Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

7.2. Translation and Culture
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gertrude Durusoy (Izmir) / Katja Sturm-Schnabl (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Puritanism in Translation: The Role of Translation in the Shaping of the New "Puritan Sabra"

Nitsa Ben-Ari (Tel-Aviv University)


The purpose of this paper is to show the unifying power of puritan ideology on Hebrew culture in a crucial, formative period, between the thirties and the seventies. It will focus on the role of translated literature in shaping the image of the new, "pure", born-in-Israel Sabra, shying away from sex, foul language and pornography. It will describe the consequences of the suppression of the erotic on the Hebrew repertoire.

It is generally agreed, that the highest point of Puritanism was the Victorian era, nicknamed "The Golden Age of Puritanism and the Golden Age of Pornography". It opened with the 1802 establishment of the "Society for the Suppression of Vice", proceeded with Thomas Bowdler's 1818 expurgated Shakespeare and culminated in Chief Justice Cockburn's 1868 notorious Obscenity Laws. Apart from gaining entry to the dictionary with a new English verb, Bowdler opened the door to censorship of the classics. Judge Cockburn's historical definition of pornography put the ban on books for a hundred years, until it was altered in the famous book trials that echoed through the Western world in the 1960s. His definition encompassed all material written with the intention of corrupting the minds of those open to such influences and into whose hands such material may fall. It banned books such as Cleland's Fanny Hill, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Joyce's Ulysses, Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Nabokov's Lolita. Puritanism swept in various versions through most of Europe and America. It was acclaimed in Boston, where the first trial of a book took place as early as 1821 - Cleland's Fanny Hill, of course, which had come to symbolize pornography. In 1872 the American "Committee for the Suppression of Vice", with Anthony Comstock at its head proceeded to impose the Puritan norm on all aspects of life, banning books, pamphlets, powders and contraceptives by the ton. Puritanism infiltrated Israel, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, at the turn of the 20th century, with the first immigration waves from Europe. The 30 years of British Mandate up to the 1948 establishment of the State enhanced its spread, especially with the introduction of the British Obscenity Laws into Israeli Mandatory Law in 1936, but there it clashed with a counter-ideology, borrowed from the Bolshevik revolution, that of freedom of sex and equality of gender.

This is the dramatic moment where my search begins.

Zionism started with a promise of sexual freedom and gender equality, and in fact succeeded in maintaining this myth for decades, well after the establishment of the state. The "Woman Question" was one of the key ideological issues discussed in the first stages of this Jewish revolution. Back in 1897, the first Zionist Congress granted women the right to vote, though because of opposition from Orthodox sectors, this right was not implemented in Israel until 1926. In other words, equality of women in the Second Aliyah (1904-1914) became mainly the right to labor as hard as men, draining swamps, paving roads and settling the country. Struggles for separate organizations for women-pioneers were not encouraged. A small step forward was accomplished in 1936, when pressure on the Mandatory rule resulted in changing the minimal marriage age of girls from 9 to 15, another small one - the prohibition of bigamy in 1947. But no pressure helped women in their struggles to withdraw marital laws from the absolute power of the Orthodoxy. Neither did this happen with the establishment of the State. Women, who joined the radical Zionist movement with the hope of virtual and real gain, found themselves pushed to the side.

What led to this ideological twist? It could not have been mere acceptance of Mandatory norms, for the British Mandate was not too popular at its best, and encountered violent opposition in its last stages, when British norms became a symbol of oppression. One must dig much deeper for the roots of such phenomena.

Historically speaking, the revolutionary struggle for a new image of the Jew started in Germany in the beginning of the 19th century, with the battle for emancipation. As opposed to the Diaspora Jew, the New Jew had to break away from the weak sickly Ghetto Jew image and assume a new one, that of a muscular, upright, sun-tanned male. In fact, all national movements in the 19th and 20th century tended to be predominantly "virile", let alone a movement that had to confront accusations such as Sigmund Freud's or his follower Otto Weininger's, of Jews being feminine and hysterical. The image of the New Hebrew Woman was on the agenda as well, in so far as an improvement of her general education was concerned. Her main role was still that of the homemaker. In fact, the enlightened Jewess filled her male counterparts with growing unease, for two reasons: the imminent danger of assimilation on the one hand, and the fear of a sexually liberated female on the other. Due to the young age of marriage in certain communities in Eastern Europe, sexual relations could become traumatic for the young male.

