The first translations of the Bible, the Septuagint (from Hebrew into Greek) and the Targums (from Hebrew into Aramaic), were prepared by Jews for Jews. For over 2,300 years, Jews, as individuals or as committees, have produced versions of the entire Hebrew Bible or only of the Torah in the vernacular language of the major populations in which they resided. The authors of these translations have included some of the major thinkers and leaders of their Jewish communities. Most of these translations were intended for use alongside the Hebrew original rather than as a replacement for it. Perhaps for this reason, the history of Jewish Bible translation has not attracted the scholarly or general interest it merits. Only since the late 20th century has the phenomenon of Jewish Bible translation moved from the periphery of Jewish studies. Even though we are still without a book-length synthetic analysis, excellent scholarly contributions have been appearing. These complement older publications. Some of these newer studies ask the “big” questions about how and why Jews prepared their own versions. Others seek to enhance understanding through examination of the multiple contexts in which Jewish translators worked. Such examinations help uncover distinctive features of each translation as well as factors that seem to be common to Jewish versions—and absent or rare elsewhere. These insights also help explicate the reception, both positive and negative, of these works by contemporary and later readers. Scholars are also introducing insights from the relatively new field of translation studies. In addition to the translation, Jewish versions often contain voluminous commentary filled with insights from traditional Jewish exegesis, as well as some philological notes. In fact, in a number of instances the translation itself seems to occupy a subsidiary position. This reversal of the expected accords well with the Jewish understanding that the translated text is a means of achieving an end, not an end in and of itself. This end entails both a full presentation of exegetical options and an invitation, as it were, for the reader to acquire sufficient proficiency to interact with the biblical text in its original languages. When that is not possible, the translation and commentary serve as the “next best thing.” The history of Jewish Bible translators and translations demonstrates that this “next best thing” has often been quite good indeed.
In the absence of any book-length study of Jewish Bible translations, there are two extensive encyclopedia articles by a single scholar, Greenspoon 2003 and Greenspoon 2009, and a series of entries by a number of individuals (Toy and Gottheil 1964, Berenbaum and Skolnik 2007). Jewish Bible versions also fit into two surveys of Bible translations, Jewish and Christian, respectively: Margolis 1917 and Orlinsky and Bratcher 1991. In addition, Bible translations figure prominently in discussions about the “Jewishness” of Jewish scholarship and literary productivity in Greenspahn 2006, Greenstein 1990, and Seidman 2006.
Berenbaum, Michael, and Fred Skolnik, eds. Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 3, Ba–Blo. 2d ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2007.
The series of articles under the subheading “Translations” (pp. 588–649) are a succinct and relatively up-to-date introduction to ancient, medieval, and modern versions of the Bibles produced under Jewish auspices. Several entries deal more generally with, for example, English-language Bibles, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
Greenspahn, Frederick E. “Why Jews Translate the Bible.” In Biblical Interpretation in Judaism and Christianity. Edited by Isaac Kalimi and Peter J. Haas, 179–195. Library of Biblical Studies. New York: T&T Clark, 2006.
In seeking the answer to this and related questions about Jewish translations of the Bible, Greenspahn contends that such renderings are typified by attachment to the Hebrew source text and a commitment to Jewish tradition. Jewish translations are not intended to be neutral renderings. Rather, they should be read as profoundly Jewish.
Greenspoon, Leonard J. “Jewish Translations of the Bible.” In The Jewish Study Bible. Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, 2005–2020. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
This is the most extensive single-authored review available on the history of Jewish Bible translation. Beginning with the Septuagint, this article introduces and evaluates versions in over a dozen languages through the first years of the 21st century. Attention is given to comparisons of English-language translations since the late 20th century in terms of style and exegesis.
Greenspoon, Leonard J. “Versions, Jewish.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 5, S–Z. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 760–765. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
This extensive review of Jewish Bible versions, the first on this topic to appear in a general-interest Bible dictionary, aims to appeal to the wide audience targeted by the five-volume series. As such, the author makes a concerted effort to clarify any terms and explicate any concepts that may be unfamiliar to a general audience.
Greenstein, Edward L. “What Might Make a Bible Translation Jewish?” In Translation and Scripture: Proceedings of a Conference at the Annenberg Research Institute, May 15–16, 1989. Edited by David M. Goldenberg, 77–101. Philadelphia: Annenberg Research Institute, 1990.
For Greenstein, the answer to this query lies in the translator’s interests in preserving, as far as possible, the sense of the Hebrew text through concentration on the configuration (form) of phrases, words, or even single letters. Similar sounds and roots should be opened up to readers who rely on a foreign-language version.
Margolis, Max L. The Story of Bible Translations. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1917.
Margolis’s monograph constitutes a sober and knowledgeable discussion of Bible translations, Jewish and Christian, up until the author’s time. As the editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 version, Margolis demonstrates authentic familiarity with Jewish translations, about which his comments are unfailingly perceptive even when readers would disagree with his evaluations.
Orlinsky, Harry M., and Roger G. Bratcher. A History of Bible Translation and the North American Contribution. Biblical Scholarship in North America. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
Orlinsky and Bratcher, Bible translators and knowledgeable in the history of Bible translation, have coauthored this history, with an emphasis on the 20th century in the United States and Canada. Given the experience of both authors, there is little surprise that this volume shows a decided preference for functional-equivalence over formal-equivalence versions.
Seidman, Naomi. Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation. Afterlives of the Bible. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Seidman’s far-ranging monograph includes, but also goes beyond, versions of the Bible. In so doing, she brings to bear relevant insights gleaned from translation studies as she convincingly demonstrates the central role that translation occupies in charting the course both of Jewish-Christian relations and developments within each religious tradition.
Toy, Crawford Howell, and Richard Gottheil. “Bible Translations.” In Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. 3, Bencemero–Chazanuth. Edited by Isidore Singer, 185–197. New York: Ktav, 1964.
Some of this material, dating to the early 20th century, has been superseded by later resources. Nonetheless, for many aspects of Jewish versions, including specific translations and translators, these articles are unsurpassed and eminently authoritative.
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