The Different Tasks of Translators and Historians – By Daniel R. Schwartz

Daniel R. Schwartz August 26, 2014 0

Daniel R. Schwartz in the Jew and Judean Forum

The question whether we should use “Jew” or “Judean” when writing about antiquity should, I assume, be approached no differently than other questions concerning the use of our modern English vocabulary for ancient phenomena. Just as we normally look at the evidence concerning antiquity and, when turning to describing what we see, strive to choose the English words that best correspond to what we see, so too in this case. Since, as the dictionaries show, “Jew” identifies a person according to his or her descent or religion, while “Judean” (like “Syrian,” “Egyptian,” “Athenian,” or “New Yorker”) identifies a person according to his or her place of birth and/or residence, it should not be too difficult to decide which to use in which context. 

Thus, for example, when we wish to write about the first-century rebellion against Rome that culminated with the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, once we note that it was in Judea, that it focused on the city that was once the capital of a Judean state, and that the rebels strove to restore such a state by putting an end to Roman rule of the country, it is not difficult to decide to write about it as a Judean revolt, and about the rebels as “Judeans.” In contrast, when we want to write about those ancient Judeans’ cousins in Alexandria or Sardis or Rome, who did not participate in the rebellion, and whose synagogues, and right to live according to their ancestral traditions, continued to enjoy Roman protection, it is easy to decide that “Jews” is more appropriate. If the use of two terms implies there were significant differences in antiquity between those descendants of the ancient Israelites who were more defined by their religion and those who were more defined by their link to a particular country, so be it; it is no more surprising than our recognition today that, despite various and significant commonalities and historical links, there are differences between “Jew” and “Israeli” and both have their uses. Indeed, the fact that we have, in English, two alternative terms available to us with regard to the ancient Ioudaioi requires us to decide, in each case in which we want to write about them, which term seems to be more appropriate. That can encourage us to be more exact in our observation of the ancient data and representation of ancient realities in our modern terms. 

In my Judeans and Jews: Four Faces of Dichotomy in Ancient Jewish History, soon to be published by the University of Toronto Press, I have presented several cases in which the differences among Ioudaioi in antiquity seem best to be represented by using “Judean” for some, such as the state-oriented author of 1 Maccabees, and “Jew” for others, such as the diasporan and religiously-oriented author of 2 Maccabees. As for the many Ioudaioi between such radically opposed poles, the need to consider whether to use “Jews” or “Judeans” will encourage us to think all the more sensitively about what made them what they were.

What complicates this issue is the challenge of translating ancient texts, which is not the same as the challenge of describing ancient reality — and it is with regard to translation that the current debate arose. Steve Mason’s 2007 article on the subject was written, as he notes at its outset, to explain the preference for “Judeans” as the translation of Ioudaioi in the series of translations of Josephus’s writings of which he is the editor. While Mason offers various arguments for that preference, the basic consideration here is simply that which he sets out in his editorial introduction to the series: “Our goal has been to render individual Greek words with as much consistency as the context will allow, to preserve the parts of speech, letting adjectives be adjectives and participles be participles …  .” One obvious implication of that policy is, of course, that each Greek term, including Ioudaios, should always be rendered by the same English term.

The challenge of translating ancient texts is not the same as the challenge of describing ancient reality.

There is, of course, something to say for such a policy, but also room for debate. I followed it, for example, in my Hebrew translation of 2 Maccabees (2004); there too I strove to follow the syntax of the Greek and to render its terminology consistently with the same Hebrew roots. Some readers were happy with such an “emic” approach, which attempts to bring the readers to the book by presenting it as closely as possible in the language of the source; others were critical, and would have preferred an “etic” translation that brings the book to the readers by making it more readable in the target language. Such debates concerning translation policy are perennial, which means there is room for both approaches and readers must choose which they prefer and in what context. 

Thus, for example, in a world in which etic translations of Josephus exist, and when a new translation is — as in Mason’s series — accompanied by a copious commentary, there is more room for an emic translation than there would be if no etic translation existed and if the emic translation would be thrust upon readers without commentary. This point has to do with translation policy in general and has nothing to do with “Jews” or “Judeans” in particular; note, by way of comparison, that anyone translating the Acts of the Apostles who, at 16:37–38, is debating whether to translate Rhomaioi as plain “Romans” (as the King James Version) or rather “Roman citizens” (as the Revised Standard Version), would probably tend more easily to the former if he or she knew that the translation would be accompanied by a commentary that explains what exactly is meant.  

Be that as it may, here it is enough to say that when we, as historians, are not translating ancient texts, issues of translation policy need not determine how we write about the Ioudaioi of antiquity (or about Roman citizens in Macedonia). And it seems clear to me that many of those Ioudaioi were primarily defined as such by their common descent and/or allegiance to their religion — and that, accordingly, “Jews” is the most appropriate English term for them, just as “Judeans” best fits many others. I freely admit that my experience in life, which after two decades in the USA and four in Israel has made very clear to me just how different being ”Jewish” is from being “Israeli,” has contributed significantly to this approach to antiquity. 

See the Forum home page and download the e-book in epub format (most readers) or in mobi format (Amazon Kindle).