The radical groups of young people who planned to migrate to Israel wanted to break away with these past bourgeois traditions and traumas, but apparently carried them on to the Promised Land. Utopian communes such as Upper-Bitaniya in the Galilee, preaching freedom of sex and gender, created a lot of controversy and finally died away, defeated primarily by the small number of women and the excruciating material conditions: malaria, hunger, lack of work. The tension between the promise of erotic liberation and ensuing Puritanism took its toll, however, with a great number of suicides among the pioneers of the second and third immigration waves.

Growing tension and violent clashes with the Arab population in the thirties intensified the need for a more virile image of the New Sabra: the Shomer ideal was adopted, that of the Bedouin-like tough, silent Sabra, upright on his horse, ready to sacrifice all for his country, one with his tough surroundings. Kibbutz education, striving to apply Zionist ideology to everyday life, advocated co-education in the freest sense, with sex stripped of its mystery and couples tolerated as long as they do not interfere with communal life. The Freudian slogan of "Sublimation without Repression" was heralded with enthusiasm by youth movements and Kibbutz educators: the sexual urge was natural and positive, and should, God forbid, not be repressed, but it should be channeled to "higher" goals. The new principles of "Sabra purity" were formed, and they were all encompassing: purity of thoughts, words and deeds. The 10th commandment of the "Shomer-Tzair" Youth Movement required the Sabra to "not smoke, not drink, and maintain sexual purity." War was a man's affair, the woman - a distant image from back home, to long for and dream about. The Palmach youth, preceding the regular army of the State of Israel, never used foul language and regarded sex as impure and unimportant, compared with "higher" national values. They were in fact puritanical to such an extent that, as one of its member described in her memoirs, 99% of the fighters must have died virgins. When violence ceased to be the dominant issue, it was replaced with the melting-pot demands. The erotic revolution was stricken out of the political agenda, giving way to Puritanism.

In opposition to the New Sabra there was the "other": the new immigrant, the speaker of abhorred Yiddish, the Oriental Jew who would not give up his past traditions to be re-modeled in this radical way. The latter retained an overtly erotic hue, negatively connected with a Levantine culture of cards, cafes and brothels. Much like the Arab (or rather, his image), the Levantine immigrant was suspected and feared for his sexuality; unlike the Arab, though, he had a rightful claim on whatever female the Sabra considered his own, which made him a bigger menace.

Literature adopted the puritanical trend, shaping it and reflecting it simultaneously. Generations of mainstream writers concentrated on the Zionist narrative, that is, the Oedipal break with the Diaspora and with the (relevant) "fathers". Translated literature, instead of offering a breakthrough in the form of a subversive alternative, joined in this cultural mobilization, selecting "appropriate" source texts and cultures and screening them for inappropriate contents. It had much impact, for translation was recognized from the onset on as the basis for any new cultural infrastructure. In the thirties and forties, respectable publishers such as Mitzpah, Stiebel and Omanut, were so translation-oriented, that Hebrew writers raised voices of protests. Yet selected either classical or socialistic-realistic material. Love and sex were considered irrelevant, if not depraved. This tendency was intensified when publishing houses of socialistic ideologies replaced them in the forties and fifties with names such as Sifriat Poalim (Workers' Library) or Sifria-La'am (People's Library). True, from 1936 there was formal censorship to contend with: the notorious "Obscenity laws". Yet, for some reason, the law was much more severe with theatre plays and films, subjected to pre-censorship, and rather lenient with books, where the punishment was three months imprisonment. In 1965, Israeli law increased the punishment for obscenity to 2 years, more than the maximal period in British law, though again, it hardly had to be enforced. As opposed to the battles for freedom of speech in the Western world, no such battle took place in Israel, in fact only one was fought in the municipal court as well as the two upper instances. Publishers did not try to publish "subversive" material to test the reaction of the law; nor did they - or the public - proclaim the right to do so. As late as 1968, a committee with Judge Vitkon at its head recommended that literature, art and science be allowed to develop freely, at the risk of publishing obscene material, but the committee's conclusions did not have any legislative follow-up. Moreover, long after the prolonged ban on books was lifted in England and the US, their translations into Hebrew were slow to appear. The seventies, the apex of sexual freedom in American culture, opened in Israel with the Yom Kippur war, and Israeli culture again plunged into a traumatic period of re-assessment of values.

