12/28/2005

4th Candle: The Problem of Translation


It once happened that five elders wrote the Torah for King Ptolemy in Greek, and that day was as ominous for Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made, since the Torah could not be accurately translated
Minor Tractates, Soferim 1:7

When the work was completed, Demetrius collected together the Jewish population in the place where the translation had been made, and read it over to all, in the presence of the translators, who met with a great reception also from the people, because of the great benefits which they had conferred upon them. They bestowed warm praise upon Demetrius, too, and urged him to have the whole law transcribed and present a copy to their leaders. After the books had been read, the priests and the elders of the translators and the Jewish community and the leaders of the people stood up and said, that since so excellent and sacred and accurate a translation had been made, it was only right that it should remain as it was and no alteration should be made in it. And when the whole company expressed their approval, they bade them pronounce a curse in accordance with their custom upon any one who should make any alteration either by adding anything or changing in any way whatever any of the words which had been written or making any omission. This was a very wise precaution to ensure that the book might be preserved for all the future time unchanged. When the matter was reported to the king, he rejoiced greatly, for he felt that the design which he had formed had been safely carried out. The whole book was read over to him and he was greatly astonished at the spirit of the lawgiver. And he said to Demetrius, 'How is it that none of the historians or the poets have ever thought it worth their while to allude to such a wonderful achievement?'
From "The Letter of Aristeas"

Here we have two texts describing the same event: the original translation of the Torah into Greek, the Septuagint. The first account is from a beraita, a work of the Rabbinic Tannaim. The second is from an apocryphal work which was produced by the Jews of Ptolemaic Egypt, and was not included in the Jewish canon.

[Linguistic sidenote: the Latin word apocrypha and the Aramaic word Beraita mean basically the same thing – a work that remains ‘outside’ a canonized text]

Taken together, these texts present the basic problem of translation. The translation issues recently discussed by Gil and Krum (esp. in the comments) touch the tip of the iceberg – the difficulty in finding the right words to convey the literal sense of the original. In every act of translation, something is left behind and becomes inaccessible to the new audience. At the same time, that audience gains access to a previously unintelligible source of wisdom. I discussed some of these elements in a post about the relationship between translation and mysticism here.
Translating from Hebrew into Greek has much higher stakes. On one hand, it’s an attempt to bridge an unbridgeable gap, to convey the language of revelation in the terminology of reason. On the other hand, it made the Torah into something that the entire world could access (see F. Rosenzweig quotation here). Greek translation occupies a special Halakhic status as well, according to the Mishna in Megillah. The Greek language, the beauty of Japeth, belongs in the tents of Shem.
This task, the translation of the Torah into Greek, continues in our day. As a Rabbi in the USA, I often think of my job as that of a translator, and still from Hebrew into Greek, just Greek today happens to be English (unless you ask the French). It’s still hard to capture the Torah in English, but it’s something we must do if we are to open the hearts and minds of contemporary Jews (and I’m not talking about “kiruv”). I’ve often considered accepting the 8th of Tevet, traditionally the day that the Septuagint was completed, and not observed as a theme of the 10th of Tevet, in order to reinforce the tension inherent within the awful but necessary task of translation.

Rather than continuing to (poorly) articulate this challenge myself, I’ll recommend three essays by Emmanuel Levinas, for whom this is a major (if not THE major) philosophical theme. The first is his introductory essay to Nine Talmudic Readings. The second is called “On the Translation of Scripture” and appears in a book called In the Time of Nations. The Third is called “The Pact” and appears in both Beyond the Verse and The Levinas Reader.
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