Thursday, December 20, 2012

Translation or Treason?

According to a tenth century halachic text, Baal Halachot Gedolot, the eighth of Tevet (this coming Friday) will mark the anniversary of the translation of Torah into Greek. The translation is alleged to have happened in the third century BCE, more than a century before the events of Chanukah.

We know little about how this translation came about; we have several different traditions regarding who did the translation, how, and for what purpose. We don't know whether the original translation was the Greek Septuagint, although this work is often granted that pedigree. We do know that traditional Jewish texts label the translation a tragedy, but we don't know why.

An early Jewish source, Masechet Sofrim (1:7-8), compared the translation of Torah into Greek with the worst event in our nation's religious history. As the text tells it, "Once five elders wrote the Torah in Greek for King Ptolemy, and that day was as harsh for Israel as the day the Calf was created, because the Torah could not be properly translated. Another time, King Ptolemy gathered 72 elders and put them in 72 houses without revealing why he had gathered them. He went to each one and told them, 'Write the Torah of Moshe, your master, for me.' G-d placed counsel into each one's heart, and each of them wrote an independent Torah. They changed thirteen things: 'Elokim created in the beginning'…" According to the first part of this account, Greek itself is inadequate to translate the Torah, and the disaster of translation was that it necessarily betrayed the original. Of course, omnis traductor traditor - every translator is a traitor – but this passage contends that Torah is uniquely beyond translation. [Of course, later religions made the same claim regarding their sacred texts.]

The explanation found in Masechet Sofrim is difficult, though, in light of a passage in Talmud Yerushalmi (Megilah 1:9), "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Tanach may only be recorded in Greek; the sages checked and found that the Torah can be translated properly only in Greek." Based on this text, what was the danger in translating Torah? Why was it considered catastrophic?

One approach is found in a midrash (Tanchuma Vayera 6): " R' Yehudah haLevi b'R' Shalom said: Moshe requested that mishnah be put in writing as well [as the written Torah], but G-d saw that the nations would translate the Torah and read it in Greek and say, 'We are Israel, too.'" In other words, the problem of translation is not in its inadequacy; rather, it is in its authenticity. Once the Torah is available in other tongues, the Jewish nation loses its special character, as anyone can mimic it and claim the heritage of Torah for themselves.

These two ideas – that translation is inadequate and that translation inappropriately shares our Torah – should give us pause in our age of ubiquitous English renditions. The need for translation at this time is clear, but we must be aware of what we are losing; we will be better off when we will be able to leave these treasons behind.


  1. The Behag's source is Megillas Ta'anis (#13, a/k/a "Yemei haTzomos"):
    בח' בטבת נכתבה התורה יונית בימי תלמי המלך והחשך בא לעולם שלשת ימים

    Moving the date of attribution up nearly a millennium.

  2. R' Micha-
    Thanks! But do you know whether that 13th perek, the maamar acharon, was part of the original Megilas Taanis? I ask not on the basis of scholarship, but on the basis of its great difference from the rest.

  3. I agree about the inadequacy of translations, but given that non-Jewish translations of the Torah can easily be found these days, surely there is an argument that contemporary translation is about reclaiming a traditional understanding of the Torah?

  4. Every translation is a commentary.

    OTOH when the gemara tells us we can be yotzeh certain mitzvot "bchol lashon" (any language) it assumedly took the difficulty of translating (e.g. shma) into account.
    Joel RIch

  5. Sometimes I hear a speaker say that a certain concept or word in Hebrew has no, and really couldn't have any, close English equivalent---but it actually does!. Maybe I'm not sensitive enough to nuances.

  6. I thought it's only the long text that is an add-on. (And not necessarily all of it.) One liners like this one I thought were all in the original.

    But in any case, the difference isn't that much for our purposes... After all the hilkhos Chanukah add-on still predates Rebbe, is tannatic and thus more authoritative (IMHO) than the Behag.

  7. About the topic itself... What I think when I say Shema or Shemoneh Esrei while thinking is particularly mine. Even if I thought in Hebrew, there is still "translation" going on between the words as written and the words as I understand and extrapolate from them.

    In the case of things written by people, do two people ever actually speak exactly the same language? Don't my word associations differ from everyone else's and thus my connotations differ? WRT the Torah (and thus Shema), we say that HQBH knew all of that when He wrote it, and thus there are "shiv'im panim" or "60 ribo osios laTorah".

  8. Daniel-
    Yes, I hear that.

    See MB 63:3...

    I suppose it depends on how much nuance matters.

    R' Micha-
    Is that what shivim panim means - that however I associate with those words, it's included?

  9. That Hashem speaks in every personal "dialect" of Hebrew, and thus there is an understanding of the words that is uniquely mine. Thus "60 ribo osios baTorah". That doesn't mean that every interpretation I give is accurate, but that there is an interpretation I alone can give because there is a set of meanings, associations and connotations for the words that are unique to me.

  10. Note that the posting and all the comments here are all mainly in English. Which of the translitersted Hebrew words here would be not quite understandable and apt in English?

  11. RBM: Both "panim" and "osios" are being used for multiple meanings in the quotes I gave.

    There are also fundamental issues like English not having a parallel for am, eidah, qahal, kelal and the forcing of the conversation into terms like ethnicity, religion, etc... artificially creates problems that HS kids will stay up all night debating.

    I also recently posted on the difference between thinking in terms of "yir'ah" from thinking in terms of "fear" and awe". Or for that matter between thinking in terms of "blue" and "green" vs. "zuzu", "buru" and "dambu" (as the Himba people of nigeria do). See