In Travels in Translation, Ken Frieden traces modern Hebrew back to 1780, when German Jews began to move beyond the narrow confines of Torah and beyond a worldview centered on Zion. Supplementing Hebrew pilgrimage narratives to the Holy Land, enlightened authors wrote and translated stories of travel in Europe, North Africa, the Americas, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, and the Arctic.
Before it reemerged as a spoken language, Hebrew was like a ship in a bottle, anchored in the Bible and Talmud. Early modern speakers of Yiddish and German, by writing vividly of pilgrimages to the Holy Land and translating far-flung travel accounts breathed new life into Hebrew. As they overcame the tendency to quote biblical phrases at every turn, these authors developed a descriptive Hebrew that was capable of evoking distant sea travels and exotic lands. They pulled the ship out of the bottle and sent Hebrew back into the world.
Frieden’s fresh look at the origins of modern Jewish literature launches a novel approach to literary studies. At the intersection of travel writing, translation studies, and worldly horizons, textual referentialism focuses on texts yet reads beyond them to their referents. Frieden thus proposes a rigorous alternative to post-structuralism and New Historicism, reenergizing literary and cultural studies.