In other words, rejection of the erotic was motivated much more by self-censorship than anything else.

With deep belief in the new values and in their own educational role, translators, publishers, editors and men of letters helped enhance the puritanical ideology. Since a culture tends to be stratified, however, erotic literature did exist, yet, as befits a Puritan society, it flourished in the margin, either as a "corrupt", cultural form or as a pedagogical-medical one. This is where it could be "overlooked" or "controlled" by the regulatory mechanism of culture/power.

What then were the options offered in the margin? First, let us bear in mind that the many immigrants who came to Israel had the option of reading in their own tongue, and in fact maintained, for a while, lending libraries, theatres and journals in various languages. This option did not conform to the melting-pot ideology, and the Israeli born generation rejected it altogether. The second option was translated pulp-literature, sold under the counter in newspaper stands, away from book-stores or libraries. Lawrence, Miller, Nabokov were translated and distributed as pulp fiction, along with Cleland's Fanny Hill and its numerous Hebrew pseudo-translations. Only in the seventies and eighties did new translations of the "banned books" begin to appear, in respectable publishing houses, with a notable effort to establish their new literary status, though, dialectically, without neglecting to advertise the sensational circumstances of their beginnings. The third option masqueraded under scientific titles such as sex-guides or medical encyclopedias. For a long period of time, the only legitimate readings on sexual matters were such guides, preferably of the Freudian school. Since knowledge and understanding of sex and gender were acknowledged as a source of power, and since immigrants kept bringing with them either "bourgeois" or "depraved" norms, these guides were selected for translation according to the "correct" doctrine: old fashioned notions had to be cast away, yet new ones had to fit in with the mainstream ideology of Sublimation.

Please don't misunderstand me: there was no decree or pamphlet indicating which literature was recommended. Neither was there ever any list of forbidden books. Yet all the cultural agents participating in this enormous effort of culture shaping seemed to know what was right and what was wrong. They worked with the best of intentions, and labored under the impression that they were building a democratic, liberal society. The only danger being, of course, that the public in this democratic society did not realize that the reading material accessible to it was pre-selected and manipulated so as to exclude books, genres and whole strata of - for instance - erotic literature. While censorship is an integral part of a dictatorship, and thence the reader soon develops subversive methods of reading as well as piratical markets for forbidden books, reading publics in liberal regimes are not as sophisticated, and can, therefore, be manipulated more easily. When the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley's Lover was legally banned in Japan in 1950, several piratical versions appeared in the market, some including the 12 censored passages in English as an appendix. The Israeli reader did not know that the 1938 translation had been expurgated, and would decline from looking for cheap versions in the "black market". Paradoxically, even the "pulp" versions were cleansed of excessive eroticism. They were also cleansed of "excessive poetry". Not until 1971 did a full canonic version of Lawrence's novel appear.

Not all the banned books received the same degree of canonization. Henry Miller's 1934 Tropic of Cancer, translated in 1964 was retranslated for a more respectable publishing house in 1985, but never enjoyed great popularity. Cleland's Fanny Hill was translated several times, from the sixties to the nineties, each version claiming, with no justification whatsoever, to be complete and unabridged. Unlike its rehabilitation in England and the US, where some critics compared it to the best 18th century novels such as Fielding's Tom Jones or Defoe's Mol Flanders or even to parodies of novels like Richardson's Pamela, it never managed to rid itself from its notoriety as pornography. Nabokov's Lolita enjoyed a happier fate. It was translated in 1959, a year after the ban had been lifted, in a cheap pocket-book edition, and while it had not been censored (in fact there is no overt sexual language to censor), the translator did not cope with its vast and complex literariness, thus amplifying its pornographic character. In 1986 it was re-translated in one of the elitist publishing houses, with the full canonizing scientific apparatus: annotations, foreword, after-word, in short, what Bourdieu called "les enjeux".

