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Medieval Translations from Arabic and Latin to Hebrew

The dispersion of the Jews throughout the world led to their mastering of various languages with the preservation of Hebrew as a national language of the religion and written records. It was this dispersion which made translations the necessary element of the life of Jewry. That trend was further reinforced by the instability of life in the Diaspora, frequent expulsions and flights to new territories with the necessity to learn the language of the surrounding population from the start.

bible translations, Hebrew bible


Translation activities of Jews began as far    A high-quality, full-color
back as the Hellenistic Diaspora. The first     special download edition
translations of the Bible were the earliest         of the Hebrew Bible.
translations from Hebrew to ancient languages     Find out more here.
(Greek, Aramaic).

In the medieval world, Jews proved to be a bridge between the Christian and Muslim civilizations, a spreader of culture, including the ancient heritage preserved and assimilated by the civilization of Islam.

Jews' knowledge of different languages was used by Muslim and Christian rulers, who willingly used services of Jewish translators. Thus, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the first known in the history Jew who held a high position at court of the Arab rulers of Spain, participated in Greek into Arabic translation of a medicine treatise presented to the Caliph by ambassadors of Byzantium (end of the 940s).

As a result of the Arab conquests and the spread of Islam, the Jews, who fell under the dominion of Muslim rulers, learned Arabic. Therefore, Jewish religious teachers began to write their works in Arabic, which was the only language accessible to the masses at that time. After the center of the Jewish scholarship moved from the Oriental countries to Spain and Southern France, some of the religious works, mostly essays on Halakha and a Hebrew grammar, were translated from Arabic to Hebrew.

The most ancient Arabic into Hebrew translations date from the 11th century. In the forepart of the 12th century, Moshe ibn Gikatila translated two grammatical works of Judah Hayudj. Abraham ibn Ezra (in the middle of the 12th century) translated grammar works of Hayudj, two treatises on astrology and a treatise on divination ("Sefer ha-Goralot").

A new era in the development of the art of Hebrew translation was connected with the activities of Judah ibn Tibbon, nicknamed the "father of translators."

In 1161, he translated the first treatise of the ethical work "Al-Hidayah ila Fara'id al-Hulub" ("The Duties of the Heart") by Bahya ibn Paquda. Judah ibn Tibbon sought to maximize the accuracy of translation and tried to find a Hebrew equivalent for each Arabic word. Due to the lack of many abstract philosophical terms in Hebrew at that time, ibn Tibbon coined new Hebrew words based on Arab words, which in turn were calques from Greek. That practice contributed to the enrichment of the Hebrew vocabulary. However, an excessive desire for word-for-word translation sometimes led to the violation of Hebrew grammar rules. Despite the drawbacks, translations of Judah ibn Tibbon were recognized as exemplary in the Middle Ages.

Translations from Arabic into Hebrew were particularly numerous in the 13th century. Samuel ibn Tibbon (the son of Judah) was one of the most distinguished translators at the end of the 12th – beginning of the 13th century. He translated several works of Maimonides (a medieval Jewish philosopher), including "Guide for the Perplexed" (the translation was completed in 1190).

Before starting the translation of that philosophical work of Maimonides, Samuel ibn Tibbon turned to the author for advice and was instructed to follow the meaning rather than the letter of the writings. However, Samuel ibn Tibbon translated even more literally than his father. Moreover, he introduced Arabic words into the translation or attached new meaning to Hebrew words by analogy with Arabic. Nonetheless, those facts did not prevent Maimonides from speaking in praise of the translation made by Samuel ibn Tibbon.

In 1230 – 1300, the most important Arabic works on philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and other sciences were translated into Hebrew. At the end of the 14th century, the golden age of Arabic into Hebrew translation virtually ended. In the 15th-16th centuries, only a few works were translated, including The Book of Prognostics by Hippocrates.

The most ancient known Latin into Hebrew translations date from the 13th century. Judah ben Moses Romano (a scientist, philosopher, linguist, and poet) was the most significant early translator from Latin into Hebrew. Judah Romano was employed by Robert, King of Naples, and (according to some sources) was a teacher of the King.

Scientists from every corner of Italy gathered in Rome to study under the guidance of Judah Romano. Romano's numerous translations of and comments to works of Arabic and Christian scholastic philosophers played a crucial part in the dissemination of philosophical knowledge among Italian Jewry. Romano translated Averroes's commentaries on Aristotle and writings of Saint Albertus Magnus, Giles of Rome, Angelo of Camerino, Thomas Aquinas, and others.

Since the 16th century, the number of Latin into Hebrew translations decreased dramatically.

New Hebrew translations of the European literature began to appear with the advent of the Haskalah Movement (18th-19th centuries).

Free Hebrew Translation - Here is a list of resources where you can find translators or bilinguals who volunteer to provide a free Hebrew translation service.


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