Reading Letters from the Past:
Translating for Historical Research in Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies
by Katharine Halls1

One of the most exciting developments to come out of the surge of academic interest in Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry is the recent appearance of two sourcebooks which present documentary material relating to the modern history of these communities in translation. The hugely important volumes to which I refer are Zvi Ben-Dor Benite and Moshe Behar (eds), Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought (2013) and Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein (eds), Sephardi Lives (2014), the former taking as its subject Mizrahi intellectual history from the late 19th century and into the mid-20th century, the latter the daily life of Jews across the “Judeo-Spanish heartland of Southeastern Europe, Anatolia, and the Levant” (p. 2) between roughly 1700 and 1950. In this essay I discuss why these sourcebooks constitute such a valuable addition to scholarship on Mizrahi and Sephardi history, then move on to problematize the role of translation as a research aid and discuss challenges which arise when translating for collections such as these. I conclude by offering some suggestions as to how translated source material might be produced and used in a manner which best serves the research needs of our field.

In any discussion of sourcebooks, a nod is of course due to Ammiel Alcalay’s groundbreaking 1996 volume Keys to the Garden, which made a wealth of literature by Israeli authors of non-European origin available in English at a time when such literature was even less well known than it is now, and to Norman Stillman’s even earlier (1979) The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (though much of Stillman’s material concerns the pre-modern era).

Volumes such as Sephardi Lives and Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought (and let us hope that they are followed by many others) are a healthy sign of the confidence of an established—burgeoning, even—academic field, for they suggest that it is not only the dedicated and highly trained researcher who might wish to read the musings of the director of the Egyptian Sugar Company or the memoirs of an Ottoman policeman from Izmir, but also the interested lay reader, or the undergraduate or graduate student who doesn’t have access to the original documents. The writings in both Sephardi Lives and Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought are drawn from state, university and personal archives around the world, many of which would be difficult for the average reader to visit or use; equally significantly, they are virtually all translated from languages other than English, most of which the average student is not likely to read sufficiently well to tackle texts such as these.

The importance of specialized linguistic training cannot be overstated in a field which is characterized by such remarkable linguistic heterogeneity. Sephardi Lives alone contains material translated from “Bulgarian, Croatian, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Ladino, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Ottoman and modern Turkish, and Yiddish” (p. 2); to capture the wealth of non-European Jewish historical experience, we also need researchers who know Arabic, in its various registers and dialects, including Judeo-Arabic with its various dialects, Persian (ditto), Amazigh, Kurdish, Judeo-Georgian—and this list, as the expression goes in Arabic, should be taken as indicative not exhaustive. Sadly, many of these languages are not teaching priorities for universities, and in most places command at best one poorly-paid hour per week of a foreign graduate student or adjunct’s time. We can hope this state of affairs will change, but until it does, translated source material will remain the norm for most students, and in many cases for advanced researchers too.

It’s also important to remember that working with archival material (and even early print media material) is a skill in itself which few students are formally trained in, even at graduate level, requiring familiarity with what is often a somewhat different form of the language at hand, with the linguistic and paratextual conventions particular to given genres and institutional settings, and with obsolete handwriting styles which may be radically dissimilar to current practice.

An example of solitreo from David Bunis, A Guide to Reading and Writing Judezmo (New York: Adelantre, 1975), p. 21.


For those who wonder if I am not exaggerating the difficulty of reading old handwriting, believe me—it is no insignificant matter. Halfway into my third degree, with ample time notched up in archives of one sort or another, my heart still sinks when I see a page of Arabic shorthand—not even a century old!—which breaks all the rules about certain letters never joining up that even the messiest of today’s scribblers of Arabic respect. The Arabic textbooks most widely used on university courses include just a few pages devoted to the art of deciphering today’s two commonest styles of handwriting, one from the Maghrib, the other from the Mashriq—so never mind historical styles. Given that many young students of Arabic are motivated by decidedly contemporary interests, it’s hard to imagine this changing. Similarly, the average graduate student in Jewish history probably doesn’t get much tutoring in solitreo.


An example of Arabic script from Libya, ca. 1900, from Abdulmola El-Horeir, Social and Economic Transformations in the Libyan Hinterland during the Second Half of the Ninerteenth Century: The Role of Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi, UCLA 1981, Appendix III, p. 282.

Technical matters aside, sourcebooks such as these offer the reader and student an enthralling sense of immediacy, which is rarely offered by works of historical scholarship, no matter how rich, and can only be matched by archival research itself. As reviewer RalphTarica put it in the most recent issue of this publication, “[a] book such as Sephardi Lives offers us an extremely engaging glimpse into the private, social and cultural existences of our forebears and, like an archeological dig, uncovers fascinating details which together weave the rich tapestry of Sephardic life in the Ottoman Empire and beyond” (my emphasis). That is to say, our relationship to these texts is so direct it’s almost tactile: sure, they’re old, even crumbling, metaphorically speaking, and understanding anything from the past always involves some conceptual dislocation—but we can hold them in our hands. If only fleetingly, we feel ourselves to be in unmediated contact with their authors. Intellectually bold, touchingly personal, sometimes strikingly self-aware, these materials seem to speak to us like letters from the past.

