Six Questions with Abigail Gillman, author of “A History of German Jewish Bible Translation”

February 25, 2020
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Between 1780 and 1937, Jews in Germany produced numerous new translations of the Hebrew Bible into German. Intended for Jews who were trilingual, reading Yiddish, Hebrew, and German, these translations gave Jews access to their scripture without Christian intervention, and they also helped showcase the Hebrew Bible as a work of literature and the foundational text of modern Jewish identity. In A History of German Jewish Bible Translation, Abigail Gillman examines the history of these translations as a larger cultural project.

Your book discusses the remarkable history of the Hebrew Bible’s translations into German. Why were these new translations so important to the Jewish community, and what innovations did each new wave of translation offer?

German Jewish rabbis and intellectuals produced works of philosophy, fiction, and poetry, as well as exegetical texts, sermons, essays, and textbooks. They also saw that a translation of the Hebrew Bible into German could accomplish a number of important goals.  In most cases, they followed models from Christian society. But Jewish translators maintained that their projects were continuous with the tradition of transmitting and interpreting the Torah going all the back to Moses. They also affiliated translation to the discourse of exegesis, which is the most authentic, impugnable form of engagement with the biblical text (going back to the Targum). And they highlighted the ancient pedagogical mandate to “teach [Torah] to your children.”

Rather than devote a chapter to each Bible, I group the translations into four, chronological waves. The priority of the first wave was to produce translations that were grammatical, aesthetic, and stylistically clear; clear and correct language was the priority of the Haskalah. In contrast to that domesticating approach, second-wave translators of the 1830s and 1840s produced more Hebraic, foreign-sounding translations, so as to convey the poetic qualities of Hebrew, and incorporate recent scholarship. In the third wave, translators placed their own, expansive commentaries on each page, virtually turning each page into a pulpit. Translators of the fourth wave had a very different goal: to shape a translation that would improve people’s relationship to scripture. But these are only some of the many innovations that run through the history of German Jewish Bible translation.

Bible translation was first viewed in a negative light—a sign that the community has lost touch with its language and history. How did this perception change over time?

With the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), as well as innovations in printing technology and development in Christian society, Jews began to value and appreciate translations as we do today—as significant works, not just a necessary evil or a supplement to the Hebrew Torah. In seventeenth-century Amsterdam, two translations came out which were printed on very fine paper, and included copper engraved illustrations as frontispieces and approbations by important authorities. Those translations marked the beginning of a translation revolution taken up a century later, more famously, by Moses Mendelssohn. What I’m getting at here is that the Bibles themselves shaped the new perception. Over the course of this history, translators’ prefaces were increasingly more confident, and less defensive, about producing an original translation. Bible translations became endowed with other kinds of positive significance as well as a range of educational and cultural functions: to teach grammar; to convey the paronomasia, wordplay, and puns in the Hebrew; and even to educate the readers about the realia of the biblical world through illustrations of plants, animals, ruins, art from the British Museum and images from travel literature.

How did you come to be interested in this aspect of Jewish history, and what do you love about it?

“Love” is the right word. The topic of German Jewish Bible translation brings together my interests in German literature and culture; my life-long engagement with the Hebrew language; and my fascination with religious culture—specifically, with the Hebrew Bible as it shapes and partakes in culture. Comparing translations of the Bible, as of any great work of literature, is inherently fascinating and also enormous fun.  If that were not enough, I truly enjoyed the challenge of looking at a biblical verse in German translation, and trying to figure out whether this translator was innovating; borrowing from an earlier translation, Jewish or  Christian; or simply following an interpretation by Rashi or some other exegete.

While you were working on this project, what did you learn that surprised you the most?

When I set out to write my book, I was primarily interested in philological questions.  I did not foresee that all these Hebrew-German verse comparisons would generate a work of cultural history. I also did not anticipate how my discovery of Bertha Pappenheim’s important translations—including the Tsene-Rene, or Frauenbibel, published in Nazi years—could give a wholly different arc to the history as a whole.  Regarding the Buber & Rosenzweig translations: I was surprised to discover the many ways in which they tried to dissociate themselves from the illustrious genealogy I trace in my book. Now their project has become a kind of iconic or representative translation of that tradition, which makes me wonder if that was what they intended all along.  Overall, since I sought to deconstruct these translations—I was trained in Literature at Yale in the 1980s—I was very attuned to the ambiguities and tensions on all levels. So, many surprises.

Where do you anticipate your research taking you next?

I’ve just finished an essay that begins to survey, in a very preliminary way, the history of Jewish translation practices.  It’s a very exciting time to be working on translation, both in the humanities and in Jewish Studies; I am part of a growing group of scholars doing incredible work on Hebrew-German translation alone!  I expect my next book will be a study of the mashal across Jewish literature, from ancient and Hasidic texts on to parabolic modern authors like Franz Kafka and Etgar Keret and Orly Castel-Bloom.  The parable, much like a Bible translation, is a fascinatingly ambiguous religious/fictional hybrid.  The parable stands “before the law,” as Kafka would say, engaging those who seek to enter, but also shutting them out. I’m fascinated by literature designed to communicate some wisdom or religious teaching, but which fundamentally leaves us to our own devices.

I have also recently joined the editorial board of “Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception,” a large and important project by De Gruyter Press in Berlin. This is an opportunity to recruit authors and to learn about the reception of biblical terms, ideas, characters, etc. in modern Judaism, Christianity, Islam and in the arts.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

When Aharon Appelfeld died in 2018, I rededicated myself to studying his corpus in Hebrew. I have taught Appelfeld in English for many years, and I met the author when he taught at Boston University many years ago. His shy, self-effacing style of writing appeals to me very much. At the moment, I am especially captivated by his beautiful novel The Man who Never Stopped Sleeping. It’s an autofictional work that describes how a young orphan from Czernowitz, a Holocaust survivor, arrives in Palestine and struggles to stay connected to his parents and his mother tongues, while also finding creative ways to “attach” his past life to his new language, and ultimately, how to become a writer. Translation plays a role here, as does the Hebrew Bible, which becomes a kind of Hebrew primer for the young Aharon.


Abigail Gillman is associate professor of Hebrew, German, and comparative literature, and affiliated faculty in Jewish Studies, at Boston University. She is the author of Viennese Jewish Modernism: Freud, Hofmannsthal, Beer-Hofmann, and Schnitzler. A History of German Jewish Bible Translation is available now on our website or from other booksellers.

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