Editor's Introduction: Translations, Triangular Relations, and Spiritual Permutations
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Editor's Introduction:
Translations, Triangular Relations, and Spiritual Permutations

Writing from Paris to his friend Gershom (Gerhard) Scholem in October 1936, the literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin ended his letter with a request: "Let me hear something about Agnon, for once."1 Both Scholem and the Galician-born writer had been living in Jerusalem for over a decade, where the former taught at the newly founded Hebrew University. Scholem had known Benjamin (1892–1940), whom he had first met as a precocious teenager in their native Berlin, even longer than he knew Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970), whom he had also first met in Berlin.2 On a Friday evening during the summer of 1918—the year following his first encounter with Agnon—Scholem read the Hebrew original of the latter's story about a Torah scribe to the newly married couple Walter and Dora Benjamin, neither of whom had yet achieved a working knowledge of the language. "I read it for perhaps the tenth time," Scholem later noted in his diary, "but as I already knew, it affects me more deeply each time . . . I trembled as if I had to kiss a girl. Perhaps I read well as a result."3 [End Page 379]

disorder and early sorrow

The future scholar of Kabbalah had begun translating from Hebrew into German when he first gained mastery of Hebrew as a teenager, and he seems to have regarded translation as a means of truly internalizing the language—not only for purposes of scholarship but also for purposes of life (in Palestine). Scholem's first translation, rather curiously, was of the Song of Songs, which may also have caused him to tremble occasionally, and it was published privately in 1916, when he was not yet twenty.4 Late in the following year, while residing in Jena, where he was studying mathematical logic under Frege, he began translating the book of Lamentations.5 In 1917 Scholem sent both his first version of the former book as well as a later one to Benjamin, who was not overly enthusiastic about either, claiming somewhat paradoxically (as was his wont) that Scholem was "not as close to German" as he was to Hebrew and therefore had "not been called" to translate the Song of Songs—unlike the German poet Hölderlin's rendering of Pindar's Greek poems.6 In a letter to another friend, Scholem referred to his recent translation of Lamentations as "different from my accursed translation of the Song of Songs," but Benjamin did not quite agree with this evaluation; writing in late March 1918, he informed Scholem that both he and Dora felt that the translation of Lamentations "has the character of an academic study," since its author had not allowed himself "to be inspired by the German language." Its weakness lay in that it was not intended "to save a text for the German language, but rather to relate it to German in terms of what is correct."7

Despite Benjamin's barbed responses, Scholem kept translating from [End Page 380] Hebrew into German, moving from biblical texts to medieval and modern ones. In 1919 he published a translation, in Buber's Der Jude, of a poetic lament by R. Meir of Rothenberg (d. 1293),8 and a year later his first translation of a story by Agnon appeared in those pages. Benjamin seems not to have responded to the former, perhaps because unlike Scholem's translations from the Bible, it could not be compared with Luther's version. Although he began studying Hebrew only during the summer of 1920, when writing to Scholem in early January of that year Benjamin praised the latter's recent translation of Agnon, describing it as "perfect," based on "the beauty of both the story and the language."9

Der Jude, in which both those translations had appeared, was cofounded in 1916 as a Zionist monthly by Martin Buber (1878–1965), then widely regarded as the leader of German Jewry's spiritual renewal, and the philanthropist Salman Schocken (1877–1959), co-owner of a chain of department stores.10 Shortly after its founding, Buber...