Judeo-French Judeo-German

A Medieval Judeo-French Bible Glossary on Exhibit in Leipzig

One of the presentations in the 2021 lecture series on Jewish languages organized by the French Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity (ILARA) inspired me to include a rare manuscript in a temporary exhibition of the Leipzig University Library: a thirteenth-century Bible glossary in Hebrew script assumed to have been written by Rabbi Samson ben Isaac of Chinon (c. 1260-1330). It is generally agreed that this Bible glossary was compiled in Rouen in northern France. The glossary contains translations of thousands of biblical terms in Hebrew as well as explanations (glosses) originally only into Judeo-French. Some time after it was originally written, a list of translations into Judeo-German was added, also in Hebrew script. Additionally, this list of terms in Judeo-German is written in a slightly lighter tone of ink. The parchment is attractively decorated with miniatures of imaginary creatures.

The medieval Leipzig Bible glossary (Vollers 1099) lists terms in Hebrew and translations into Old French (Judeo-French) and Old German (Judeo-German). It also shows miniature drawings of mythical creatures.

The Leipzig Bible glossary manuscript is an important source for understanding how scholars communicated about biblical texts and their meanings in vernacular languages, such as French or German, of their local social environments. Medieval scholars rarely wrote in these vernacular languages, and only very few of such texts have survived. Since the Leipzig manuscript is in pristine condition, we chose to feature this seldom-shown work in the dedicated exhibition hall of the Leipzig University Library for four months until February 2022.

This academic exhibition, which I conceived and curated, is titled “Translated Religion: In a Forest of True Words” (Übersetzte Religion. Im Dickicht der wahren Worte). It outlines the history of religion as a history of translation using manuscripts and books from the Leipzig University Library and provides information about translators’ efforts to translate religious texts and images. More than seventy items from two millennia exhibited give testimony to translational work in the context of religion. The exhibition and the accompanying 112-page catalogue are the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration.

Impression of the temporary book exhibition “Translated Religion: In a Forest of True Words” at the Bibliotheca Albertina in Leipzig. Photo by Thomas Kademann.

Also of interest for scholars of Jewish languages in the exhibition is a small book with the title Or lě-ēt ʿerev (Light in the Evening), an eighteenth-century work in Yiddish and Hebrew used in the Christian Judenmission (missionary work to convert Jews). Additionally, visitors may view books and manuscripts with translations of the stirring psalms from the Hebrew Bible into languages used in Christian contexts—ranging from Coptic, an everyday language descended from Ancient Egyptian and widely used in Egypt until the seventh century; to Sahidic, a Coptic dialect; to Greek. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the lyrical translation of the psalms into standard German by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), an important proponent of the Jewish haskala (Enlightenment).

The exhibition emphasizes some of the challenges met by translators of religious texts who often had to master other writing systems. Religious texts are meant to be universally meaningful. Therefore, the translator’s task of conveying sacred words from a language that is, for instance, not spoken or whose cultural contexts have vanished is especially challenging. The Leipzig exhibition points out some of the answers past translators found to this challenge, thereby disclosing some often overlooked accomplishments that remain indispensable also for contemporary scholarship: encyclopaedias and glossaries, such as our Bible glossary.

When you enter the darkened exhibition hall, the manuscript parchment and the other exhibited items “look” into the room at you, no matter where you are standing since they are placed as vertically as possible, following the concept of all temporary exhibitions in the Leipzig University Library. There is a certain tranquillity in the hall that—in the words of director Ulrich Johannes Schneider—is created by the radiance of the objects, which are conjured out of the surrounding black by focused lighting alone.

Having come into the light, our rare Judeo-French Bible glossary, which miraculously has survived to this day, tells us of the diligence of Jewish scholars in medieval Rouen so that their work might provide guidance “in a forest of true words”.

Dr Katja Triplett
Exhibition Curator;
Senior Research Fellow for the Study of Religions, Leipzig University; Adjunct Professor, Marburg University
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