Except they don’t, really. Translation is often conceived of as merely a technical adjustment to a text that doesn’t affect its meaning, analogous to taking one of those handwritten documents and typing it up for ease of reading; in reality, it is a major mediation of meaning that deserves our attention as we contemplate studying from, teaching with, and indeed producing these kinds of collections of documentary sources. It should be an issue of particular interest to scholars in fields such as Sephardi and Mizrahi studies, where one of our main goals is to provincialize Ashkenazi history, and make mainstream Jewish history more diverse by integrating the experiences of non-European communities. Our translation strategies should further this goal, being sure not to collapse those non-European experiences into ready-made Eurocentric norms or, conversely, to confirm ‘exoticizing’ stereotypes which have played an important part in relegating Sephardi and Mizrahi experience to a place outside the mainstream Jewish historical narrative.

Exoticization can be reinforced through ‘foreignizing’ translation strategies, which preserve aspects of the text’s culture of origin, for example through loanwords or calques (most of us can think of one or two phrases like this from translated novels we’ve read: a character addressing another as “habibi” or “mi alma,” or nonsensically exclaiming “O, water of my heart!” or similar). Although some appreciate this strategy for its radical loyalty to the source culture, which is represented to the reader on its own terms, a danger arises when unfamiliar elements of the text are not fully understood, due to the cultural distance between reader and writer, and are instead taken as simple confirmation of the reader’s stereotypes about the writer’s culture.

A common corollary of ‘foreignizing’ translations is the expert intervention, in the form of either a footnote or an in-text explanation in square brackets. These interventions suggest that the culture or time period at hand in the text is incomprehensible to the audience, who need to be guided through the daunting experience of reading by the scholar-translator. In fairness, one can imagine cases where this might be a reasonable assumption, and in books such as these, which aim to introduce audiences to hitherto neglected material, a certain degree of editorial explanation of the translated text may be unavoidable. But I can’t help feeling that the editors and translators of both Sephardi Lives and Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought have been a little trigger-happy with their footnotes; in some cases, the self-styled expert’s intervention is an irritating barrier to a full appreciation of the translated text. The use of racial language, distasteful to today’s sensibilities, is one textual feature which occasions several unhelpful interventions in Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought: for example, in a translation of a 1912 speech by feminist intellectual Esther Azhari Moyal, the phrase ‘yellow race’ is footnoted with the explanation that it was “commonly employed in 1912 and was not then generally regarded as racist” (p. 39). This attempt to neutralize the racial logic that underlies much of Moyal’s thinking (in this speech and elsewhere) forecloses exploration of the intellectual climate of the time, when Western racial theories were being taken up and adapted by Middle Eastern thinkers (Jewish and otherwise) whose own identities posed interesting and revealing tensions in their worldviews and in their positions vis-à-vis their social environment. Allowing the reader to raise an eyebrow at the casual use of ‘yellow race’, on the other hand, might provoke consideration of how Middle Eastern Jews negotiated their ambiguous position within the colonial environment and participated in the intellectual and ideological ferment of the early twentieth century.

Footnotes, of course, are common in academic works, and as I’ve said, often impart genuinely essential information, so it may seem exaggerated to cast them as evidence of an ethnocentric or anachronistic impulse. But an appraisal of the kinds of textual features which are footnoted versus those which are not often reveals a set of cultural expectations which editors and translators reinforce through their translation choices. Latin terms, for example, are often used freely in translations, despite the fact that (at least where I come from) no-one outside the cultural elite of a certain generation has any familiarity with the language, whilst expressions in other less mainstreamed languages (in our case, languages such as Ladino, Turkish or Arabic) are rarely used without explanation. Thus the rather rarefied Latin expression ‘ad minori ad majus’ (Sephardi, p. 56) passes without comment, whilst some of the most everyday terms pertaining to Ottoman administration and religious life, such as millet, vilayet, zimma / dhimma, imam and şeriat which are surely familiar to anybody who has studied Jewish life in the Ottoman empire, (e.g. Sephardi, pp. 75, 171, 115, 191, 28) are deemed to need explanation. Turkish and Arabic are apparently so exotic and mysterious that readers cannot be expected to tackle them unassisted; Latin, on the other hand, sits firmly in the mainstream of a Western intellectual heritage that the reader is presumed to share. To my mind this eurocentric expectation is particularly incongruous in our field, which is characterized by a high degree of cultural, intellectual and linguistic diversity.

I suspect the dangers of ‘exoticization’ and ‘foreignization’ are well-known to many in our field, particularly those whose work focuses on the Middle East and North Africa. Edward Said’s Orientalism and the huge body of scholarship it has inspired have become a staple of university courses on the region, alerting us to processes of othering which may be at play when non-European figures and cultures are represented in the texts and translations that we produce and use. Equally relevant to Mizrahi and Sephardi studies, however, is the counterpart to foreignizing translation: ‘domesticating’ translation.

