Fallacy or Ideology? On the ArtScroll Translation of the Siddur

Cross-posted to Hirhurim

The recent publication of The Expanded ArtScroll Siddur: Wasserman Edition gives occasion for a renewed look at various aspects of the Siddur that has won pride of place in American Orthodox synagogues over the past quarter century. The present review will address ArtScroll’s English translation.

The Preface to the new edition indicates that the earlier ArtScroll translation was merely “reviewed and adjusted,” and a comparison of several randomly selected paragraphs more than bears this out.

There are a total of three adjustments in the translation of Psalm 92, Mizmor Shir le-Yom Ha-Shabbat. In verse 3, “to relate Your kindness” has been altered to “to tell of Your kindness;” in v. 6, “exceedingly profound are Your thoughts” is now rendered “Your thoughts are exceedingly profound;” and in v. 14, “in the courtyards of our God they will flourish” becomes “they will flourish in the courtyards of our God.” In the berakha of Kiddush Levana, the original has “A decree and a schedule did He give them,” which has been changed in the new edition to “He gave them a law and a schedule.” This is the only change in the entire paragraph. There are no changes at all in the half-Kaddish.

Three of these four changes reverse the order of the original sentence to reflect the more conventional English subject-verb-object structure instead of the object-verb-subject structure that is common in pre-Modern Hebrew. However, not every such sentence is modified: “with praiseful songs let us call out to Him” (Psalms 95:2) is not altered. Thus, it seems that the O-V-S structure of the Hebrew is preserved in the English unless it causes some confusion or ambiguity, in which case the more conventional S-V-O structure is employed. The other changes seem to be similarly motivated by interests of clarity and comprehensibility. The remainder of this review will therefore address both versions of the translation as a single work.

ArtScroll’s reproduction of Hebrew sentence structure is part of a literalist conceit that pervades the translation. The translation maintains a close correspondence to the original to the degree possible while remaining comprehensible in English. The following chart demonstrates just how closely the ArtScroll translation adheres to the order and literal meaning of the original:

ArtScroll Translation
Hebrew Original
ArtScroll Translation
Hebrew Original
Our judges
With kindness
As in earliest times
And compassion
And our advisers
And justify us
As at first
Through judgment
From us
Are You
And groan
The King
And reign
Who loves
Over us
And judgment

The Hebrew is parsed here word by word and placed next to the corresponding English word or phrase. The significant point is that the English of the Siddur is in precisely the same order as the Hebrew – no paraphrase, no elimination of redundancy (Hebrew is far more tolerant of redundancy than English), no reordering of the sentence structure. This is actually the stated goal of the translation; as noted in the Preface, “occasionally we had to stray a bit from the literal translation in order to capture the essence of a phrase in an accessible English idiom.” If anything, the straying is a bit too occasional. In the above chart, translating “va-anacha” as “and groan” is hyper-literal. The Hebrew anacha often serves as a collective noun—the cumulative groaning of many or the cumulative cause of the groaning. The English “groan” does not serve in that sense. In this case, ArtScroll’s translation is literally accurate but awkward. It is clear, then, that the literalist conceit is strong. In fact, the defining characteristic of ArtScroll’s English translation of the Siddur.

It would be easy—too easy—to criticize the ArtScroll translation for falling into what Edith Grossman calls the “literalist trap”:

To my mind, a translator’s fidelity is not to lexical pairings but to context—the implications and echoes of the first author’s tone, intention, and level of discourse. Good translations are good because they are faithful to this contextual significance. They are not necessarily faithful to words or syntax, which are peculiar to specific languages and can rarely be brought over directly in any misguided and inevitably muddled effort to somehow replicate the original. This is the literalist trap, because words to not mean in isolation.

Upon further reflection, however, it is clear that ArtScroll’s literalist conceit is not the result of poor translation technique or of the espousal of Vladimir Nabokov’s more literalist theories of translation, largely ignored by the community of translators. Rather, ArtScroll’s translation reflects a particular ideological stance on the text of the Siddur, its composition, and its artistic value.

This stance is articulated in Rabbi Nosson Scherman’s Overview to the earlier version of the ArtScroll Siddur, in the section entitled “The Holy Tongue” (pp. XV-XVI). The thrust of this section is that Hebrew, Leshon Ha-kodesh, is nothing like other languages: it is literally the language that God used to create the world. Its words do not merely signify their objects, they embody the very essence of the object. God used the letters shin-vav-resh to create the ox. Rabbi Scherman thus concludes:

The Men of the Great Assembly had the ability to combine letters, verses, and ideas in ways that unlock the gates of heaven. Their composition of the tefillah is tantamount to an act of creation, which is why it is so important not to deviate from their language and formulation. This is not to denigrate the importance of comprehension and emotional involvement. Prayer in the language one understands is sanctioned by the Sages themselves, and surely, a well-understood prayer is immeasurably more worthy than one that is merely mouthed as a string of uncomprehended sounds. Nevertheless, this does not detract a whit from the importance of praying in the Holy Tongue; it merely points up the responsibility to understand the prayers in their original, holiest form.

