Religious Life

Lost In Translation

Lost In Translation
7 Tevet 5779 | December 15, 2018
Rabbi Alexander Davis

At an event this week, I made my way over to the snack table when someone I didn’t know came up to me and said, “So rabbi, what happens after you die?” With a mouth full of pita chips and humus I said, “I’ll let you know when I get there.” I don’t think he cared much for my answer or for anything I had to say. He went on to say quite emphatically, “I know what happens. I am sure of it. I believe in Heaven and Hell, in the power of Jesus to save. You know, I believe in what the Bible says.” If my mouth wasn’t still full of pita chips and humus and if I had the sense that this guy was open to a discussion and not just a discourse, I might have questioned that last statement, “I believe in what the Bible says.” Specifically, I would have asked, “which Bible?” And I don’t mean New Testament versus Tenach (Hebrew Bible). I mean, which translation?

Let’s try this. Complete the sentence. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…. (And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever).” This is the King James translation with which we are quite familiar.

But that is not necessarily a faithful rendering of the Hebrew, v’shavti b’veit Adonai l’orekh yamim. “Forever” is an abstraction referring to God’s house in heaven. But the Hebrew is more reality, this-worldly focused. Thus, Robert Alter translates, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for very long days.”

I want to talk about translation. It may seem like a bit of an obscure topic. But I want to argue that it matters because if we really care about Torah, we need to understand what it means. And if we really care about each other, we have to work to understand each other.

Earlier this week I was researching museums in Israel – reading on line about the Agam Museum. Thanks to Google Translate, it was so easy to get information. But I couldn’t understand why the website kept on making reference to the “Lake Museum.” I was lost in translation. Then it struck me. If it was only as simple as pushing a button.

I am drawn to the topic of translation because this month marks two very important events involving translations- one ancient and one modern.

First the ancient story. This month of Tevet is known as the month that concludes Chanukah and known for the minor fast day, 10 Tevet. 10 Tevet marks the siege of ancient Jerusalem that eventually leads to the destruction of the Temple which we observe on 9 Av. So, this coming Wednesday is that minor fast day.

But the Talmud tells us about two other significant dates this month- the 8th and 9th of Tevet, also fast days. (It is not three fast days in a row. These are minor fast days meaning that one may eat before dawn and after dark.) The 9th of Tevet marks the death of Ezra and Nechemia. We’ll leave that for another time. It’s the 8th of Tevet that interests us.

In the 3rd century over 100 years before the Macabees, the Jews were already living under Greek influence. Then, the King of Ptolemy (Egypt) gathered 70 Elders and placed them in 70 separate rooms. He didn’t tell them why there were called. He ordered each one to translate the Torah into Greek. God put into the heart of each one to translate identically.” (Meg 9).

Miraculously, there was no discrepancy between any of the 70 individual translations. Not only that, there were a few places where the Elders altered the literal translation and the results were identical. So for example, when the Torah says, “Let us make man in our image,” they translated, “I will make man in My image.” Or, “God finished creating on the seventh day” they changed to “And God finished on the sixth day” lest we think that God worked on Shabbat.

This translation is known as Targum Shivim, the Septuigent, which is from the Latin meaning 70. It was the product of the Jews of Alexandria in the 2nd C BCE. This legend appears in places besides the Talmud. In any case, listen to what the rabbis, writing many centuries later say about it: “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.”

Why? Doesn’t translation make the Torah more accessible to more people? What don’t they like about the translation? After all, it was seemingly a miracle blessed by God?

The rabbis continue, “To what may the matter be likened? To a lion captured and imprisoned. Before his imprisonment, all feared him and fled from his presence. Then, all came to gaze at him and said, “Where is this one’s strength?”

What do the rabbis mean by this comparison?

The implication is that the Hebrew with all its rich subtleties and connotations cannot possibly be rendered accurately in another language. If the translator translates literally, he may miss the point. If he translates metaphorically, he may miss an allusion. The language is flattened, and it leaves the reader thinking that she really understands the Torah when in fact, she misunderstands it.

This condemnation of a translation paints a picture of the rabbis as elitist.  But they saw it as imprisoning the Torah in such a way that it divested the Torah of reverence. The sages, therefore, likened this day to chet haegel, the day on which the golden calf was made. For just as the calf had no divine reality, and yet the people worshiped it, the translated Torah was devoid of real Torah and yet the people regarded it as God’s word. And so, they proclaimed the 8th of Tevet a fast day, essentially a day of mourning. (I have never head of anyone who actually fasts on this day.)

Skip ahead to 1604. England’s King James convened the Hampton Court Conference and conceived of an English translation with a mere 47 scholars, all of them members of the Church of England. Their work, by an official act of Parliament, became known as the Authorized Version, more commonly referred to as the King James Bible and, in academic sarcasm, translation by consensus.

Jump ahead to today. This month, Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible is being released. Alter is professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkley and it is worth pointing out that he fell in love with Hebrew at Camp Ramah.