Domesticating translations disarm the strangeness of the original text by replacing alien referents with others that are familiar to the reader, implying the commensurability of the two languages and cultures at hand. It’s easy to see the appeal of this kind of translation strategy as a counter to overly exotic representations of foreign cultures; it assures the reader that far from being the strange and alien world they had imagined, the foreign culture is really not that different to the reader’s own. As a teacher of mine memorably put it while defending domesticating translations, “Well, why shouldn’t it sound as if it’s just like Wisconsin? It is just like Wisconsin!” She makes a fair point, but the thorny question this kind of view raises is whether profound difference—between languages, between people, between cultures—does truly or for that matter should inhibit understanding and empathy. Surely we can still understand something even if it isn’t just like Wisconsin? Of course, this argument doesn’t only apply to geographical and cultural difference—it applies to historical setting, too: for the student of history, learning not to impose their modern mindset onto the writings of the past is a vital skill.

The danger of domesticating translations raises the question of how translation can instead play a part in encouraging a faculty of open-mindedness in readers and students confronted with historical texts from outside the mainstream Ashkenazi canon. I would argue that we need to keep this concern in mind even on the level of the most basic and essential words. What about ‘rabbis’, for example? For many of the Jews whom we meet on the pages of Sephardi Lives and Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought, who lived in the Ottoman Empire or elsewhere in the Middle East, a rabbi would have been called a ‘hakham’ (and indeed some communities who have migrated to new linguistic environments still use this term, rather than ‘rabbi’ or its equivalent in the language they speak), and important Jewish religious figures would have held titles such as ‘ḥākhām akbar’ (grand rabbi, in Arabic) or ‘hahambaşı’ (chief rabbi, in Turkish). Left as they are in an English translation, words such as this—common to such a huge number of non-European Jews and redolent of the linguistic and social proximity of Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish—have the power to disrupt Eurocentric conceptualizations of Jewish history and culture. To my mind, this potential is under-used in both books, in which “hakham” is often simply translated as “rabbi”, or italicized and repeatedly footnoted. To those who argue that this is preferable to running the risk that readers will genuinely fail to understand the term, I would suggest that in an era when most people have easy access to the Internet, it’s not unreasonable to expect readers to look up unfamiliar vocabulary for themselves.

Another example comes in the late 17th-century will, reproduced in Sephardi Lives, of a Salonican merchant living in Rashid (Rosetta), Egypt. Amongst other details of the yeshiva which is to be established in the merchant’s name, the will stipulates that beneficiaries are to study all night on each anniversary of their benefactor’s death (p. 27). The special significance of the anniversary of a person’s death is something most Jews would recognize, yet is glossed by the translator with the Yiddish term ‘yahrzeit’, along with a footnote giving the Hebrew phrase originally used, and an explanation. Although ‘yahrzeit’ (or yorzeit, yartzeit, etc) is probably a familiar term to any Western reader with a pop-culture level of exposure to Ashkenazi Jewish traditions, and in that sense does its job of conveying the relevant information quickly and efficiently, it flattens the complex cultural background in which a Jew marking the anniversary of a loved one’s death would be sharing in a practice widely observed across the Islamic world rather than observing a habit peculiar to their own minority community, as was the case in the setting which gave rise to the term ‘yahrzeit’. To be sure, there is no word that could successfully convey this kind of information to a Western reader, but slotting the concept into a Yiddish term pushes the Middle Eastern context even further out of sight than a simple English equivalent might. This issue is liable to recur wherever Jewish concepts are best known to English-speaking audiences by their Yiddish names, and thus demand the attention not only of translators but of all scholars writing about non-Ashkenazi practice.

As we use these valuable sourcebooks in our research, study, and teaching, I hope that these and other questions about the role of translation can form part of our discussions and inform future projects that use translation as a means of presenting documentary material to new audiences. It may even be that the twin imperatives of finding translation strategies that further the aims of our field, and helping prepare the scholars of the future for their own forays into archival research, can help us think of creative ways in which sourcebooks can bring readers into closer contact with the rich history and culture of their Sephardi and Mizrahi subjects. It would be exciting to see, for example, the publication of documentary material in parallel text format, which would encourage the reader to see translation as merely a way-station on the journey towards appreciating the text in its original form. It would also be interesting to see photos of original documents incorporated into sourcebooks in a manner which might help prepare students for the kinds of technical problems, discussed above, which make reading these documents so tricky.

As Ammiel Alcalay puts it in a quotation on the book’s back cover, Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought “opens the floodgates to new research”; the same could be said of Sephardi Lives. Let us hope these fascinating works are the first of many more to come.


1. Katharine Halls is a freelance Arabic-to-English translator and a part-time graduate student in Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo. As an undergraduate she studied Arabic and Hebrew at the University of Oxford, followed by an MA in translation at the University of Manchester. Her current research focuses on the modern history of Egyptian Jewry.

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