- Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation
Naomi Seidman opens her unusually lucid and compelling scholarly book, Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation, by telling a story about her father when he was a postwar translator. Through his labors as a kind of "double agent" working between the newly liberated French authorities and displaced European Jews who found themselves in France, his story, retold here, comes to enact the broader argument of the book. What Seidman argues here and throughout the book is that translation narratives should be "read not as transparent truth but rather as ideologically marked 'emplotment'" (p. 3). She does this by focusing on the relationship between Jews and Christians, from the Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, [End Page 171] to the Holocaust and beyond. In a sense, this longer history comes to flesh out the riddle that is her father's postwar story.
In what follows, I want to share the bare outline of this family history in order to show how Seidman draws readers in, through the telling of this and other stories. What is striking is that the relationship between this Jewish feminist daughter, Naomi Seidman, and her father is so central to this important scholarly work. Thus I begin with the story.
In her introduction, "The Translator as Double Agent," Seidman explains that her Polish Jewish father grew up in an affluent Hasidic home and studied French history as a Ph.D. student in Warsaw before the Second World War. Given this unusual background, he was uniquely suited to take on the role of unofficial liaison between the French authorities and the Jewish refugee community in Paris after the war. As she tells us,
One morning, my father was called to the Gare de l'Est, where the police were holding a group of Jewish refugees who had managed to cross three or four borders without proper documents. The scene in the train station was chaotic, the refugees were upset and exhausted, and my father asked the police if he could speak with the group.pp. 1–2
Seidman goes on to explain that her father spoke to the refugees in Yiddish, telling them not to be afraid. He also made it clear to them that, while the French authorities were not Jews, they were not Nazis either, and would not mistreat them. He further assured them that the local Jewish community would help get them released. Of course after this long discussion in Yiddish the French police wanted to know what he had said to calm down the situation. In response, Seidman explains,
Thinking fast, and thinking in French, my father "translated" his Yiddish words for the policemen: "I quoted them the words of a great Frenchman: 'Every free man has two homelands—his own, and France.' I assured them that they, who had suffered so much, had arrived at a safe haven, the birthplace of human liberty." As my father told it, the gendarmes wiped away patriotic tears at his speech.pp. 1–2
This ability to assess the situation and know what these different audiences needed to hear to make sure that everyone would emerge safely from what was already a charged and dangerous situation is the kind of political savvy Naomi Seidman sees at the heart of the labor of translation. This savvy is crucial to appreciating the role of translation in the long history of Jewish and Christian relations; in the rest of her book Seidman discusses how attention to the politics of translation itself becomes a mark of Jewish translation practices.
As Seidman explains, acts of translation are bound up with whole sets of cultural and theological assumptions. This is especially so in the case of biblical translations. Here the notion of the spirit versus the letter of the law is played out in the very act of translation, with Christian commitments to the spirit and not the letter of the text. As Seidman shows, this very Christian preference for the spirit of the...