License to Translate
If one needs a license to practice medicine or present a legal brief, why not necessitate one to translate? What’s the comparison, you ask? Let’s look at the list of requirements one needs in order to translate, as well as the gap between the authors of these Torah classics and ourselves, and see if it is indeed necessary.
Rabbi Yehudah Ibn Tibon lists three prerequisites for every translator.
1) Fluency in the source language
How fluent must one be? Let’s take Hebrew as the source language. He writes: A translator should be fluent and familiar with all of the rules of grammar. He should know the different types of roots and how they change meaning when they are conjugated. He should also know how to use prefixes and suffixes, modify verbs by tense, gender and number, and differentiate between the subtle nuances of synonyms.
2) Mastery of the target language
Fluency in the source language is just the beginning. The consensus among translators is that the target language should be the stronger of the two. This requires an intimate familiarity with the structure and fluidness of one’s native language. A good translator should have a thorough knowledge of syntax and context. He or she should be proficient in the different parts of speech and how they function, as well as when and how each word is used.
3) Understanding of the author’s intent
Above all, the intent of the author is paramount. Rabbi Yehudah Ibn Tibon writes that only after understanding the subject matter and intent of the author should one attempt to translate. Without that picture in the mind’s eye, one cannot choose words or fashion sentences and paragraphs to recreate an accurate copy of the original. A translator cannot explain what he himself doesn’t understand. And dis-figuration of intent is always worse than leaving it blank.
From these prerequisites it becomes apparent that a higher education in linguistics and semantics, besides a comprehensive grounding in Torah literature, is necessary in order to translate Torah texts and classical Hebrew works.
Like legal documents or medical diagnosis, these classic works have rich vocabularies which use pre-defined concepts and identifiable keywords. Their reasoning may be complicated, while their subject matter and tone, weighty and profound. Compound this with the need for impeccable English, and we can begin to understand the difficulties facing today’s translators of classical Torah texts. And this is just the beginning.
Light Years Away
How can we translate the works of the Early Achronim, let alone the Rishonim, or the Sages of the Talmud? Every word is laden with meaning and purpose and every statement has several levels of understanding. They measured and weighed their words like one dealing with gold or diamonds. Not a single one of their words was chosen for stylistic variety or for the sake of verbosity.
It was this very reason why the 17th century authors, the Pas Lechem on the Chovos Halevavos and the Kol Yehudah on the Kuzari, saw fit to write their extensive commentaries. They explained in their introductions that they labored over each drop of ink that fell from the pen of these Rishonim, to clarify how it was in context and how each succeeding synonym or rhyming repetition articulated a distinctly separate idea.
Nonetheless, translation has been accepted and practiced as a viable option from the beginning of time. The Torah itself was given to translate, as evident by Moshe Rabbeinu explaining it in seventy languages (see Rashi on Devarim 1:5), despite its never-ending levels of profundity.
Sometimes we have to realize our limitations and live within their boundaries. This may entail a verbatim translation or even a simple transliteration. The words Torah and Yetzer Hara have been accepted into today’s lexicon for their practicality. Yet, at times, we must gird our loins (another metaphor from a bygone era) and do what others have shied away from, for the benefit of the modern reader.
Bridging the Generation Gap
Fortunately, there are ways we can, at least try, to bridge the generation gap.
- Read up on their works – The more we become intimately familiar with an author’s way of thought and style, the better we can translate their works in the appropriate style and frame of mind. These masters left a lasting imprint on the Jewish nation, especially through the medium of their written word. Analyzing the magnitude of that imprint can help us to understand some of their background and act as a reference point on our epic journey.
- Know their milieu – No writer lives in a vacuum. Every author has teachers, as mentors and guides, and students, as protégés and disciples. Many ideas that a Rishon wrote will inevitably find support in his teacher’s works, or be mentioned in his disciples’ writings. The theories and assumptions that various schools of thought had, resonate down through the ages and were reincarnated in different form and venues. Following their footprints in time can help us to understand some of their core concepts and pinpoint keywords.
- Follow their line of reasoning – In truth, we think the way they did, because we use the same textbook of logic and reason, and follow the same handbook of action and deed. Our common denominator is the Talmud. These great savants were not reading vortimon the parsha or consuming the daily news. Their bread and butter, their daily intake of spiritual nutrition, was Talmud. They lived and breathed it and referred to it to determine every life choice or character precision. Become aware of the Talmudic discussions and Midrashic lore surrounding a topic before approaching translation and choosing terminology.
Translating any work is akin to transmitting a message via radio or email. The words must be committed to electronic impulses before they can be recreated as sound waves or displayed as text. Translating Torah classics also has a two-fold process. Our job as translators is to ferry over the subject matter, not only from one language to another, but also from one generation to the next.
The moral of the story is, make sure the intent of the author is still recognizable and intact when broadcasting their content and portraying their message.