Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fast in Translation

Tomorrow is the 10th of Tevet, which is a fast day. But did you know that yesterday, the 8th of Tevet, was also a fast day? The oldest document of Chazal the Megillat Taanit (fast scroll), notes:

On the 8th of Tevet, the Torah was rendered into Greek during the days of King Ptolemy, and darkness descended upon the world for three days.'

The story is recounted in a couple of places, once in Megillah and once as a Braita in the minor tractate Soferim.

'King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: 'Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.' God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did' (Tractate Megillah 9[also Soferim 1:8 –jjb]).

(previous two translations from here)

The story is told of five elders who wrote the Torah in Greek for Ptolemy the king and the day was as bad for Israel as the day on which the Golden Calf was made because the Torah could not be accurately translated. (tr. mine; Sofrim 1:7)

We might suspect that these are two successive stories, that Ptolemy hired five sages to translate the Torah, but he suspected that they might be intentionally fooling him by mistranslating passages, so he then hired 72 more, and told them individually, out of hearing of the others, “Translate the Torah for me,” and by a miracle, all 72 came up with exactly the same set of 13 intentional mistranslations. What were the mistranslations? Clarifications, mostly: instead of “In the beginning created God __ the heavens and __ the earth”, they wrote “God created in the beginning…” lest the Greeks believe that there is another deity named “Bereshit” that created “Elokim.” Instead of “Let us make man in Our image”, they rendered it in the singular, lest Ptolemy think the Torah supported polytheism. [I used __ in place of the word "et", which is a particle indicating that the next word is a direct object -jjb]

We should consider the nature of translations.

First, every translation is an interpretation. Rabbi Sokol, when composing his brief dvar torah for the synagogue newsletter, was faced with the word “nivhalu”, describing the state of mind of the brothers when Yosef announced himself. How to translate it? Well, let’s look at how some popular translations render it.

  • Aryeh Kaplan Living Torah: His brothers were so startled, they could not respond.
  • Artscroll Stone Chumash: But his brothers could not answer him because they were left disconcerted before him.
  • Old JPS: And his brethren could not answer him; for they were affrighted at his presence
  • R’ Sokol: the brothers were so agitated, that they couldn't even respond.

Each of these has a different emotional content. Agitation is not quite the same as startlement, or fright. Not that any one is necessarily better or worse, but it may well depend on the writer. For more, see later.

2) Every translation is written for some audience and/or purpose. It may be written for a king, to keep Judaism tolerable in his eyes. It may be written for other Jews, to explain the Torah to a populace that has lost familiarity with Hebrew, or for introducing them to the local language. Letters may be translated to show the inner emotional states of a famous figure. And that agenda affects the way the ideas are rendered in the target language.

3) Every translation is written by people, who are affected by their personal experiences, and by their surrounding cultures, to have certain prejudices and biases. R’ Sokol recounts a conversation he had with Dr. David Berger, the noted historian and polemicist. R’ Berger had written a piece for an academic journal, and the editor asked him to revise the translations, such that some of the masculine words would become feminine. “But that’s the way the text is! That’s the way they wrote!” Dr Berger complained to R’ Sokol. Nevertheless, the politically correct editor insisted on changing the translation. The biases of a writer and an editor may be at loggerheads – is the text to be rendered accurately, or in tune with the zeitgeist?

4) Every translation limits the understanding of the text. We speak of the Torah as having 70 facets, but the translation locks it down to having one facet for the population who will be reading it. And that may be the reason for the three days of darkness. If the Torah is light, as the verse says, we were closing down the light, in limiting the reading to one perspective out of 70.

So the translation of the Torah was indeed a calamity for Israel, as not only foreigners, but Jews too would be reading it, and having their understanding of Torah shaped by it, rather than being allowed to roam through the breadth of rabbinic interpretation. It was a calamity indeed, if only because it raised one interpretation to an authoritative level.

(I forget how R’ Sokol concluded it – if LoZ or someone wants to fill in, please do).

This was R’ Sokol’s sermon for Vayigash, 26 Dec 09


Anonymous said...

very valuable idea thanxxxxxxxxx

who is R’ Sokol

thanbo said...

R' Moshe Sokol, rabbi of the Yavneh Minyan hence my LOR, also (in his day job) Dean of Lander College for Men (part of the Touro complex).

MYG said...

I like this.

Saul said...

I think he ended off with the issue of the Torah being an intimate correspondence between God & the Jews. By translating, this intimacy is being broken.
i.e. people had issues with the private correspondence of RYY Weinberg being published. Very important information was in those letters but RW probably did not want them public.

Anonymous said...
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Dovid said...

Jonathan - just found your blog! I know who Rabbi Sokol is, but what is LOR?

I get a lot out of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's commentaries for just this reason - he delves into the roots of words, providing a deeper understanding of the Hebrew.

A great example of this is the Hebrew word 'yeshua', translated into English as 'salvation'. Now what is 'salvation' anyway? Rav Hirsch's etymological insights are fascinating.

thanbo said...

LOR: Local Orthodox Rabbi.

I'm waiting for the new translation to come out in somewhat smaller volumes. I've seen old copies of the old translation, and they too came out initially in much larger volumes than the current smallish printing.