Joseph ben Samuel Tsarfati and Fernando de Rojas : Celestina and the world of the go-between

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Hopkin, Shon David

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Joseph ben Samuel Tsarfati, one of the great Jewish poets and scholars of the Italian Renaissance, first translated the Spanish work Celestina (1499) by Fernando de Rojas into Hebrew in 1507. At present, only Tsarfati’s introductory poem to his translation remains. This study seeks to answer the questions: What may have been Tsarfati’s motivation to translate Celestina into Hebrew so soon after its Spanish composition? How might a Jewish audience in Rojas’s day have understood his work? In response to these questions, this study will primarily concern itself with the similarities between Rojas’s and Tsarfati’s historical situations and the literary interests that they expressed in their works, interests that could have drawn Tsarfati to translate Rojas’s work. Close readings of sections of Celestina, as well as an overview of Tsarfati’s two hundred and thirty-poem corpus and close readings of several of these poems, make up the most important part of this study’s analysis. Through this analysis, I argue that both Rojas and Tsarfati stood as transitional figures during a period of literary change, which allowed them to explore and exhibit similar themes and interests in their works. Their works thus served as a type of “go-between,” moving their audiences from the attitudes and behaviors of one era into those of a new era. Additionally, and more importantly, both men found themselves at the nexus, or point of contact, between two cultures. Rojas – as a converso serving as a lawyer and leader of a Christian community – and Tsarfati – serving as a Jewish physician to the pope – were both in a position to feel the heavy pressures of the dominant culture and to communicate with their Jewish culture in ways that subverted that pressure and power. Both Rojas and Tsarfati were fascinated with the power of language to conceal and reveal meaning and to exert influence. As men of their time, both saw romantic love as having true, intrinsic value, but at the same time used it as a metaphor for the false hope offered by the dominant culture.



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