In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Translation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Philosophical Approaches
  • Polysystem Theory
  • Antiquity
  • Medieval Iberia
  • Medieval and Early Modern Ashkenaz
  • Hasidism
  • Haskalah
  • Of Classical Jewish Sources
  • Of Liturgy
  • Holocaust
  • Jewish-Christian Relations
  • Missionary Translation

Jewish Studies Translation
Naomi Seidman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0020


Given the text-centered nature of Judaism and the multilingualism of Jewish culture, it is no surprise that translation has been an important dimension of Jewish literary activity. The Greek translation of the Pentateuch, initially done by Hellenistic Jews even before the canonization of the Bible, is considered the first major translation initiative in Western culture, and Jewish translators and exegesis played an important role in Bible translation throughout its long history. Jews have been significant participants in translation enterprises beyond the Bible. In medieval Iberia, Jews were prominent among the translators who reworked scientific and philosophical texts from Arabic (often translations from Greek) into Latin or Castilian, making available important classical works that had been lost to Christian Europe. The translation of scientific and philosophical concepts from classical Greek and medieval Arabic also enriched and enlarged medieval Hebrew. Medieval and early modern Ashkenaz communities were also centers of translational activity, with Yiddish adaptations not only of the Bible and traditional sources but also of secular non-Jewish epics and romances that were “Judaized” for a Jewish readership. Translations of world literature similarly aided the emergence of modern Jewish literature in the 18th and 19th centuries, with translation helping fill gaps in Jewish literature and introducing Jews to European literary and cultural models. Jews have also been important contributors to Christian translation: translations have sometimes aimed to “expose” Jewish secrets, while missionaries have evangelized Jews through translations of Christian sources in Jewish languages. Despite the centrality of Jews to translation, the best-known programmatic statements about translation (Cicero, Augustine, Jerome, Luther, and Schleiermacher) have emerged from a non-Jewish perspective, although the Prologue to Ben Sirach and a few statements in the Talmud show a significant awareness of the difficulties of translation. In modern translation discourse, though, Jewish and even “rabbinic” approaches to language and translation have become much better known, with Benjamin, Derrida, Levinas, and George Steiner championing Jewish alternatives to mainstream perspectives. Most recently, an important school of translation theory, with some international impact, has arisen in Tel Aviv, often testing its theories with Jewish examples (although the theory is not “Jewish,” per se). These factors have combined to make Jewish translation increasingly visible as a field of study.

General Overviews

It is no doubt evidence of the discontinuous nature of Jewish translation that we lack a book-length overview of its various strands and enterprises. Nevertheless, Singerman 1988 encompasses a broad canvas in an excellent, succinct summary. Delisle and Woodsworth 1995 sets two important dimensions of Jewish translation history—religious expansion and national revival—in their larger contexts. Singerman 2002 provides a bibliography of studies, from the medieval to the modern period, with a useful introduction by Gideon Toury focusing on Hebrew translation.

  • Delisle, Jean, and Judith Woodsworth. Translators Through History. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1995.

    Relevant discussions include the role of translation in Jewish cultural survival from antiquity to the present, with a focus on the distinctive patterns of Jewish versus Christian Bible translation (pp. 161–166). The discussion on the use of translation in creating a national literature includes a section on the Hebrew national revival (pp. 55–59).

  • Singerman, Robert. “Between Western Culture and Jewish Tradition.” In A Sign and a Witness: 2,000 Years of Hebrew Books and Illuminated Manuscripts. Edited by Leonard Singer Gold, 140–154. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    Beautiful, accessible overview, describing the centrality of translation in Jewish experience and detailing distinctive Jewish translation practices, for instance the Judaization that was a feature of medieval literary translation. Notes the translation of Hebrew texts for malevolent (Eisenmenger’s Judaism Unmasked) or missionary purposes, and for national literary aims.

  • Singerman, Robert. Jewish Translation History: A Bibliography of Bibliographies and Studies. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2002.

    The 2,620 entries cover studies and bibliographies of Jewish translation from the medieval to the modern period, in (and sometimes from) Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Italian, and Judeo-Arabic; sections include modern translations of the Bible and liturgy. A few entries are annotated. Toury’s useful introduction (pp. ix–xxxi) focuses on translation into Hebrew.

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