Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Teves 5763 - December 11, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Tragedy of Translation

by Rabbi Yitzchok Boruch haCohen Fishel

There has been a need for translation since Bovel, but its difficulties have been evident since then as well.

The biggest technical question of the translator is whether to stay close to the original at the cost of sounding strange and like a translation in the new language, or to strive for a smooth and natural sounding translation at the price of preserving only the essential ideas at a more abstract level. (At Yated we try to tilt translations of divrei Torah in the first way, but feel freer to strive for the second in other material.)

Both alternatives make it clear that a translation will differ significantly from the original it is taken from. Just how different it will be depends on the original and depends on the translator.

Loshon hakodesh is a very special language. It is the best and most natural fit to the world as it really is. This is to be expected since it is the very language used to create the world.

Although many of the mitzvos that use language, such as Krias Shema, do not specifically require that we use the original loshon hakodesh, still it is the language of the Torah itself. It is the vehicle that carries the most direct expression of the Divine messages to the world. When Hashem spoke to us collectively at Har Sinai, or to individual prophets with messages for the world, the most immediate expression of these messages was passed on in loshon hakodesh in the Tanach.

In Teves, the Tanach was first translated out of its original language into Greek. Chazal say in Megillas Taanis that for three days after this, the seventh, eighth and ninth of Teves, darkness descended to the world as a result.

Chazal tell us that in the Chumash, even more than in other works, the very words themselves come from Hashem and are part of His message. When the ideas are translated, they leave the words behind, along with whatever is conveyed by the words themselves. That part is lost in translation, and only accessible to those who read the original. Those who read the original are reading the very words of Hashem; those who read the translation are reading the words of men, albeit very great men in the case of the translation into Greek created by Chazal.

Though the contrast is particularly stark with relation to the Chumash, it applies to all translations of Chazal according to their level.

This in fact is one of the critical issues of translation. When reading an original work, one is linked directly to the creator of that work. When reading a translation, the link to the original creator is mediated by the mind of the translator, who must use his or her own understanding of the original to formulate the words in the new language. Since we know that the generations are getting progressively smaller, the translator will inevitably be much less than the original author. Subtleties, nuances, overtones and wider implications will likely be lost.

A goal of everyone must be to learn the Torah in its original language. Yet the many demands there are on people make it difficult for some to achieve this, and they must set priorities, preferably in consultation with an appropriate authority. But for someone whose priority is to become a ben Torah, learning the words of Chazal as they were written and read by generations of talmidei chachomim must rank very high.

Even though we are a publication that publishes a considerable amount of translated material (generally from a quarter to a half of the material in a typical issue is translated) we wish to take this opportunity to tell all our readers: strive to learn Loshon Hakodesh!

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