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The Boundaries of Wisdom: The Circulation of Practical Ethics among Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Medieval Mediterranean

In this project David examines a fundamental yet little-studied example of cultural interaction: the circulation of didactic texts among Jews, Muslims and Christians in medieval Iberia and its Mediterranean borderzones.

Wisdom literature lays claim to authority in large part because it aspires to teach values that are thought to be universally relevant, regardless of socio-economic status, religious affiliation or cultural tradition. Indeed, this very belief makes this kind of literature suitable for translation across religious divides. Via translation, adaptation or imitation, this literature travelled between Arabic, Hebrew, Latin and the Romance vernaculars of the Iberian Peninsula. However, in this project David argues that the study of these texts need to be complemented by readings that explore the specific circumstances of a work’s production, transmission and reception; the semantic changes that inevitably take place in the process of translation; a work’s ideological investment in its ethical worldview; and, finally, how these translated texts contribute to the esthetic regeneration of their respective languages, and compete for cultural capital within multilingual Iberia.

David structures his project around a corpus of nine works, the majority of which are translations from Arabic into Hebrew, or connected somehow to this phenomenon: Kalila wa-Dimna (‘Kalila and Dimna’), from Sanskrit into Persian and then into the Arabic of Ibn al-Muqaffa (8th c), thence into multiple languages, including Hebrew, Castilian and Latin in 13th c Iberia; Barlaam and Josaphat, translated into the Hebrew Sefer ben ha-melekh we-ha-nazir (‘The Book of the King’s Son and the Ascetic’) by Abraham ibn Hasday and into Castilian in 13th c northern Spain; Kitab Sindibad, translated into the Hebrew Mishle Sendebar (‘Tales of Sendebar’) and the Spanish Libro de los engaños de las mujeres in the 13th c; Kitāb adab al-falāsifa (‘The Book of the Ethics of the Philosophers’) by Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (Baghdad, 9th c), with 13th c Hebrew and Castilian translations: Musrei ha-Filosofim (‘The Ethics of the Philosophers’) and Libro de los buenos proverbios; Meshal ha-qadmoni (‘The Proverb of the Ancient’) by Yitzhaq ibn Sahula; the anonymous Mishlei he-‘arav (‘Sayings of the Arabs’); Kitāb maḥāsin al-ʼādāb (‘The Book of Excellent Conduct’) by Yoseph bar Yephet; Sefer ha-pardes (‘The Book of the Garden’) by Jedaiah ha-Penini; and El Conde Lucanor (‘Tales of Count Lucanor’) by Don Juan Manuel.

This corpus balances canonical texts with works that have been less studied but been edited, and those remain in manuscript form. By enriching the textual field and broadening its geographical scope (to include not just the Iberian Peninsula, but also North Africa and the south of France), this model of working lays bare a more complex network of values that crisscross the Mediterranean, transcending religious and political boundaries. By emphasising ‘cultural traffic’ – peoples and texts in movement – he throws into relief not only the dialogue between Jews, Muslims and Christians, but also where they part company.

Balancing panoramic perspectives with close readings of related texts, the project follows three related research questions to explore how cultural translation and interaction shapes and is shaped by individual and collective identities.

  1. Translation strategies: compilers and their readers. Prefaces and narrative interventions reveal the translator/compiler in dialogue with his community, striving to present inherited material afresh, balancing tradition with the needs of the present. The range of translation methods and styles also shed light on the ways in which translators negotiate between preserving supposedly universal values with those that need to be adapted for a particular community.
  2. Mutability of meaning: studying translation strategies reveals what happens to political and moral values as they pass from Arabic into new linguistic communities (Hebrew & Castilian). Building on the previous question, this line of research compares how ethical values are adapted for new cultural milieu and explores how different communities read the same texts in a different way.
  3. Convivencia: co-existence and its boundaries. Although translations and adaptations are enabled by shared ethical systems, they also strive to preserve the religious identities inherent in the sacred texts of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This question engages with the work of other scholars who have attempted comparative analyses, but extends their readings to inquire into the ways Hebrew, Arabic and Romance emulate each other to raise the status and richness of their languages in this medium.