Translation Trauma

We live today with translations. For most of us who live outside Eretz Yisroel, even Lashon Hakodesh – the holy Hebrew language – is not our primary form of communication. Even in Eretz Yisroel, those who have grown up, perhaps for many generations, speaking Hebrew as their primary lingua franca, the modern version is certainly not identical with the ancient one in which the Torah was given. Indeed, there is no one who has grown up with Aramaic fluently imprinted upon their tongue, and so translations of the Talmud flourish today even in the most chareidi circles in Eretz Yisroel.

Yet, we know from Chazal (end of Megillas Taanis) that the day the sages were forced to translate the Torah into Greek is considered to be so tragic that a wave of darkness ensued for three days. It was considered as catastrophic as the day the Eigel was made as an object of worship. What is the analogy to the Eigel?

Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik, Chanukah) explains that when the Torah was given, a brilliant light entered the world, but when they made the Eigel, the darkness returned.

Rav Tzadok adds elsewhere (Resisei Laylah 57) that the power of Yavan (Greece) against Klal Yisroel began on the terrible day that the Torah was translated into Greek, causing our enemies to “possess” a part of the Torah.

The Radziner Rebbe, Rav Yerucham Leiner zt”l, was known to have commented that the thirteen changes the Sanhedrin was forced to make in the Septuagint, the translation of the seventy, mirrored the thirteen incursions made into the Bais Hamikdosh by the Greeks at the time of the churban (Tamid 2:3). Thus, we see that falsifying a text, even for the best of reasons, can wreak havoc with the fabric of our holiest places. Indeed, the Medrash (Tanchumah Vayeirah 5) records that in an ideal world, Moshe Rabbeinu preferred that even the Mishnah should be translated, but Hashem foresaw that the Greeks and other enemies of Klal Yisroel would falsify the Torah, so He delayed the inevitable for thousands of years.

We know today, of course, that calamities have arisen from the distorted so-called translations that various religions have made of our Torah. Interestingly, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, in his haskamah to the ArtScroll translation of the Talmud, warned that he was agreeing to a Torah-true translation because there already existed translations which were not based upon the kedusha of Torah Shebaal Peh and the sanctified mesorah of the generations.

Ironically, just last week, warnings about the dangers of mistranslations came from foreign sources, perhaps following the rule of hakol bishvil Yisroel, to remind us to be ever so scrupulous about our own. Mark Polizzotti, writing in the Sunday Times Review (July 29, 2018), in an article entitled “Why Mistranslation Matters,” cites numerous examples of mistranslations that caused major problems. Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian dictator, infamously declared in his 1956 visit to the United States that “we will bury you,” which nearly brought about nuclear war between the two countries. However, it was a mistaken translation of his words in Russian, which merely predicted “we will outlast you.” With even more disastrous results, Kantaro Suzuki, the prime minister of Japan, responded to an Allied ultimatum to surrender in July 1945 with the brazen words “silent contempt.” Harry Truman reacted by sending atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the translator mixed up “no comment” with the phrase that resulted in mass destruction. Even otherwise knowledgeable Jewish people often speak of Chava offering Adam an apple, whereas this was simply a mistranslation of Jerome, one of the Church fathers, who changed “evil” (malus) into “apple” (malum) when he translated the Torah into Latin. Although no Torah source understands the fruit of the Eitz Hadaas to be the apple, the mistake lingers on the tongues of many of our own.

To be sure, some translations have not only been ratified by the Torah, but even mandated. The Gemara (Sotah 32a) teaches that the Torah was translated perfectly into 70 languages and even Greek was deemed to be the fallback best language once it was decreed that the Torah would have to be translated (Devorim 27:3 with Shabbos 88b and Devorim Rabbah 1:1). The reason Greek was chosen was based upon the Torah promise to Yefes, Greece’s ancestor, that “May Hashem extend Yefes, but he will dwell in the tents of Sheim” (Bereishis 9:27). Rav Yonasan Eibschutz zt”l (Yaaros Devash 1:12) explains that even this great honor was only extended to Greece because it refrained from attacking Am Yisroel when all the other great powers did so (see Tehillim 83:2).