Alter’s translation is three volumes, 3500 pages, and represents two decades of work. It is the only full Bible translation by a single author in 500 years and today is being described as the definitive English edition of the Hebrew bible. In addition to the translation, his commentary elucidates the literary and historical nature of the Bible. I have been a fan of Alter since reading his first book on the poetry of the Psalms 25 years ago so I am excited for this release.

Let me give you just a few examples from our parasha of the difference a translation makes. When Jacob hears that his beloved son Joseph is still alive, the Torah says, vayafag libo. (45:26). Our translation is known as the NJPS translation. It was worked on by trans denominational team of scholars and rabbis over 30 years and completed in 1985. It translates, “his heart was numb.” King James translates “his heart fainted.” The Revised English Bible renders, “he was stunned.” None of them really hit the mark. Alter translates, “And they told Jacob, “Joseph is still alive…And his heart stopped.” In his notes, Alter explains that the other translations blunt the force of the original. The Hebrew plainly means to stop, or more precisely, to intermit (skip a beat). The shock induces a physical syncope (loss of consciousness.)

Or take another example. At the end of the parasha, in the throes of a great famine, destitute Egyptians say to Joseph: “Nothing is left for our lord but our g’viyah and our farmland.” Most English versions translate bodies: “Nothing left for our lord but our bodies and our farmland.” But the Hebrew g’viayah mean corpse so Alter’s translation is appropriately more pungent capturing the desperation of the house: “Nothing is left but our carcasses and our farmland.”

I’d love to give you a dozen examples of Alter’s translations. I’d also like to explore with you the new attempts at making Hebrew non-gendered for our increasingly gender fluid society. But that’s another topic I’ll leave for another time.

In his introduction, Alter writes about the need for a new translation explaining, “modern English versions generally place readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language. The narrative prose of the Hebrew Bible cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audiences guessing about motives and connections, and above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice and image against one another in an endless interplay that resists neat resolution.”

In contrast, he says, “the unacknowledged heresy” underlying most English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language.

So, Alter went about translating in a style that best captures the Hebrew- that matches the cadence, that is stylized yet simple and direct, free of contemporary colloquial usage with a certain timeless homespun quality.

I want to look with you at one verse that I think helps explain why this whole topic matters. In this scene, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and tells them to go get their father, Jacob, and bring him to Egypt.  We read, “look your own eyes can see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin that it is my very mouth that speaks to you” (45:12).

In his commentary, Alter reminds us that until this point, Joseph had been speaking to his brothers through an interpreter. When he reveals himself to them, they are dumbfounded in disbelief. “Could it really be Joseph?” they think to themselves. Now, speaking to them directly, with his mouth that they can see, confirms his true identity.

Rashi on this verse says that Joseph switched to lashon hakodesh. He stopped speaking Egyptian and started speaking Hebrew. And that was the proof they needed that it was really him. His use of Hebrew communicated, “I really am your brother. I am the same Josef committed to the ways of our fathers you knew from long ago.” And they believed him. Hebrew revealed Joseph’s true identity in much the same way that only Hebrew of the Bible and no translation can adequately capture its true identity.

The rabbis teach that Joseph could speak 70 languages and yet he chose to reveal his identity in Hebrew to teach a lesson about the centrality of Hebrew. Hebrew, they say, is a holy language for a holy people. It touches the soul. And only in Hebrew can Jews really be Jews. Hebrew is thus essential for preserving Jewish identity in the Diaspora (and remember that Egypt was the first diaspora.) 

That gives me an opportunity to say kol hakavod to our new, large Hebrew class taught by Jonathan Paradise. It’s the first time in a while that we’ve offered intermediate level Hebrew. And I am glad to see it well attended. Given that in our life time, Israel will have a larger Jewish population than the entire diaspora, the significance of Hebrew will only grow. So, I hope in the future, even more people sign up for our Hebrew classes.

But here is another reason why this topic matters.

I was with my kids earlier this week and we were driving somewhere when one of my sons read a bumper sticker and laughed. I read it and missed the joke. Clearly, I don’t speak his language. So I said, “explain it to me.” And he said, “abba, you’ll never get it.” He wasn’t willing to translate for me.

Sometimes, there is a disconnect not just between generations but even among people very close to one another. They don’t seem to speak the same language. I have spoken previously about the book, “The Five Language of Love.” The book teaches us how to speak to our loved ones, to express our love, in a language they can understand. Ideally, we learn the language our family, friends, co-workers speak. Second best, we employ a good translation. Because if we really want to understand each other and be understood, we can’t rely on Google Translate. It’s not enough to say, “ah, you know what I mean.” To build or reestablish bonds of love and trust with those we love, we need to find and use words that reveal our true selves.

For Joseph, it was a turning to their shared language that helped restore family bonds. Likewise, Hebrew gives us access to the true beauty and wisdom of our tradition. It builds bonds of love with Torah. In the larger sense, our day to day language might not be miraculous like Targum Shivim but neither should it be the cause for darkness and fasting. We should be careful with our language lest we cause misunderstanding or inflict pain on those we love. We should to learn to speak the language others best understand and strive to understand the language others speak to us. As we say each morning, “barukh sheamar v’haya haolem, blessed is the one who speaks and brings worlds into being through the power of their words.”