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The Algorithms Translating Talmud

A new edition of the Babylonian Talmud has human translators collaborating with advanced algorithms

Simone Somekh
October 05, 2018
Screenshot from 'AI—Algorithm' videoVimeo
Screenshot from 'AI—Algorithm' videoVimeo

Nearly 500 years after the Babylonian Talmud was printed in full for the first time in Venice, the same text is being printed once again in Italy, this time accompanied by an unprecedented Italian translation. The true innovation is not the translation itself, but the language parsing algorithms developed by a small, state-funded startup company that were essential to this ambitious project.

Behind the first two volumes that have been published so far, there is a team of researchers, coders, translators, and editors, who have been working on software that aids them in the translation process. The effort is headed by Clelia Piperno, the vigorous law professor who first envisioned this collaboration between the Italian Jewish community and the computational linguistics department of the National Research Council.

“It may seem like a utopia,” Piperno said during a presentation held at the United Nations headquarters in New York during the opening week of the 73rd General Assembly. Together with diplomats and rabbis, she gave the crowd a glimpse of the initiative, which involves almost 100 translators and editors.

New media, Piperno said, are often used to spread racist propaganda, but she wants to use the same technology to bridge the distance between peoples and communities.

The Babylonian Talmud is an 8,000-page-long dialogue between rabbis collected between the third and fifth centuries in the Mesopotamian region. The text hosts a multitude of voices, stories, and opinions and is one of the main sources of Jewish religious law and thought.

Translating such a long and at times cryptic text from its original Aramaic into a modern language is a major enterprise, even in the digital era.

The small team of developers Piperno recruited knew that no existing translation software could handle this type of work; new algorithms were needed. Based in Rome, the group created a computer-assisted translation software that memorizes all translations performed by the human collaborators, storing them in a cloud in order to facilitate future ones. They named it “Traduco,” which means “I Translate” in Italian.

The translators divide the text into paragraphs and strings, then select the portion they want to translate; the software searches for similar excerpts and corresponding translations in its database and offers the translators a list of suggestions.

“The software has ultimately become an excellent tool for analysis of the text itself and of the quality of the translations,” Michael Dollinar, an IT manager who worked on Traduco, told Tablet.

He explained that the software doesn’t translate the Talmud; it makes suggestions to the human translator, increasingly developing an interconnectivity between different passages that no other translation software allows. This feedback loop is meant to enhance the work’s overall accuracy and coherence.

An Italian rabbi based in Haifa, Michael Ascoli has curated the tractate of Ta’anit. “It’s an exceptional exercise,” he said of the collaborative translation effort, noting that the project is incentivizing the study of the Talmud among Italian Jewish youth.

Despite his enthusiasm, Ascoli has also been hesitant: An inaccurate translation may mislead the reader. “In Italian, we say ‘Tradurre è tradire,’ which means ‘to translate is to betray.’”

Ascoli also believes that studying the Talmud from its translated version is like studying a scientific subject from the solutions rather than the exercises. As well, he feels wary about making the Talmud available to the general public indiscriminately.

“There are more benefits than potential risks,” he concluded. “We are reappropriating a heritage that has been out of many people’s reach for too long, and that’s most important.”

As the translation goes forward, the Traduco software is turning into a precious source that can change the way we study the Talmud. The more translations that are stored in the system, the greater its level of fluency with the language, semantics, and structure of the text.

“The database is one of the most treasurable and important elements of Traduco,” said Dollinar.

The potential clash between artificial intelligence and halakhic expertise can make some rabbis uncomfortable.

“I still hope that people will continue asking questions to the rabbis,” said Ascoli, when queried about how technology may change our approach to religious texts. “However, I hope rabbis will use computers in regards to the notions.”

So far, two tractates—Rosh Hashanah and Berakhot—translated with the assistance of Traduco’s algorithms, have been published by Giuntina, the historic Jewish publishing house in Italy. Ta’anit and Kiddushin are expected to come out by the end of the year. Italians, few of whom are Jewish, have been purchasing the volumes, curious to take a look at what is considered to be one of the most fascinating and mysterious sources of wisdom in history.

“The Talmud is a collective work. It was put together by scholars who lived in different places and times,” said Ascoli, drawing a parallel with today’s translation project, which is very much about working remotely and in groups. “We’re doing the same. All I hope is that this one won’t take centuries.”

Simone Somekh is a New York-based author and journalist. He’s lived and worked in Italy, Israel, and the United States.