Monday, June 27, 2016

Matt's Zohar translation project is concluding

ZOHAR WATCH: A mysterious medieval text, decrypted (Ezra Glinter, Boston Globe).
Like many such works, the Zohar is intentionally obscure. Its language is full of neologisms, linguistic borrowings, occasional grammatical mistakes, and inspired wordplay on rabbinic and biblical passages. Its ideas are often paradoxical and contradictory, referring to esoteric concepts that are never fully spelled out. But with its cryptic Aramaic, lyrical poetry, and radical ideas about God, the Zohar captivated the imagination of both Jewish and Christian thinkers.

The Zohar has also attracted translators and commentators who have attempted to make it accessible, despite — or perhaps because of — its difficulty. These efforts include early translations into scholarly languages like Hebrew and Latin, as well as more recent efforts into English, French, and Spanish. But what is likely the most successful Zohar translation in history is only now nearing completion. The Pritzker Zohar, a 12-volume project from Stanford University Press, saw its 10th volume published in May, with the 11th due in September, and the last installment early next year. Translated primarily by Daniel Matt, a scholar of Jewish mysticism in Berkeley, Calif., with contributions by Joel Hecker and Nathan Wolski, the Pritzker edition will make the Zohar the most accessible it has ever been.

Describing the body of texts that make up Zoharic literature is almost as difficult as studying them. Written in the style of the Midrash, or rabbinic commentary on the Bible, the Zohar relates the teachings of Rabbi Shim’on and his companions as they wander through Galilee. But the Zohar also strikes out in bold new directions, describing not only the conversations of Rabbi Shim’on’s mystical fellowship but also their adventures and exploits. On their travels, they encounter strange characters who turn out to be more than what they seem — a beggar or a donkey driver who is actually a hidden sage, a child who displays surprising wisdom. At times, some argue, it comes to resemble a kind of medieval novel.
Back in December of 2015, I posted on an announcement that seemed to imply that the ninth volume was the last in Professor Matt's translation series, but it seems that there were three more coming, and the twelfth and last is due to be published in 2017. Meanwhile, this current article by Glinter gives a good overview of Zoharic studies, with some background on how the new translation got its start.
Matt would know. Now 65 years old, he speaks with a precision that seems to reflect his meticulous process of translation. For nearly two decades, he’s been working on the Zohar and has been studying the text for much longer than that. In the 1970s, he wrote his Brandeis doctoral thesis on “The Book of Mirrors,” a 14th-century Kabbalistic text that contained one of the first translations of the Zohar into Hebrew. In 1983, while teaching Jewish mysticism at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, he published a selection of Zohar translations. Then, in 1995, he was approached by Chicago philanthropist Margot Pritzker, who had been studying the Zohar with her rabbi and was interested in sponsoring a full, scholarly translation. Matt demurred at first — the project would take decades of full-time work, he warned her — but he eventually agreed to take it on, starting in 1997 and publishing the first volume in 2004.

Translating the Zohar turned out to be a more laborious process than he had anticipated. Although he planned to translate from a standard printed edition, he found that every version engaged in its own subtle editing of the text. So, with the help of a research assistant, he went back to early manuscripts, searching for a Zohar unencumbered by the interpolations and “corrections” of copyists and printers. It’s a process that has drawn both praise and criticism. While scholars in the field are quick to praise Matt’s erudition and skill as a translator, some point out that the Zohar he has produced is, in a sense, hypothetical. Ironically, in trying to uncover a more “authentic” Zohar, he has produced a version that never existed before.
That's a criticism that can be made of any critically reconstructed text, including, for example, the critical text of the New Testament that everyone uses. Be that as it may, the article is worth reading in full. I have commented on some of the challenges of deciphering ancient literature, including ancient esoteric literature, here.

For many, many past post on the Zohar and the Matt translation, see the post above (and links) on the ninth volume, as well as here, here, here, here, here, here, and links.