Verbatim vs. Vernacular
According to Wikipedia, the English word “translation” derives from the Latin word translatio, “across” + –latio = ferre, “to carry” or “bring.” Thus, a translator brings or ferries a text from one language to another.
In Hebrew, there are two words used for translation.
- The Rishonim described it as leha’atik. The Radak (Sefer Hashorashim) writes: One who copies sefarim (i.e. a medieval scribe) is called a ma’atik, as he transfers and relocates (the words) from one sefer to another. Although he doesn’t actually move the words of the first sefer, to the observer it appears as if he does.
The Rishonim borrowed this term to describe translation. They likened translating from the source language to the target language as pouring the contents of one vessel into another.
- The second word is letargeim. It is actually an Aramaic word (see Breishis 42:23) and is used to denote explaining the Torah (see Megilah 3a). In this context, a translator explains and interprets the text more than just rendering it into a different language.
These two definitions highlight the dual, almost conflicting facets of translation.
- To be faithful to the original by recording the text verbatim.
- To explain the intent of the author in the vernacular.
Finding the Balance
Rabbi Yehudah Ibn Tibon (one of the masters of the craft) describes the inherent difficulty in translation. In the preface to his translation of the Chovos Halevavos, he writes that on the one hand, a word for word translation offers the translator some peace of mind, as he doesn’t have to fully understand the material nor be afraid of criticism for his endeavors. On the other hand, a strictly literal translation doesn’t do justice to the material or the author.
In a letter to Rabbi Shmuel ben Yehudah Ibn Tibon, the Rambam explained about translating from Arabic to Hebrew:
I will tell you one rule. Whoever tries to translate word for word while keeping the same order and arrangement will find it very cumbersome. His translation will raise eyebrows and be garbled. That’s not the right way. Instead, one must first understand the material and intent of the author. Then he should tell and explain what was meant in the target language, in a manner in which it will be understood. This cannot be done without switching the order of the words, sometimes describing in many words what was said in one, or using one word in the place of many, adding or omitting words – until it becomes intelligible and clearly understood in the second language…
Keeping Sight of the Goal
All translations try to be faithful to the original. Like a doctor prescribing medication, a translator tries to find the balance by first making a proper diagnosis and focusing on his clients needs, and only then determining how and when to deviate from the literal translation with exacting precision. Not a drop of ink should be spilled from a translator’s pen without reason and purpose, knowing why this particular word is best suited for the job.
Rabbi Yehudah Ibn Tibon explains how a proper translation often requires changing tenses and conjugations. A good translator will sometimes add clarification or omit rhetoric. He will even alter a metaphor to fit the times or coin new terminology. But he must always keep his sight on the goal.
The metaphor the Rishonim used of pouring the contents from one vessel to another is very apropos. It offers us a glimpse into the art of translation at its core. Just like a container gives a de facto shape to its contents, language takes ideas and concepts and gives them shape and form, by the very nature of their words. A translator must make sure to keep the intent of the author intact, even as he changes the wording.