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A History of German Jewish Bibie Translation.

A History of German Jewish Bibie Translation

By Abigail Gillman. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 332 pp.

Within merely a century and a half, from the late eighteenth century to the early years of the Nazi regime, the relatively small German-speaking Jewish minority in Central Europe produced a dozen different German translations of the entire Hebrew Bible, as well as many more partial ones. No other Jewish diaspora, to this day, has been more prolific in the field of bible translation. The impact of these translations has gone far beyond the German Jewish sphere: Mendelssohn's Be'ur was intensively received in Eastern Europe for many generations, whereas S. R. Hirsch's German Pentateuch was published twice in English, and Everette Fox's modern-day English translation follows the principles of Buber and Rosenzweig's German Bible--neither of which (as well as other many English Jewish bibles) are mentioned in David DanielPs formidable The Bible in English (2003). Quite a few scholarly essays have treated one or several of these German translations; Abigail Gillman's, however, is the first full-fledged book to offer a history of German Jewish bible translation as a whole.

Gillman divides the translations she discusses into four consecutive "waves." The first wave expectedly includes Mendelssohn's translation, but starts, significantly, with the Yiddish translations of Blitz and of Witzenhausen, published in Amsterdam a century before the Be'ur. Taken together, these works constitute the revolutionary "Jewish Enlightenment Bibles," the roots of which can be traced back to the Reformation and Luther, whose German translation influenced, directly or otherwise, all Yiddish and German Jewish bibles.

The chapter on the second wave discusses the translations of Joseph Johlson, Gotthold Salomon, Leopold Zunz, and Salomon Herxheimer, all of which were published in the 1830s and 1840s and aimed at German-speaking Jews "for whom traditional Judaism had lost its innate appeal" (87). Philologically informed and a reaction to Mendelssohn's, these translations were literal and foreignizing, and their authors sought to "invent a more Hebrew-sounding German Jewish biblical idiom" (99). Their focus was predominantly on the biblical text itself, with very little paratext.

The third wave includes the two highly popular translations of respectively Jewish liberal and Modern-Orthodox leaders, Ludwig Philippson and S. R. Hirsch, published in the second half of the nineteenth century. Despite denominational differences, these works reveal a visually striking similarity: Unlike their predecessors of the second wave, both Philippson and Hirsch added a comprehensive commentary, in some cases almost dwarfing the bilingual biblical text itself. Additionally, Philippson's bible is extensively illustrated. Whereas Philippson anchored his commentary in an encyclopedic knowledge of "the Orient," constructing what Gillman terms "a national story," Hirsch in his commentary turned his readers' attention inward, to the minute phonetic nuances of the I lebrew text. Both Philippson and Hirsch, Gillman claims, turned the bible into a Gesamtkunstwerk.

The fourth and last wave includes, expectedlv, the Buber-Rosenzweig famous I erdeutschung [Germanization] of the Bible, and the much less obvious choice of Berta Pappenheim's translation of the Yiddish Frciuenbibel [women's bible] Zeenah u-Reenah, an adaptation of the Genesis stories. Both twentieth-century translations offer a radical break with the tradition outlined by the previous waves. Buber in particular stressed the need to listen to the "naked" bible, stripped of a thousand years of reading and interpretation.

Each translation of the bible stands at a crossroads of numerous factors: religious, philological, cultural, social, even commercial. Gillman's discussion seems to leave little untouched: from comparative textual analysis, through the paratextual level of introductions, commentary, and visual aspects, on to the biographies of the translator, their cultural environment, both Jewish and (too often neglected in previous studies) Christian, up to the contemporary reception and later legacies. While Mendelssohn's and Buber-Rosenzweig's translations have been the subject of much earlier scholarship, their respective lesser-known counterparts (the translation into or from Yiddish, i.e., Blitz-Witzenhausen and Pappenheim) add an illuminating aspect to the discussion of the first and fourth waves. The bibles of the second and third waves have earned relatively little scholarly attention thus far, and I found their discussion especially interesting. Despite the copious divergent threads that the author pursues through the book, she does manage to connect the disparate material into a clear, coherent cord, if zigzagged at times, which turns the book into a history in the full sense of the term. A short epilogue on the name of God in the translations closes this important work.


Ran HaCohen teaches translation studies in the Department of Literature at Tel Aviv University. His works include Reclaiming the Hebrew Bible: German-Jewish Reception of Biblical Criticism (De Gruyter, 2010) and volume 14 of Martin Buber Werkausgabe, titled Martin Buber: Schriften %ur Bibeliibersetzung (Random House, 2012).
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Author:HaCohen, Ran
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2019
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