by Rabbi Yitzchok Boruch haCohen Fishel
The Tragedy of Translation
There has been a need for translation since Bovel, but its
difficulties have been evident since then as well.
The biggest technical question of the translator is whether
to stay close to the original at the cost of sounding strange
and like a translation in the new language, or to strive for
a smooth and natural sounding translation at the price of
preserving only the essential ideas at a more abstract level.
(At Yated we try to tilt translations of divrei
Torah in the first way, but feel freer to strive for the
second in other material.)
Both alternatives make it clear that a translation will
differ significantly from the original it is taken from. Just
how different it will be depends on the original and depends
on the translator.
Loshon hakodesh is a very special language. It is the
best and most natural fit to the world as it really is. This
is to be expected since it is the very language used to
create the world.
Although many of the mitzvos that use language, such as
Krias Shema, do not specifically require that we use
the original loshon hakodesh, still it is the language
of the Torah itself. It is the vehicle that carries the most
direct expression of the Divine messages to the world. When
Hashem spoke to us collectively at Har Sinai, or to
individual prophets with messages for the world, the most
immediate expression of these messages was passed on in
loshon hakodesh in the Tanach.
In Teves, the Tanach was first translated out of its
original language into Greek. Chazal say in Megillas
Taanis that for three days after this, the seventh,
eighth and ninth of Teves, darkness descended to the world as
Chazal tell us that in the Chumash, even more than in
other works, the very words themselves come from Hashem and
are part of His message. When the ideas are translated, they
leave the words behind, along with whatever is conveyed by
the words themselves. That part is lost in translation, and
only accessible to those who read the original. Those who
read the original are reading the very words of Hashem; those
who read the translation are reading the words of men, albeit
very great men in the case of the translation into Greek
created by Chazal.
Though the contrast is particularly stark with relation to
the Chumash, it applies to all translations of Chazal
according to their level.
This in fact is one of the critical issues of translation.
When reading an original work, one is linked directly to the
creator of that work. When reading a translation, the link to
the original creator is mediated by the mind of the
translator, who must use his or her own understanding of the
original to formulate the words in the new language. Since we
know that the generations are getting progressively smaller,
the translator will inevitably be much less than the original
author. Subtleties, nuances, overtones and wider implications
will likely be lost.
A goal of everyone must be to learn the Torah in its original
language. Yet the many demands there are on people make it
difficult for some to achieve this, and they must set
priorities, preferably in consultation with an appropriate
authority. But for someone whose priority is to become a
ben Torah, learning the words of Chazal as they were
written and read by generations of talmidei chachomim
must rank very high.
Even though we are a publication that publishes a
considerable amount of translated material (generally from a
quarter to a half of the material in a typical issue is
translated) we wish to take this opportunity to tell all our
readers: strive to learn Loshon Hakodesh!
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