What typified the first appearances of the banned books were their efforts to gain legitimization, surprising for pulp fiction, not for the cultural atmosphere of the period. These efforts consisted in (a) relying on recommendations from famous personalities in the source culture; (b) cleansing the book of excessive eroticism, and/or (c) embellishing the language. In the language-embellishment process: specific terms for sexual body parts and acts would be euphemized; older, Biblical terms would be used, where slang Hebrew terms would have been used in the spoken vernacular. Slang expressions (such as abound in Henry Miller's books, for instance) would occasionally be replaced with "bold" equivalents, only to be embedded in a highly correct, normative style. Outstanding "private" metaphors would be replaced with worn out clichés or similes.

"Lower" forms of pulp pornography behaved in a similar way, with two variations: most of them paraded as translations but were actually written by Israeli students, young writers and journalists who made some extra (pitiful) money on the side; the language, though more suggestively lewd, was in fact even more puritanical. In an effort to imitate "higher" forms of literature, it adopted what was thought to be "literary" style, avoided explicit terms and used euphemistic clichés instead. Pulp pornography did not shun from appealing to literary personalities for legitimization: no version of Fanny Hill, for instance, appeared without the allusion to its younger "sister" Lady Chatterley, emphasizing the fact that Fanny would have shuddered at Connie Chatterley's language. Henry Miller would be used to "guide" the reader to expect "dirty" allusions to bodily functions etc. These books would often use promise of pornography without really fulfilling it: scenes describing the sexual act, for instance, would be cut in the "crucial" moment and end in a series of hyphens or dots. Here's a typical ending of such a scene in Fanny Hill's Bedroom, a pseudo-translation published in 1964 (my literal translation): "And Leslie let her (girl) friend do whatever she wanted to do to her hidden parts. No need to describe this. What the two did, or more precisely what Fanny did to Leslie, is clear to us all - and you, readers, who want to know it all, are free to imagine whatever you like" (p. 43). Anybody who expected vulgar language in pulp fiction would have been disappointed as well: it was lewd, it was suggestive, but it had literary aspirations.

In this marginal culture, the Sex Guides supplied the only legitimate forum for discussion, information, formulation and perhaps excitement about sex. Sometimes accompanied by illustrations, they did not differ much in style from the other minor literary forms. True, they had the bigger task to face - renewing or inventing terminology in a language that had in stock either post-Biblical literature or street slang (mainly foreign). They chose, needless to say, the "higher" terms, thus sounding old-fashioned and somewhat "negative", since the old terms had acquired a negative hue. 'Erva', for instance, the biblical term for genitals, having been used in proverbs such as "kol be-isha - erva" (a voice is shameful as genitals in a woman) and in various insults, could not remain neutral. The terms 'ezor ha-boshet', 'ha-mevoshim' all stem from the root 'bosh' - meaning shame, and indeed Beit boshet (house of shame) is a Hebrew old term for brothel. Using these terms with no attempt to refresh them made the guides sound foreboding. As indeed they were, for, although they opened with the modern onslaught on prejudice and ignorance, they soon dwelt upon disease and prostitution, meddled in moral questions, commended temperance and prescribed hygiene. Unser geschlechtsleben (Our Sexual Life), by Dr. Med. Fritz Kahn translated in 1962 opens with the words: "This book was written for two reasons: experience and sympathy for suffering" (p. 25).

The fact that these marginal literary forms were the only lingual laboratory responsible for updating the Hebrew erotic repertoire had far-reaching, though quite predictable, results. The repertoire dwindled and petrified to such an extent that, modern Hebrew writers who finally dared try their hands at erotica, sounded old and artificial and their love scenes became a source of ridicule. Dwindling repertoire is, by the way, a common result of prolonged suppression of the erotic; writers like Chinese-American Anchee Min report of such cases in Maoist China, Japanese translators reported similar phenomena in Japan. Likewise, Hebrew literature, original and translated had remained puritan for too long a time to make a swift recovery.

From the fifties to the seventies, mainstream Hebrew literature alternated between the public and the private voice, yet each generation remained predominantly "male" and Oedipal in the sense that sons broke away with and from their fathers. The mythological Sabra in the works of Amos Oz or A.B. Yehoshua from the seventies was now tired, sick, worn-out, disillusioned. His attempts at eroticism were pathetic. But he was still the focus of attention. Now came the turn of translated literature to import erotic literature in a more brazen way, re-establish the "banned books" of old in their rightful position and carefully introduce new voices. The first blatantly pornographic Sabra book followed suit. It appeared in 1979 in a respectable publishing house: Dahn Ben-Amotz' Fucking Is Not Everything. Its tremendous commercial success showed how vital it was, though it was practically torn to pieces by all literary critics.

