In Italy, Algorithms Are Translating the Talmud

October 9, 2018 | Simone Somekh
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An Italian professor of law named Clelia Piperno is currently overseeing the first-ever complete translation of the Talmud into Italian. But this project is unique for a deeper reason than the language of the final product, as Simone Somekh writes:

Behind the first two volumes that have been published so far, there is a team of researchers, coders, translators, and editors who have been working on software that aids them in the translation process. . . . Translating such a long and at times cryptic text from its original Aramaic into a modern language is a major enterprise, even in the digital era.

The small team of developers Piperno recruited knew that no existing translation software could handle this type of work; new algorithms were needed. Based in Rome, the group created computer-assisted translation software that memorizes all translations performed by the human collaborators, storing them in a cloud in order to facilitate future ones. They named it “Traduco,” which means “I Translate” in Italian. The translators divide the text into paragraphs and strings, then select the portion they want to translate; the software searches for similar excerpts and corresponding translations in its database and offers the translators a list of suggestions.

“The software has ultimately become an excellent tool for analysis of the text itself and of the quality of the translations,” Michael Dollinar, an information-technology manager who worked on Traduco, [said]. He explained that the software doesn’t translate the Talmud; it makes suggestions to the human translator, increasingly developing an interconnectivity between different passages that no other translation software allows. This feedback loop is meant to enhance the work’s overall accuracy and coherence.

An Italian rabbi based in Haifa, Michael Ascoli, has [supervised the translation of] tractate Ta’anit. “It’s an exceptional exercise,” he said of the collaborative translation effort, noting that the project is incentivizing study of the Talmud among Italian Jewish youth. [Yet] Ascoli also believes that studying the Talmud from its translated version is like studying a scientific subject from the solutions rather than the experiment. In addition, he feels wary about making the Talmud available to the general public indiscriminately.

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