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A LANDMARK TRANSLATION
on July 28, 2005
Jacob Neusner's translation of the Mishnah (which he undertook in collaboration with several of his pupils) was first published in 1988. It is a landmark among modern popular translations of ancient Rabbinic texts, and has rapidly become a standard work, taking its place alongside the earlier English translations by Herbert Danby and Philip Blackman.
Unlike those earlier translations, however, Neusner's approximates in English the particular flavour of the eliptical, laconic style of the original. For the first time, English-speaking readers can gain an insight into how the Mishnah says what it says, without the paraphrases and glosses of Danby and Blackman.
But Neusner's approach to the translation has its price. First, the text does not flow like Danby's translation. Readers are made starkly aware that the Mishnah is a compilation of teachings, not a work of literature. Second, the terse, eliptical style results from the Mishnah's being written originally for readers who understood not only the subject matter but also the set of the minds that considered it and the milieu that cradled it. There is therefore much in the text that is taken for granted, and uninitiated readers can feel at a disadvantage.
To meet the needs of the uninitiated, however, Neusner provides an extensive introduction. This places the Mishnah in context and explains its purpose. It is a mine of information presented with the clarity and simplicity of style which only the greatest scholars command. Indeed, the introduction is valuable for the expert as well as the novice.
In short, this is an important work. Its value lies in two particular areas: the non-paraphrastic style of the translation that imitates as closely as reasonably possible the style of the original, and the extent and quality of the background material provided in the Introduction.