Cultural Translation

Jewish Networking within the European Enlightenment

Zohar Shavit

This research project’s point of departure is the understanding that the history of the Haskalah – the Jewish Enlightenment movement – should be studied in the wider context of the European Enlightenment. The project enquires into the extent to which members of the Haskalah, who endeavored to introduce the ideas and values of the European Enlightenment into the Jewish world, were versed in the writings of the European Enlightenment. In this context, I ask how the Maskilim made use of the multi-faceted writings of the European Enlightenment in their efforts to bring about change in Jewish society in terms both of its Weltanschauung and of its habitus as expressed in its customs and day-to-day practices.
I maintain that all members of the Haskalah movement were involved in one way or another in translational activity in its broad sense, that is, in cultural translation. Cultural translation, in the context of this enquiry, is the process of making the source texts of the – Enlightenment writings a starting point for producing a text in the receiving system that responds to that system’s needs and thus significantly manipulating the source text for its objectives. We might even go as far as to suggest that such notion of translation regard the source text as essentially raw material and that the translations thus produced call for analysis in the context of the receiving system and understanding in the light of its specific needs.
I further maintain that the maskilic engagement with Enlightenment literature involved much more than superficial familiarity with a few famous titles and prominent figures of the Enlightenment. The intellectual “map” of the Maskilim was much more expansive, detailed and sophisticated than has usually been assumed to date. Jewish translational activities undertaken by members of the Haskalah movement testify to intensive networking activity within the European Enlightenment and to solid knowledge of a large number of its major and minor texts.

The project focuses on the following sub-themes:

  • The path taken by the Maskilim toward gaining knowledge of the Enlightenment (Test case: Lessing’s training of Moses Mendelssohn)
  • The various strategies the Maskilim employed for the introduction of Enlightenment literature into the Jewish cultural world (Test case: the publication of paragraphs of the translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile in Ha-measef, the major organ of the Haskalah movement)
  • The construction of the new Jewish habitus (Test case: the guidelines for daily practices given in books written for Jewish children)
  • Identification of the textual sources of translated texts (Test cases: Basedow, Campe and Madame de Genlis)