buber-Rosenzweig were resisters. Once again we see that the work of translation is tightly bound up with questions of politics and assimilation. This discussion thus comes back to a consistent theme going back to the Septuagint and Aquilas, namely the supposed dichotomy between letter and spirit. It should come as no surprise, then, that the chapter ends with a lengthy discussion of the linguistic theories of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin argued for the utter distinctiveness of each language and the resultant freedom of the translator. But this very notion of language as utterly distinct to a people was a highly charged statement in the Germany of the 1930’s.

Chapter Five (“The Holocaust in Every Tongue”) turns attention to the Holocaust, and the ways in which it might be possible to “translate” the pain of the victims into another idiom. Seidman here then draws a surprising, and surprisingly fruitful, parallel to the Bible. There too there was a story of a particular Jewish suffering that through a translation (the Septuagint) became a sacred text for a whole civilization. The same, Seidman claims, is true of Holocaust literature. Once translated, it turned the Jewish catastrophe into a world-wide paradigm. And the parallels do not stop there. Just as in the case of the Hellenistic diaspora where Jews themselves learned of their sacred history through a translation, so too do modern American (and Israeli) Jews learn the sacred lessons of the Holocaust through translations. But what really captures the author’s attention is the history of the writing of Night, which began in Yiddish, but then appeared in French and is known to most of us in English. Seidman is interested in these three linguistic versions and in some of the “adjustments” made to the Yiddish story when the manuscript was being prepared for a more general, and so more gentile, readership. Also of interest are all the versions and the different accounts of Wiesel’s meeting with Francois Mauriac which resulted in Wiesel’s decision to break his silence and publish the book in the first place. Indeed, the book suggests, the authorial history of Night is as complex as that of the Septuagint. This chapter ends with an example of what one might say is a mistranslation of the Holocaust built out of a series of purposeful mistranslations; namely, Roberto Benigni’s film, “Life is Beautiful.”

The final chapter, “Translation and Assimilation: Singer in America” (the writer in question is Isaac Bashevis Singer) has to do with the survival of Yiddish literature, but in America and in translation. The connection with the twisted genealogy of Elie Wiesel’s Night (with its Yiddish urtext) is clear. What also comes through strongly is the question as to the extent to which the “Jewishness” of Yiddish can make it over the translational divide into English. Like in Alexandria or Germany, translation from a specifically Jewish text into a non-Jewish language is a metonym for assimilation. The rest of the chapter revolves around the issues of translation as regards two of Singer’s works, “Gimpel the Fool” and “Zeidlus the Pope.” In both works, but especially the second, one of the issues is how the character’s relationship to Christianity can be transferred out of its Yiddish context. In particular, for example, how can one make Zeidlus’ (Zaydlus’) explanation of his Christian experience, articulated in the very Jewish idiom of Yiddish, work the same way when expressed in a “Christian” language like English? What comes across as comic hybridity in the original, comes across quite differently to the English reader.

At the end the reader is confronted with the conundrum of the title: what is a “faithful” rendering of a Jewish sacred text into a non-Jewish language. The book obviously does not (and cannot) give an answer. But by reading the question through a variety of social, cultural, ideological and theological lenses, it deconstructs the question and reconstructs it into something much larger. What one comes away with is a strong sense of how through two millennia of “exile,” Judaism has been revealed and distorted; discovered and synthesized. And maybe behind it all is the question, never addressed, but often implied, as to whether or not there is a “real” Judaism out there, or whether all we ever have, even as Jews is (in all its ambiguity) a “faithful rendering.”

Peter J. Haas is the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies, chairs the Department of Religion at Case Western Reserve University, and is a contributing editor.

|  Virginia Commonwealth University  |  College of Humanities and Sciences  |  School of World Studies  |
Center for Judiac Studies

Comments and manuscripts are welcome.
Address all correspondence to:
Center for Judaic Studies
Box 842021
312 North Shafer Street
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2021

Phone: (804) 827-0909  |  Email:

Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

Created by VCU University Relations