A Culture Loses its Flavor

April 1, 2005
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Hillel Halkin

HEBREW-ENGLISH TRANSLATION — a field in which I got my start 45 years ago with a stiff and unpaid rendition of a worthless and never published story by a down-and-out alcoholic Israeli author in New York — is booming. Numerous English volumes of Hebrew novels, books of poetry, and historical and political works are published every year. Contemporary Israeli authors like Yehuda Amichai, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman are now known to American Jews almost as well as their own native writers.

And this is without mentioning Jewish religious texts, where developments have been even more impressive. The last years have seen the appearance in English of two complete new Jewish Bible translations; two more Jewish translations of the Pentateuch; 34 volumes of the still unfinished ArtsScroll Mishna; 27 volumes of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah; the first volumes of Daniel Matt’s projected 12-volume Zohar; the first 22 volumes of the Steinsaltz Talmud; and the recent completion of the 72-volume Schottenstein Talmud. (Both the Zohar and the Talmud, of course, are written in a mixture of Hebrew and its sister language Aramaic.) Moreover, that’s just a partial list. Many other Jewish philosophical, liturgical, halakhic, and homiletic texts can be added to it.

It’s getting to the point that one soon won’t have to know Hebrew at all to consider oneself Jewishly literate — and this is precisely the problem. Of course, every positive phenomenon has its down side. But the down side of the boom in Hebrew-English translation has been steep indeed. It has involved accepting, and in a sense even legitimizing, the disappearance of Hebrew as the international language of the Jews. It’s true that most Jews in most times and places in the past could not read (much less write) Hebrew freely, although large numbers who couldn’t still could cope with certain sacred texts. Yet until modern times, a fluency in Hebrew was considered a sign of being an educated Jew. Any such Jew from one part of the world could communicate in Hebrew with any such Jew from another part of the world. Books written in languages that other Jews didn’t know, like the Arabic of Maimonides’ Guide To The Perplexed or Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari, were translated into Hebrew. As late as the last decade of the 19th century, when the Russian Jewish intellectual Ahad Ha’am founded his international Jewish review Ha-Shiloah in Berlin, Hebrew seemed the obvious language for it.

Today the international language of the Jewish people has become English. Jewish intellectuals from different countries converse in it; Jewish leaders exchange views in it; when there is a scholarly conference in Jerusalem on S.Y. Agnon, Hebrew literature’s sole Nobel Prize winner, it is held — I should know because I participated in it — in English, too. Knowing Hebrew is no longer the sign of the educated Jew. Indeed, far less American Jews can now read and speak Hebrew than can Palestinian Arabs! We Hebrew-English translators are not to blame for this; it is, rather, due to the lack of Hebrew education in America. Of course, if we weren’t working so hard to make Hebrew works available in English, perhaps more American Jews would have to learn Hebrew. Yet why should hundreds of thousands of Americans Jews have to learn Hebrew, you might ask, when a hundred Hebrew-English translators can save them the trouble? Let’s be efficient!

The answer is obvious. It is not only poetry, as Robert Frost once put it, that gets lost in translation; it is the innermost pith of all language, the intimate feel and touch and interrelatedness of words that are never the same when translated. A page of the Mishna or Talmud in English may be a useful aid to studying the same page in the original, but it doesn’t begin to have the original’s flavor. A Jewish culture in translation is a culture that has lost its flavor. It may be better than nothing — any competent translation is — but better-than-nothing is less than a people with a 3,000-year-old tradition in its own language deserves.

No, it’s not the fault of translators that business is good. We just shouldn’t feel so good about it.

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Hillel Halkin, who settled in Israel in 1970, is the author of Letters To An American Jewish Friend: A Zionist Polemic (1976), the winner of a National Jewish Book Award, Across The Sabbath River: In Search of A Lost Tribe of Israel (2002), and the forthcoming A Strange Death. He translates Hebrew and Yiddish fiction and writes extensively on Jewish and Israeli politics, culture, and literature in such publications as Commentary and The New Republic. He is speaking as part of the Koret Jewish Book Awards program.

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