The Transatlantic Debate over How to Translate the Poetry of Holiday Prayers

Oct. 14 2022

From the penitential prayers (sliḥot) said in the weeks before Rosh Hashanah, through the elaborate High Holy Day liturgy, through the hosannahs and prayers for rain said on the ensuing festivals of Sukkot and Shmini Atseret, the synagogue service of this time of year is filled with piyyutim (liturgical poems). These post-talmudic and medieval compositions tend to be laden with allusions and obscure vocabulary, and are notoriously difficult to translate. Yosef Lindell looks at the various attempts to render them into English, and the controversies these engendered:

English translations of the siddur appeared as early as the 18th century in England. But our story begins with a remarkable six-volume translation of the Ashkenazi maḥzor [holiday prayer book] published in London between 1904 and 1909. The project, often called the Routledge after its publisher, was the brainchild of Arthur Davis (1846-1906), an engineer from Derby who despite having no formal Jewish education dedicated all his free time to Jewish learning and scholarship. According to Herbert M. Adler, a lawyer who took over the maḥzor project after Davis’s death, Davis translated the maḥzor because he realized “the inadequacy of existing English renderings to express the form and beauty of the compositions that make up the Jewish liturgy,” and wanted a translation “more worthy of the original.”

Other piyyutim in the maḥzor were translated by Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), a novelist, playwright, controversial Zionist, and perhaps the best-known English-speaking writer in the Jewish world at the time.

While Davis, Zangwill, and their collaborators tried to preserve the prosody of the originals even at the expense of fidelity to their literal meaning, the American Judaic scholar Philip Birnbaum felt otherwise:

Birnbaum took Hebrew very seriously. He was on the board of the Histradrut Ivrit of America, a Hebrew literary society, and contributed to the Histadrut’s weekly magazine ha-Doar for decades. Birnbaum had a thoroughly different approach to translation from Arthur Davis and his collaborators: plain, simple, and literal. In his introduction to his siddur, he wrote, “A good translation ought to be authentic and free from deceptions. One must not read into the original what is not there. No new poetry should be introduced into the siddur presumably as the translation of the Hebrew text.”

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: American Jewry, Anglo-Jewry, High Holidays, Piyyut, Siddur, Translation

Iran’s Four-Decade Strategy to Envelope Israel in Terror

Yesterday, the head of the Shin Bet—Israel’s internal security service—was in Washington meeting with officials from the State Department, CIA, and the White House itself. Among the topics no doubt discussed are rising tensions with Iran and the possibility that the latter, in order to defend its nuclear program, will instruct its network of proxies in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and even Iraq and Yemen to attack the Jewish state. Oved Lobel explores the history of this network, which, he argues, predates Iran’s Islamic Revolution—when Shiite radicals in Lebanon coordinated with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s movement in Iran:

An inextricably linked Iran-Syria-Palestinian axis has actually been in existence since the early 1970s, with Lebanon the geographical fulcrum of the relationship and Damascus serving as the primary operational headquarters. Lebanon, from the 1980s until 2005, was under the direct military control of Syria, which itself slowly transformed from an ally to a client of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The nexus among Damascus, Beirut, and the Palestinian territories should therefore always have been viewed as one front, both geographically and operationally. It’s clear that the multifront-war strategy was already in operation during the first intifada years, from 1987 to 1993.

[An] Iranian-organized conference in 1991, the first of many, . . . established the “Damascus 10”—an alliance of ten Palestinian factions that rejected any peace process with Israel. According to the former Hamas spokesperson and senior official Ibrahim Ghosheh, he spoke to then-Hizballah Secretary-General Abbas al-Musawi at the conference and coordinated Hizballah attacks from Lebanon in support of the intifada. Further important meetings between Hamas and the Iranian regime were held in 1999 and 2000, while the IRGC constantly met with its agents in Damascus to encourage coordinated attacks on Israel.

For some reason, Hizballah’s guerilla war against Israel in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s was, and often still is, viewed as a separate phenomenon from the first intifada, when they were in fact two fronts in the same battle.

Israel opted for a perilous unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, which Hamas’s Ghosheh asserts was a “direct factor” in precipitating the start of the second intifada later that same year.

Read more at Australia/Israel Review

More about: First intifada, Hizballah, Iran, Palestinian terror, Second Intifada