In other words, the goal of the translation is solely to enable the reader to understand the original Hebrew. To that end, the closer to an exact correspondence the translation adheres, the easier it is for the reader to keep one finger on the original and one on the translation, using the latter as a lexicon for decoding the meaning of the former. All questions of style, idiom, and art—any literary element beyond that of basic comprehensibility—are rendered largely irrelevant in comparison with the main objective of facilitating comprehension of the metaphysically charged original.

Thus, any critique of the ArtScroll translation must either address it on its own terms and demonstrate that it fails to live up to the objectives it sets for itself, or address ArtScroll’s ideological assumptions directly. Criticizing the style of a work that admittedly ignores style is frankly unfair. Moreover, ArtScroll’s translation of the Siddur does an excellent job meeting its own goals. As the chart above demonstrates, ArtScroll excels at translating in a lexically coordinated manner while remaining reasonably comprehensible. The ideological assumptions, however, remain fair game.

Ideological disputes about the nature of the Holy Tongue go back at least to the times of the Rishonim. Rambam and Ramban famously argue (both positions appear in Ramban’s commentary to Shemot 30:13) about what makes the Holy Tongue holy: Ramban antecedes Rabbi Scherman by viewing the Hebrew language as the language with which God created the universe. Rambam, on the other hand, views the holiness of the language as stemming from its lack of explicit words for sexual acts and organs.

Similarly, Prof. Uriel Simon outlines the ideological and polemical positions that motivates various classical approaches to Tehillim. In his view, R. Sa’adiah Ga’on paid little to no attention to literary form—indeed, he rejected its presence—in his commentary to Tehillim, whereas Ibn Ezra granted a great deal of weight to its poetic and literary elements.

Although ArtScroll’s stance on these issues is clearly rooted in the Jewish tradition, it is crucial for the potential reader to become aware of those underlying ideological positions and their alternatives, and then to honestly appraise the degree to which these assumptions reflect his values.

With regard to the nature of the Holy Tongue, there are many reasons to prefer a non-metaphysical, non-essentialist explanation such as Rambam’s to Ramban’s. The discovery and decoding of other Ancient Near Eastern languages has shown that Biblical Hebrew did not live on a linguistic island, rather, it emerged from and was related to other Semitic languages and absorbed words from distant languages. The modern study of linguistics shows that Biblical Hebrew can itself be periodized and behaves in the way that languages are expected to behave. Findings in the Cairo Genizah have shown the astounding volume of alternatives to the liturgy that eventually became the Siddur, indicating that the editorial selection of what ultimately went into the liturgical rite that became the Siddur was motivated by aesthetics in addition to, or instead of, metaphysics. Philosophically, the idea that the letters shin-vav-resh literally embody the essence of what it is to be an ox belongs to a Platonic duality in which this world is but a reflection of some ideal world, in this case a world of recombinant Hebrew letters forming the essences of all objects in the universe. One may honestly question whether the potential Siddur-buyer would be satisfied by that dichotomous and essentialist worldview. Theologically, the notion that God literally used a language that had yet to ever be spoken, and that emerged at a specific time and place and obeyed the rules that govern all languages, might not resonate with everyone in the market for a bilingual Siddur. Thus, ArtScroll’s motivation for rigidly adhering to a literal translation may not be terribly convincing to a large segment of its potential readership.

With regard to the poetic and literary aspects of the liturgy, the present generation has witnessed the rise of a cadre of Torah teachers who read and learn Torah as literature and poetry—sacred literature and poetry, to be sure—and who have revolutionized the study of Tanakh in the Orthodox community and beyond. Considering that so much of the Siddur is from Tanakh, and that even those sections that are not biblical contain vast amounts of biblical allusion and are literary constructions in themselves (see, for example, Rav Ezra Bick’s brilliant series on the Shemoneh Esrei), it can be expected that many contemporary readers would prefer a translation that pays more attention to the Siddur’s art: literary structures, intertextuality, and poetic devices, complexity, and density, to name a few. Such a translation would, of course, be anything but literal.

Context plays a large role in the choices a translator makes. When translating a will, for example, maximum fidelity to the original is necessary, even if it will result in a very awkward rendering. Literature, on the other hand, must be reproduced in the new language with as much of the original’s nuance, rhythm, and tone as possible. This gives the translator a great deal of leeway to rewrite and recreate, with the goal of achieving something equivalent or close to it in the new language. Regarding a text like the Siddur, different ideological attitudes will naturally constrain the translator’s choices and allow for vastly different renderings of the same work. A reader who is aware of these ideological constraints and his own ideological proclivities will be able to make an informed choice when seeking the bilingual Siddur that will most enhance his experience of prayer.

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