What happened in the eighties was a general normalization: call it an awakening, a sobering-up, a disillusionment with doctrines, and with it the belated accumulative intrusion of alternative narratives: literature written by women, previously a side-line, was now beginning to find reinforcement in translated feminist discourse; homo-erotic genres found a new vigorous voice with the back-up of translated gay-literature; the Oriental/Sepharadic novel now adapted the Latin-American Marques model to form a unique folkloristic voice. All these had had a meager existence, alongside the mainstream, yet now they became a legitimate alternative, reinforced with modernistic (and later post-modernistic) styles introduced by translation. Consequently, repertoires, both lingual and literary, had to be aired up, re-examined, renovated, to some extent re-invented. By the time this eventually happened, pornography had lost its literary appeal and found its way to the visual media of Television and Internet.

© Nitsa Ben-Ari (Tel-Aviv University)


Ben-Ari, Nitsa 2000. "Ideological Manipulation of Translated Texts". Translation Quarterly, 16&17. (The Hong Kong Translation Society). 40-52.

Ben-Ari, Nitsa, 2003. "The Double Conversion of Ben-Hur: A Case of Manipulative Translation". Target: International Journal of Translation Studies. 263-302.

Bourdieu, Pierre 1980. Questions de sociologie. (Paris: Minuit).

Buckley, Sandra 1997. Broken Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminism. (Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press).

Chang Nam-fung, 2000. "Introduction: Ideology, Translation and Translation Theory". Translation Quarterly Nos. 6-17. (The Hong Kong Translation Society). vii-xxiii.

Even-Zohar, Itamar 2002. "Culture Planning and Cultural Resistance in the Making and Maintaining of Entities". In: Sun Yat-sen Journal of Humanities, No. 1445-52.

Foucault, Michel 1984. Histoire de la Sexualité. (Paris: Gallimard). 3 vols.

Fraxi, Pisanus 1962 (1885). Catena Librorum Tacendorum (Bibliography of Prohibited Books), vol 3, (New York: Jack Brussel).

Greenawalt, Kent 1995. Fighting Words: Individuals, Communities and Liberties of Speech. (Princeton University Press).

Karolides, Nicholas J., Bald, Margaret & Sova Dawn B. 1999. 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature. (New York: Checkmark Books).

Kronhausen, Drs. Eberhard and Phyllis 1964 [1959]. Pornography and the Law: The Psychology of Erotic Realism and Hard Core Pornography. (New York: Ballantine Books).

Lacan, Jacques 1982 [1977]. Feminine Sexuality. J. Rose J. Mitchell, eds. J. Rose, trans. (New York: Norton).

Lefevere, André 1995. "Translation: Its Genealogy in the West". In Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere, eds. Translation, History and Culture. (London: Cassel). 14-28.

Loth, David 1961. The Erotic in Literature. (London: Secker & Warburg).

Mosse, George L. 1981 [1964]. The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich. (New York: Schocken Books).

Rembar, Charles 1968. The End of Obscenity: The Trials of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill. (New York: Random House).

Sander, Gilman 1993. Freud, Race and Gender. (Princeton University Press).

Spiro, Melford E. 1965. Children of the Kibbutz. (New York: Schoken Books).

St Jorre, John de 1994. The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press. (London: Hutchinson).

Toury, Gideon 1995. Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond. (Amsterdam-Philadelphia: John Benjamins).

Tymoczko, Maria & Genzler, Edwin 2002. Translation and Power. (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press).

Wakabayashi, Judy 2000. "Subversion, Sex and the State: The Censorship of Translation in Modern Japan". Translation Quarterly 16&17. (The Hong Kong Translation Society). 53-78.

Yeazell, Ruth Bernard 1991. Fiction of Modesty: Women and Courtship in the English Novel. (Chicago University Press).

7.2. Translation and Culture

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Nitsa Ben-Ari (Tel-Aviv University): Puritanism in Translation: The Role of Translation in the Shaping of the New "Puritan Sabra". In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 21.8.2004     INST