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

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

Universities Are in Thrall to a Constituency That Sees Israel as an Affront to Its Identity

Commenting on the hearings of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday about anti-Semitism on college campuses, and the dismaying testimony of three university presidents, Jonah Goldberg writes:

If some retrograde poltroon called for lynching black people or, heck, if they simply used the wrong adjective to describe black people, the all-seeing panopticon would spot it and deploy whatever resources were required to deal with the problem. If the spark of intolerance flickered even for a moment and offended the transgendered, the Muslim, the neurodivergent, or whomever, the fire-suppression systems would rain down the retardant foams of justice and enlightenment. But calls for liquidating the Jews? Those reside outside the sensory spectrum of the system.

It’s ironic that the term colorblind is “problematic” for these institutions such that the monitoring systems will spot any hint of it, in or out of the classroom (or admissions!). But actual intolerance for Jews is lathered with a kind of stealth paint that renders the same systems Jew-blind.

I can understand the predicament. The receptors on the Islamophobia sensors have been set to 11 for so long, a constituency has built up around it. This constituency—which is multi-ethnic, non-denominational, and well entrenched among students, administrators, and faculty alike—sees Israel and the non-Israeli Jews who tolerate its existence as an affront to their worldview and Muslim “identity.” . . . Blaming the Jews for all manner of evils, including the shortcomings of the people who scapegoat Jews, is protected because, at minimum, it’s a “personal truth,” and for some just the plain truth. But taking offense at such things is evidence of a mulish inability to understand the “context.”

Shocking as all that is, Goldberg goes on to argue, the anti-Semitism is merely a “symptom” of the insidious ideology that has taken over much of the universities as well as an important segment of the hard left. And Jews make the easiest targets.

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, University