When trying to understand the difficulties in translation, Italians have a beautiful saying: “tradutorre, traditore.”
Ironically, despite the phrase’s brevity it is almost non-translatable. Perhaps we can best translate these two simple words as: “to translate is to betray a text’s or person’s true meaning.” This short phrase, which rhymes in the original Italian, teaches us that no translation, no matter how good the translation might be, ever completely covers the full meaning of what is being said. No matter how good the translator is or the quality of the translation something is always lost. In a mere two words the phrase “tradutorre, traditore” manages to express the full range of frustrations that every translator experiences.
Professional, or even amateur, translators know that each language is unique. What is funny in one language falls flat in another; what rhymes in one language or is a play-on-words is rendered meaningless in another language. Languages are more than a depository of words; they are depositories of a people’s soul. Great literature — and many would argue that the Biblical text is the world’s greatest literary work — contain untranslatable puns and plays-on-words, rhyme schemes and specific meters. No translator, no matter how good they are can translate these literary devices from one language to another. Language conveys culture, has specific historical connotations and forms the building blocks of society.
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The Biblical text explains the importance of language in the story of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel. In chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis we read the Bible’s version of how different languages began when the text says in verse 7: Hava neradah v’navlah sham safatam asher lo yishamu ish safat reeyhu/Come, let us go down and there confound their language, so that they may not understand one and other’s speech.” Reading this phrase provokes numerous unanswerable questions. Perhaps that too is the text’s intent as the asking of questions forms the basis of Jewish thought.
The art of translation is more than difficult, at times it is close to impossible. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, the task is even more daunting. The Hebrew Bible is composed of both narrative sections and poetry, historical texts and pithy sayings, creative philosophy and constitutional law. For millions of people around the world, the Hebrew Bible is not only the greatest literary piece ever written, but also forms the basis for much of the world’s jurisprudence, legislation and standards of care. Yet this universally read text is also a particular text. It is impossible to read the Bible without understanding its Jewish roots and uniqueness. Hebrew Scripture is the foundation of both a universal and a national literature, it speaks to all peoples but from out of a Jewish context. The Hebrew Bible is both a universal book and a national treasure, written in a Jewish language, Hebrew, and forming the constitutional basis for Jewish jurisprudence, ethics and morality. One cannot begin to understand the Hebrew Bible, however, without a firm understanding of Jewish history and culture, mores and customs.
It is not easy to translate any text, but when it comes to a Biblical text the task is more than overwhelming. A Western translator must find a way to bridge the many gaps between a Semitic language, such as Hebrew or Arabic, and a European tongue. Semitic languages have a completely different verbal and temporal system than do Western European languages. The task, however, goes well beyond finding an equivalent vocabulary and grammatical structure. The translator must also translate Jewish and Middle Eastern cultural patterns in a way that makes sense to the western mind. Additionally, a translator must consider the question of historic context. What makes sense in one period of history simply seems strange in another period; words that are gentle or caring in one historic context, when translated into an alien cultural milieu or historic time frame, can seem harsh or cruel to the reader confronting the text in another time and place.
To make the Biblical translator’s job even more difficult, Jews read the Hebrew Bible both as 24 independent works and as part of three major groupings of books: Torah, Niviim and Ktuvim.
The Hebrew word most often used to describe Hebrew scripture is “Tanak,” a Hebrew acronym describing Torah-Niviim-Ktuvim. Even these group names are almost impossible to translate. For example, non-Jews often mistranslate the word Torah as “the Law of Moses” yet no Jew would ever understand these first five books as law, but perhaps best translated as the constitutional underpinning of the Jewish people’s relationship with God. Law is what one must or must not do, under penalty of coercion. Torah is the opposite. It is the opportunity to do what God wants us to do.
In the same manner, the Bible’s second section — Niviim — is translated as the prophetic sections. The word Navi (singular of Niviim) does not refer to a predictor or the future but perhaps as a moral social scientist and commentator on the historic, social, political and economic conditions of the time in which he lived. The word Ktuviim is perhaps the easiest to translate, as “collected writings.” In other words, the Ktuviim are those parts of Hebrew Scripture that are not Torah or Niviim. The Ktuvim are a collection of writing ranging from wisdom literature to poetry, from historical narratives to everyday guidance.
The Hebrew Bible very much impacts many of the great issues of our day. As we shall see in the months to come, however, to understand fully these issues we need to confront the text in its original version and put the Bible’s statements and pronouncements into a historic and cultural context. Only by examining the text in its original format, can we begin to understand Biblical ideas concerning everything from social justice to the taking of a life.
To examine these academic challenges is never easy. It means confronting common mistranslations and misperceptions, it means letting the text tell us what it is saying rather than our telling the text what we think it says. My hope that during the next 11 months our reward will be worth our efforts, and we will not only be able to better understand the Hebrew Bible but come to appreciate the Italian phrase: tradutorre, traditore.