Translations are intriguing. To translate a text – especially a large and complex one – is no small undertaking. A translation project originates as a potentially idiosyncratic perception by somebody (or a group) that their target audience needs linguistic access to a text. The translation itself might be a labor of love funded out of personal resources, perhaps with the hope of turning an eventual profit. On the other end of the spectrum are projects initiated and financed by a group because they want access to a text. As to the translation itself, it may be an accurate rendition or not, pleasant to read or not, and – regardless of whether it is accurate or fluent – it may acquire an audience. Or not.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I stumbled across a Yiddish translation of the Mishnah. This particular translation dated from the early twentieth century and was produced in Europe (I did not pay attention at the time to where in Europe it was produced). This alone was interesting. This was, I am sure, due to my own ignorance, but I did not expect to find a Yiddish-speaking Jewish community that was interested in the Mishnah but was not comfortable accessing it in Hebrew in that time and place. Where did such a community live, and how large was it?
I am no specialist in these matters and I invite others to supply a more full answer and cite the relevant bibliography. What I can say is that my searches in the National Library of Israel turned up several such translations. We find Yiddish translations of selected parts of the Mishnah (mainly “Ethics of the Fathers”) as early as the fourteenth century. The first full translation of the Mishnah that I could find, though, dates from 1862 and was printed in Czernowitz. The pages in this edition were divided into thirds: the Hebrew text; notes (in Rashi script); and a translation with explanation in Yiddish in the bottom third. Czernowitz had a major Jewish population at this time, and a bit later would be a center for promotion of Yiddish. At this stage, however, the text seemed aimed at those who knew rabbinic Hebrew, but weakly – or who wanted to learn it. The Hebrew was privileged.
A second, and to my mind more interesting, translation, was printed in Warsaw in 1887. The layout is similar to that of the Czernowitz version, but it is clear from its multiple printing that it found an audience. Unlike the earlier translation, this one had a forward (in Hebrew) that made it clear that the translation was not intended for women – who even if they did not know Hebrew they were not allowed to learn Torah – or for “boors” (‘amme ha-aretz) who did not have the capacity to learn Torah. It was, instead targetted to ordinary, hard-working Jews who did not have the time to master Hebrew to the degree that would give them easy access to the text. Like modern translations of rabbinic literature, this was meant to make sacred texts accessible to a wider, less-learned audience. And it makes it clear that such an audience existed in Warsaw in the late nineteenth century.
Later editions followed. By the time a translation was printed in Vienna-Berlin by the Menorah publishing company in 1927, Hebrew no longer held the pride of place: now Hebrew and Yiddish were printed side by side. Several translations were also made following World War II for Yiddish speakers, especially in Montreal and New York.
These translations make visible a whole community of Jews who seriously wanted to engage their religious texts but were far more comfortable with their vernacular language than they were with Hebrew or Aramaic. Not much has changed.