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner ztl, explains (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanukah 4:3; 7:8) that the injunction that the Torah may only by translated into Greek (Megillah 8b and 9b) is actually part and parcel of Klal Yisroel’s triumph over Yavan and its culture. In other hands, translations of the Torah always carry the danger of being misunderstood and of weakening the limitless allusions and multifaceted meanings of every word and posuk.

Perhaps one of the messages to us of gentiles worrying about mistranslations and the authenticity of texts is to renew our commitment to shnayim mikra ve’echad targum, the halacha of reviewing the Targum of Onkelos with our weekly study of the Torah itself. Many people ask, “I don’t really understand the Targum. Why can’t I just read an English translation?” The answer given by the Mishnah Berurah (285:6 and see Biur Halacha) is that Targum Onkelos is considered to have been ratified at Sinai and represents the only Torah-true translation we have that is sanctified by heaven. The halacha (Orach Chaim 285:1) is clear that we must recite every translation of the Targum, even when it just repeats the name of a place. In addition to Targum Onkelos, many Chumashim have the targum of Yonasan Ben Uziel, a Tanna, who adds many Medrashim and interpretations to our understanding of the pesukim.

Another lesson we might wish to take away from the outside world’s sudden interest in translations is to return to our holy texts. Even amongst bright talmidim and scholarly talmidei chachomim, there is sometimes an unfortunate trend toward discussions, ideas and chiddushim that are far from text-based. There are those who can capably discuss an original-sounding pshat or chiddush without the firm ability to literally “say the Gemara” and translate each word clearly and accurately. Although prominent roshei yeshivos and maggidei shiur have railed against this non-text-based learning, it still seems to be an easy way to jump immediately to the sometimes more glorifying ability to innovate an approach to a difficult sugya.

We, who are truly the People of the Book, should always remember that every aspect of the Torah ultimately must be traced to a text, be it a posuk, a Gemara or a later work.

Although it seems like a far-fetched hope or even impossible goal, there were gedolim who became so fluent in Aramaic, through lifelong dedication to the language of the Gemara, that they could actually speak Aramaic fluently. One of the Ozerover Rebbes used to converse with the local Armenian bishop in fluent colloquial Aramaic. During a dangerous period for the Jews, while World War I was raging, the bishop protected “his Jews” in honor of his friend and fellow speaker of Aramaic. Perhaps a difficult goal indeed, but it should not be impossible to develop a working vocabulary of Aramaic words, so that we can approach a new Gemara with many words already at our fingertips.

Finally, a cryptic Gemara may help inspire us to pay more attention to our Aramaic lexicon. Chazal (Sanhedrin 38b) tell us that “Adam Harishon spoke in Aramaic.” At first this seems to be an extremely strange fact. Why would Adam speak anything but Lashon Hakodesh, the language that the Torah records him as speaking to his Creator?

Rav Reuvein Margulies (Margolios Hayam) indeed reads the text very closely, noting that the Gemara uses the word sipeir, not dibeir. He suggests that Adam certainly spoke Lashon Hakodesh for all sacred purposes. However, when it came to anything mundane unconnected to kedusha, he switched to Aramaic.

This seems to follow the minhag of many kehillos in Klal Yisroel, who always maintained a second language, such as Ladino and Yiddish, so that Lashon Hakodesh could be reserved exclusively for matters of kedusha. It would seem that eventually, Aramaic grew into a second idiom as well, combining colloquial speech with Torah discussions, thus sanctifying its pronouncements for eternity. Since it was the holy Tannaim and Amoraim who taught us Torah Shebaal Peh in Aramaic, it behooves us to become as familiar as possible with these ancient phrases that hearken back to the very beginning of the world itself.