App Helps Translate Talmud into Italian For the First Time

Chajm Guski is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

An application helps translate over 5,000 pages of the Babylonian Talmud into Italian.

On April 5, 2016, the very first Italian version of the Babylonian Talmud was officially presented to the Italian government. On this date, the book version of the completed volume has also been made available to the public through the La Giuntina publishing company.

The Babylonian Talmud is the central text of early Rabbinic Judaism which contains teachings on religion, law, science, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, ethics, etc. Historically, teachings, discussions and debates over the Torah and Jewish traditions were done orally by scholars. But because of the destruction of the Second Temple, the need to keep rabbinic discourse in writing became a necessity.

Consisting of 5,422 pages (6,200 in standard print), the Babylonian Talmud was completed around 1,500 years ago. In 1553 during the Counter Reformation on Jews, Pope Julius III ordered the burning of all the Talmuds but many original copies have survived. Up until now, translations of its texts are still very limited primarily because they are written in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. It’s a real challenge that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who was the very first scholar to translate the Talmud into Modern Hebrew, took 45 years to complete the project.

“Project Talmud” which aims to translate the entire texts into Italian is funded by the Italian Ministry of Education. It’s a concerted effort of the government, various Italian universities, Institute for Computational Linguistics of Italy’s National Research Council and the Union of Jewish Communities in the country. The project’s committee is chaired by the chief rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni and the main efforts are headed by Prof. Clelia Piperno of the University of Rome.

The committee has organized a group which has now expanded to seventy translators and twenty researchers which is comprised of rabbis, linguists and computer programmers. The project started in 2010 and after five years, the group has successfully completed translating the first volume of the Babylonian Talmud, the Rosh Hashana Tractate.

The initial phase of the translation project could have taken longer without the help of the web application called Traduco (Italian for “I translate”) which was specifically created for this task. Though there are now modern translation tools, it will still be difficult to make a good translation of the Talmud because just like other religious texts, most parts have implied meanings and can’t be translated literally, word per word. This difficulty became a challenge for the Institute of Computational Linguistics that created Traduco. As Emiliano Giovannetti of the institute cites “I am not a Talmudic expert, but after four years I came to understand the complexity of these cryptic texts.”

Traduco offered several benefits for the translation team. But ultimately, it allowed multiple translators and experts to work and provide simultaneous inputs as to the translation of a particularly complex section. The app made the translation phase quicker. Its creators believe that Traduco has that potential of becoming a useful tool for future translations of all other languages.

Chief Rabbi Di Segni is proud of the group’s accomplishment as he notes “There is now a group of scholars of the Talmud that speak the Italian language. These pages are now part of Italian history.” On the other hand, Prof. Piperno stressed the potential benefits the country can derive from the Talmud “The Talmud is a vast source of knowledge and we wanted it to be available for everybody.” And according to her, translating it into Italian would only make the country enrich its culture.

After the first volume, there are four more left to be translated which is comprised of 36 tractates. According to the group’s estimate, it would take 10 more years to complete the entire translation or project.

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