Historical Twins: Part II – Translation and Esotericism

The true goal of the mind is translating: only when a thing has been translated does it become truly vocal, no longer to be done away with. Only in the Septuagint has revelation come to be at home in the world, and so long as Homer did not speak Latin he was not a fact. The same holds good for translating from man to man.

- Franz Rosenzweig

The translation of the Septuagint is not yet complete…the
translation of biblical wisdom into the Greek language remains unfinished.

- Emmanuel Levinas

This one’s a bit more counterintuitive, that the act of ‘translation’ – which I hope to describe shortly, gives birth to mysticism. It’s related to the issue of Yeridat Ha-dorot as well.

We’ll start with a simple example. The King James Bible famously translates ‘על כנפי נשרים’ as ‘on eagles’ wings’. The correct translation, as is well known, would have been ‘on griffin vultures’ wings’. So is it a mistranslation? No. The original has a literal meaning which also has a cultural meaning. It denotes majesty, maternality, etc. Those meanings are best captured by the term ‘eagle’ than by ‘griffin vulture’. On the other hand, there’s inevitably a loss of meaning – not necessarily literal meaning, but the meaning that terms have within a particular cultural situation. If the manings aren’t really translatable, then there’s always something, by definition, that’s going to be ‘lost in translation’.

Translation is a necessity in order for one to be intelligible. The opening quote is the extreme form of this – I must translate my thoughts, somehow crystallize them and thereby rob them of some content – in order to communicate. Every act of communication runs the risk of complete misunderstanding. Yet, the alternative, complete silence, is even more impossible.

Thus, translation, as implied by the Levinas quote, is an ongoing process, asymptotically moving toward full recovery of meaning. I should add (and this is a thought from Rosenzweig), that full recovery becomes possible as the ‘translated-into’ language is enriched by the ‘translated-from’ language. For example, Jewish language had enriched English to the point that the term ‘Torah’ no longer needs to be translated. It’s but a drop in the bucket, and its meaning isn’t the same as in a sovereign Jewish context, but it has enriched and thereby made itself more intelligible in its new milieu.

This brings me to my definition of esoteric wisdom. It’s whatever remains untranslated. If there’s a language that I don’t speak, or a culture I don’t understand, I can try to translate it, to reconstruct its meanings in a painstaking manner and, as mentioned, run the substantial risk of complete misunderstanding. Alternatively, I can immerse myself in the other culture, appreciate it on its own terms, and internalize its meanings in a completely natural way. Even within one’s own mind, translation takes place. In order to understand that which isn’t translatable into my own thought-structures, an entirely new language must be created. Those initiated into these meanings can then go back and ‘borrow’ terms from a familiar language, but to refer to things that aren’t part of commonly held meanings, and thus begins the process by which the old language enriches the new. This give-and-take between different cultures can get pretty complicated, but the basic dichotomy remains; when translating from one language/culture/context to another, that which fails to translate is esoteric.

With this in hand, there are a few implications for understanding Chaza”l. There are certain statements of Chazal – not to leave fingernails lying around, the obligation of mayim acharaonim or netilat yadayim, etc. (the list is virtually endless) whose original meanings were simply lost along the way. At some point between Babylonia and the USA, whatever basic meanings they had were simply ‘lost in translation’. Thus, their meanings became attributed to ‘kabbalah’ – the danger of fingernails is ‘al pi kabbalah’. Anything pertaining to Ru’ach Ra’ah’ is ‘al pi kabbalah’. It’s not some metaphysical, supernatural powers that are addressed by these halakhot; it once made perfect sense, and no longer does; thus, its meaning is attributed to an esoteric tradition.

Another implication is that, it’s possible, that certain languages or cultures are broader and more ‘translatable-into’ than others. The esoteric and the translated are floating categories – always shifting depending on the prevailing culture. I believe that modern psychology provides the tools to understand much of that which was, in earlier generations, ‘esoteric’. Those meanings can be redeemed from the hidden world of esoteric wisdom to enrich our religious experience from within our milieu. We know of physical models which can provide better metaphors for the understanding of spiritual phenomena.

Taking these two implications together, I would posit that it’s worthwhile to attempt to recover those original meanings. We can be aware of the fact that not all is translatable, but try to do our darnedest to make as much as possible intelligible to us. Is an asymptotic endeavour – we’ll never fully finish the job – but it sure beats chalking up significant portions of our lives to reasons that are unintelligible to pretty much everyone.

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