Text, God, and Life in Translation

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December 2, 2010
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Joel Hecker

In a legendary story from the talmudic tractate of Megillah (9a-b), 72 rabbis were sequestered by the command of King Ptolemy in order to produce a Greek translation of the Torah and, miraculously, they all produced the exact same translation. Even more remarkable, they had all received ruach ha-kodesh, divine inspiration, so that they all mistranslated certain passages for several specific reasons — to prevent theological misunderstandings, to eliminate apparent contradictions in the text, to preclude disrespect for the Torah, to ensure the dignity of Jewish leaders, and to avoid the ire of the Greek king.

For example, where the Torah says Bereshit bara Elokim, one might imagine that an unspoken subject had created Elokim, i.e., that God Himself was created (the Zohar actually affirms that reading, but that’s for another time). To avoid misunderstanding, they translated the line as if it read, “Elokim bara bereshit,” i.e., “God created in the beginning.” In another instance, accurately translated, the Torah says, “On the seventh day, God finished the work that He had been doing,” but in order to clarify the puzzling impression this would give — i.e., that God was working on the seventh day until He stopped — the rabbis wrote that God finished his work on the sixth day.

Tractate Soferim (1:7) notes that the translation of the Torah into Greek is comparable to the worship of the golden calf. Why such a harsh assessment of the translator’s craft? Is it because of the mistranslation wherein, over the course of history, what was first condemned was later celebrated? Or is it that this story refers to something that is ultimately mundane, making a text readable to those ignorant of the source language? Is there a way to explain these two different attitudes toward translation? The Ptolemy story betrays a deep discomfort with translation absent divine intervention. We know that 72 translators would have produced 72 versions, none true to the original.

Three discreet ideas are included in the dictionary definition of translation: Most common is translating from one language to another — that is, broadening the readership. A second idea is to move a person or object from one place to another (the word has Latin origins signifying “bringing something across.” The final idea is to transform something from one state of being to another. I spoke recently about these three definitions — and more — at my son Razi’s bar mitzvah, where we celebrated his “translation” from the domain of childhood to that of incipient adulthood.

Translation, in part, is about boundaries — looking at something that ostensibly belongs to others, valuing it, and internalizing it. When we share some concept from our own expertise, oftentimes we must search for the words to explain it, moving the idea from an area of our own technical knowledge into a layperson’s language. In translating legal, medical, or academic language for people who are not trained in those areas, we simplify, risking distortion; we are accommodating others, not patronizing them, but rather respecting their difference. In all of these instances, we ask: How much do we accommodate? At what point is the person who is receiving the translation no longer in contact with the authenticity of the original? And what if we’re translating sacred texts? Are these just words to be relayed from language to language, or is there something inexpressible that is lost?

The Kabbalists and the Hasidim were interested in translating from one form of being to another. If God spoke the world into being — and, after all, every day we say םלוע היהו רמאשׁ ךורב, blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be — and if speech is not discontinuous with the speaker, rather emanating from the speaker’s own being, then, in some sense, the world is not merely a creation by God, but also a phenomenon emerging from God. As a result of these assumptions, the mystical tradition stresses the importance of drawing blessing down from the upper realms, translating it from the ethereal to the material, the spiritual to the concrete. Translation in these instances is crucial for the sustenance of the world and much of the Hasidic tradition, concerned about the profundity of the process, relegated it to the expertise of the rebbe, disbelieving that commoners could effect such transmutations.

In some of the non-exclusivist treatments of the subject, we learn that mizvot have a direct impact on divinity; eating is a rite that draws divine vitality within us, which we then restore back to God through prayer and Torah study. Thus, we translate the holiness that’s in the tefillin, in the Torah, in the matzah, into something accessible to our neshamah, our soul, every time we perform a commandment with holy intention. We are also translating ourselves into beings holier than we usually are, if not angelic or divine, perhaps one step closer.

I concluded the bar mitzvah speech by commenting that my children have made me translators: the act of parenting is perhaps the signal act of translation. It includes the attempt to communicate across a generation’s values, hopes, and dreams, reiterating and retranslating at every stage.

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Joel Hecker is associate professor of Jewish mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa. He is the author of Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah. Currently a visiting scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Hecker is working on a translation and commentary of the Zohar’s mystical homilies on the biblical books Song of Songs, Ruth, and Lamentations for The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Volume 11.

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