Translating the Americas

Translating the Americas: Early Modern Jewish Writing on the New World

Last May, Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Associate Professor of Sephardic Studies and director of the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs, along with Dr. Flora Cassen, associate professor of history and associate professor of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern studies at Washington University in St. Louis, were the co-recipients of a grant to develop,workshops that would discuss Jewish writing from the early modern period, “with a special focus on the translation of Jewish works on the Americas,” according to Dr. Perelis.

On Jan. 25 and 26, Washington University in St. Louis presented Translating the Americas, sponsored by the American Academy for Jewish Research (AAJR) and co-hosted by the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. The event brought together scholars from North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East to examine and discuss letters and texts that functioned as bridges—“translations”—between languages, religions, Empires, the Old World, and the New World.

The schedule included the following presentations:

Monday 1/25: Translation Between Early Modern Worlds and Cultures

  • Martin Jacobs (WashU): “Spain’s New World Expansion through a Post-Expulsion Sephardi Lens: Joseph ha-Kohen’s Translation of Gómara”
  • Jesús de Prado Plumed (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México): “Translatio and the converso : Alfonso de Zamora’s Epistle to the Jews of Rome (1526) and the material politics of polemics”
  • Kirsten MacFarlane (University of Oxford): “From Constantinople to Amsterdam: Polemics, Interfaith Debate, and Jewish-Christian Relations in the case of the English Hebraist Hugh Broughton and Ottoman poet Abraham ben Reuben”
  • Ignacio Chuecas (Finis Terrae University, Santiago de Chile): “Old Jewish Prayers for a New World: Translations of the Spanish-Portuguese prayer book (siddur) in the Early Modern Americas (16th -17th centuries)”

Tuesday 1/26: Translation in Practice and Theory, Then and Now

  • Iris Idelson-Shein (Ben Gurion University): “From Metaphors to Mechanisms: Facts and Figures of Jewish Translation in Early Modern Europe”
  • Stephanie Kirk (WashU): “Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora’s Paraíso occidental and the Act of Translation”
  • Ryan Szpiech (University of Michigan): “Shapes of Turning: Conversion and Translation in Medieval Iberia”
  • Sarah Pearce (NYU): “Medieval Jewish Writing in the New World: The American Afterlives of Judah Halevi”

“We are so thankful to the AAJR for their support for scholars from around the world working together to explore the big questions of history and culture,” said Dr. Perelis.  “Dr. Cassen and I were able to create a (virtual) space for scholars working in a variety of languages and cultural spheres to come together, learn from each other and be challenged and inspired by each other’s projects. Academic Jewish studies is dedicated to the literal and figurative translation of the rich and complex heritage of the Jewish past for contemporary audiences, and for that reason I can’t think of a better co-host for this workshop than the Bernard Revel Graduate School, which has been opening up the world of scholarship and classic Jewish texts to generations of students and the wider community.”

“These workshops encapsulate what makes Revel so special,” said Dr. Daniel Rynhold, dean of Revel, “showcasing us as a school that is at once steeped in the study of the ancient textual and cultural heritage of the Jewish people while at the cutting edge of advancing contemporary academic discussion nationally and internationally.”

There are plans to include short interviews and a collection of primary sources on a website to allow for scholars, students and curious lay people to explore the dynamics of translation and the fascinating texts at the heart of the project.