Attempts on Translating Rashi and Jewish Aramaic

Rashi, an 11th century French Rabbi, is one of the most important commentators of the Talmud and is central to the contemporary study of it. In fact, some texts of the Talmud are difficult to understand without reference to him.

One would think that his works would be ubiquitous for the English reading audience, but English translations, outside of his commentary of the Torah, are almost non-existent.

This forces curious researchers such as myself to look at texts in the original language, which in this case is a complex mixture of classical Hebrew, Rabbinic Aramaic and at a lesser rate, old French.

There are several barriers one has to overcome in providing a legitimate translation of his works. First of all, the translator will immediately arrive with the problem at the lack of resources. “The study of Aramaic is a difficult thing, not merely because of the inherent toughness of the language, the lack of standarisation in spelling and grammar, and the wild dialectal varieties one finds; but also because grammatical and lexicographal aids are few and far between.”1

The best aids found so far are:

  • Aiding Talmud Study by Aryeh Carmell. It is so succinct and helpful. No beginner translator should work without it. It is also very inexpensive.

  • There is also A Manual of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic but this one is not recommended. It is definitely not designed for independent study and is frustrating to approach it with such an intention.

  • Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi, and Midrashic Literature is also indispensable. It is also available on-line for free access.

  • The Hebrew on-line dictionary called morfix is helpful. It requires that you type in Hebrew for dictionary finds. It takes some time to learn to type in Hebrew, but it is worth it. At first, I just cut and paste Hebrew text directly into the search engine. Now I have learned to change my Mac’s typing direction along with the Hebrew font very quickly. This site is very quick and thorough. Sometimes it is not sufficient enough for words in a Rabbinic context.

  • Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s complete 17 volume or so Hebrew dictionary can also be a good source for referencing hard to find words. Unfortunately it is not available on-line, nor on DVD. It has to be purchased through a specialty bookstore. It is not the same as the pocket dictionary under his name. The pocket dictionary is not a good source to work from.

  • The Talmud Babli itself with its corresponding Rashi commentary in the original text and layout can be found online at edaf. I prefer to use the Hebrew Wikisource version of the Talmud found here. It contains the entire Talmud page in searchable text, plus any texts originally printed in Rashi script is converted to the regular Hebrew font.

    One of the initial difficulties is dealing with the unique Rashi font typically used in any publications of his original works. It is a unique script that most readers familiar with traditional Aramaic or Hebrew block fonts will not recognize. It is closer to modern Hebrew cursive. Rashi Script was not invented nor promoted by Rashi. Rather it was the font chosen by the printers to publish his text. If one prefers to translate from the original printed text, it takes some time to get used to. I find it especially difficult to differentiate between the heth and teth, and also the mem and samek.

    If one wants to translate directly from the Rashi script, then this site will help with understanding the alphabet link

  • There is also Instone-Brewers Rabbinic writings site. This is a massive project to provide the Talmud in parallel English and original texts. However, it does not provide a translation of Rashi. Also, one has to realize that this is a work in progress. The English translation does not always parallel with the Hebrew equivalent. These problems are still being ironed out.

The internet is not very helpful as a tutor to translate Rashi. One place that had at least some introductory help is the Megilla Tutor, but this is one of the better choices out of very few sites available.

The traditional way of learning to translate Rashi, along with most Jewish Rabbinic texts is firstly through a Yeshiva. This is a higher centre of Jewish learning, the equivalent of an intense Bible College. An alternative would be through the mentoring and discipleship of a local Rabbi versed in this style of learning.

So those who do not have access to such resources have a more difficult but not impossible task. It just will take more time.

Footnotes

  1. Manual of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic.

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