By Maxine Dovere
Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Volume One of the first Italian translation of the Babylonian Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, was presented to the Library of Congress by Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome, and Professor Clelia Piperno, director of the Talmud Translation Project and professor of Comparative Constitutional Law, University of Teramo, in a formal ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 23. Jane Dammen McAuliffe, director of National and International Outreach, received the volume on behalf of the library. The event was the first in a series of academic, quasi-religious and festive events in Washington and New York celebrating the publication of the Italian translation’s first volume.
A volume was presented to Rabbi Arthur Schneier at a ceremony at the Park East Synagogue on Oct. 24.
Based on the Vilna edition, the Italian Talmud will be an “entirely new translation—not only a matter of a new translation but making history….We have the duty to translate everything,” commented Piperno.
Di Segni described the occasion as “a very symbolic event [that] we wanted to share with the wider public.”
The text was translated from Aramaic into Italian using the Traduco App, a unique computational linguistics software system that, according to its developers, can be used for translations into virtually any language. The rabbi said the system could be developed to translate the Talmud into additional languages.
“The new translation signals that Italy’s Jewish community is a home for knowledge and cultural exchange,” Di Segni said, a concept generously supported by the Italian government’s Ministry of Education. “Our work in Italy has meaning outside of Italy, and that is why we are here,” he continued.
“Aramaic” noted Piperno, “uses fewer words than most modern languages…a very synthetic language, meaning that translating it takes more words. One page of Talmud is anywhere from four to 12 pages in Italian.”
Rabbi Gabi Decerno, the project manager, described the project as “an innovation for society and democracy, offering knowledge that is important to overcome hate…the best way to connect various cultures.”
The first printed Talmud was published in Venice in 1520. Few of the early books printed in Italy survived, however: In 1553 Pope Julius III ordered that the book be burned. The Library of Congress is the depository for one of the few volumes of this central work of Jewish commentary and argument to escape the flames.
“If you want to strike the heart of the Jewish community, strike it by burning books,” said Piperno.
She initiated the project in 2010, securing five million euros from the Italian government’s Ministry of Education. (An additional six million euros has since been granted.) An international team of 60-80 researchers and translators worked on the Talmud Italiano Project. Among those consulted was Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, director of the Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem. He recently completed a 45-year translation of the Talmud with commentary in modern Hebrew, translated to English and other languages.
The anticipated time needed to complete the Italian Talmud is about 10 years; the text will fill 25 to 30 volumes.
In comments during each of her presentations, Piperno expressed pride in the project and its implication of wider cultural understanding of Italy’s Jewish heritage.
“I think the job, which is very complicated, is something that will explore new ways of opening culture,” she said.
Di Segni is hopeful that a stronger identity for Italy’s Jewish community is developing.
“The Talmud is the key of the Jewish culture and the Jewish religion,” he said. “Without Talmud, there is no development of the future of the Jewish people.”
Cardozo Law School was host to the program’s penultimate panel discussion, “The Talmud and Western History, Politics and Law.” The Talmud’s position on Noahide/pre-Abrahamic responsibilities was examined, as was its role as a resource for early modern European political thought in the contemporary world and for thinking about law in Europe, Israel and the United States. Yeshiva University president Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman led the discussions.
“The Catholic Church burned the Talmud, recognizing it as an expression of culture and religion of the Jews,” noted Professor Emeritus Mario Patrono, University of Rome, La Sapienza School of Law, and a board member of the Talmud Translation Project. “The burning,” he said, was “a case of violent oppression and suppression of religious freedom….The financial support of the Italian government is an attempt to mitigate that ancient action.”
He continued by saying that the Talmud “promotes the idea of multiple opinions. Even if we choose opinion A we still study opinion B, and we must preserve both minority and majority opinion for consideration—or reconsideration.”
Piperno described the development of the software as “highly collaborative and universally available,” calling it a “powerful research tool…a method of applied thinking.”
The initial programs are in Italian, but the software is applicable to every language. The digital translator app was developed specifically for this project using state-of-the-art technology. Piperno termed the process “simple.”
Translation is a multi-level process. Initially, two people work page by page. The second edit involves a team of 30, many of whom are women, according to Piperno, the female director of this unique project. The work is reviewed and then passed to a final editor.
Funding for research and publishing continues to be difficult. Almost 10,000 copies have been sold in the 10 months since the first volume was issued. But for the inaugural period, profits go to the publisher who printed the Talmud without initial cost in exchange for a five-year moratorium on digital publication.
In December, the Talmud Translation Project will open a formal office in Rome. The ceremony will celebrate the first mounting of a mezuzah in a public establishment in Italy—“perhaps,” said Piperno, “in all of Europe!”