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I'm a Stack Exchange user on many other sites and every once in a while I will see a question on this site that sparks my interest in the hot questions. The only two things I know about Judaism are some of the more common knowledge on Kosher foods and that I will never ever be able to spell yarmulke without looking it up first. This site features what I can only assume are Jewish texts. (Example in this answer.)

Is there some reason that, despite the obvious prevalence of English on this site, certain passages are not translated to English? Is the Jewish scripture considered concrete in its language? Would it be a sin to translate it, or is it just kept in its original form for traditions' sake?

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    is this a meta question? – rosends Oct 1 '15 at 19:39
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    @Danno I intended it more about Jewish law in general, but Judaism.SE is pretty much my only exposure to judaism so it's my best frame of reference. – Sidney Oct 1 '15 at 19:40
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    Sidney, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks for posting your question! Regarding practice here on Mi Yodeya specifically, please see our jargon policy, which calls for Hebrew terms to be translated anywhere that would be necessary for people who might be interested in the material to understand it. The answer you linked to currently falls short of this policy, IMO, and should be fixed up. – Isaac Moses Oct 1 '15 at 19:46
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    @Sidney if the question is about Jewish law in general then you might want to have the question reflect that it isn't about SE answers. Then you can solicit suggestions for websites that include translations of Judaic legal texts. BTW another suggested edit -- no one can answer why something "seems" somehow to you. – rosends Oct 1 '15 at 19:51
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    The question looks fine to me -- the OP is asking why, in a Jewish community where English is clearly the dominant language, people use so much Hebrew. – Monica Cellio Oct 1 '15 at 20:35
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There's no sin in translating Jewish texts (nowadays, at least). I have no source for saying so, but there's evidence in the vast amount of Jewish literature that has been translated into various languages. However:

  1. People sometimes can't be bothered to translate, especially because of the remaining reasons (below).

  2. Some words are very hard to translate succinctly. I see you're active on The Workplace Stack Exchange. Consider the word "401(k)". (The noun, referring to an account, not the proper noun, referring to a subsection of IRS code.) Try to translate it into a language that has no concept of such a thing. You'd have to use either a rough approximation to what you mean or a whole explanation rather than a simple word. The same is true for a bunch of words you'll find in Jewish books.

  3. Even without specialty words, translation is hard. Here are two examples:

    1. The set of verb tenses in Biblical Hebrew doesn't correspond exactly to the set of verb tenses in English.

    2. Some Hebrew verb forms act sometimes like English adjectives or agent nouns, and the question is, e.g., whether to translate "מורגל" as "is accustomed" (adjective) or as "has become accustomed" (verb form).

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    You might want to discuss the lack of demand for the translation of sources that are not very well known... Most people who learn those sources don't need a translation. – Daniel Oct 2 '15 at 13:27
  • MonicaCellio, @Daniel, great points. Perhaps post your own answers? – msh210 Oct 2 '15 at 16:19
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As mentioned above, there aren't any general prohibitions (per se) on translating Jewish texts into the vernacular, be it English, French, Russian, Yiddish, etc.

Regarding Text on This Site

Many posts and answers here are among those for whom Hebrew is not a foreign language. Many of this site's users know each other (at least virtually) and are aware of each others' levels of knowledge. Things left untranslated are usually done so not to lock others out, but instead to save time. If I know that user A readily understands Hebrew, I might not bother translating an entire passage to English in the interest of saving time.

Feel free to comment on questions and answers which leave texts untranslated to prompt the authors to translate them for the world at large.

Regarding Entire Jewish Texts

The main reason something might not have been translated into the vernacular is usually based on demand and desire for said title. For example, you probably won't be able to find Yosef Karo's Shulchan Aruch translated into English. You probably also won't find the Rema's commentary to the Shulchan Aruch translated into English. However, because there is a big demand for understanding contemporary Jewish law, you'll find a translation of the Mishnah Berurah (which probably contains the original quotes from Shulchan Aruch and the Rema's commentary) and the Shulchan Aruch HaRav (which also probably contains the original sources translated).

The companies that translate these titles operate on supply and demand. Gemara is a primary text, so there are more than one translation of it widely available in English. The five books of Moses are also very primary, so you'll find many translations available there.

When you get to certain titles, e. g. Etz Chaim and the Zohar, much knowledge about other Jewish literature is assumed to be within the reader's grasp. A good example of a similar text translated is the Likkutei Moharan, the magnum opus of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Breslov Research Institute finished translating the entire sefer, which in Hebrew is around 200-300 pages, only a couple years ago. The project took 30 years, and not for lack of funding. Since Likkutei Moharan assumes knowledge in Tanach (Torah, Neviim, Kesuvim), Rabbinical literature (Midrashim, Gemara, Yerushalmi, etc.), Halacha (Rishonim, Shulchan Aruch), and Kabbalah (e.g. the Zohar, Etz Chaim), simple phrases in the Hebrew require vast amounts of commentary to explain their meaning.

In this example, if you were to simply possess the ability to read Hebrew fluently, you would still find Likkutei Moharan to require enormous amounts of contemplation to understand. Though many things are made evident in the sefer and it's easy enough to follow along, you'd be missing the context of the sefer in light of everything else.

In summary, a title may not be translated and readily available in the vernacular for the following reasons:

  1. There isn't enough demand for it, i.e. there are more pressing Jewish texts to immediately translate.
  2. It would require an enormous amount of work to translate while trying to maintain the idioms and context in which it was written.

For these two reasons, a lot of onus is put on the reader to do his best to begin learning Hebrew and Jewish texts, as it opens doors to the entire world of Jewish literature, rather than individual doors to individual works. For some people, learning Hebrew is exceedingly difficult, and in that case, readers will have to await (and demand!) translations of the texts they wish to study.

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While the Hebrew language is indeed considered Holy, it is not the reason most things are not translated on this site. In my opinion, it has to do with the assumptions of the writer.

Assumptions

Possible Assumption #1: That if you are asking a very specific questions, then you must be knowledgeable enough to read or translate for yourself the specific answer that you receive. Therefore I don't need to spend the time translating.

Possible Assumption #2: That if you aren't able to translate or read the answer for yourself, that's not my fault, you need to get more educated.

Possible Assumption #3: Since Hebrew doesn't always translate well into English, and many of us have varying levels of Hebrew reading ability. The answer poster may not feel confident in his ability to translate and fears his translation may be slightly incorrect enough to lead the person reading it astray.

Possible assumption #4: The Hebrew is very precise and something would get lost in translation, even by an expert translator -- technical terms, figures of speech and textual references that convey subtleties can't be translated.

And outside of all these things, it could simply be that the poster doesn't have the time or doesn't want to spend the effort translating the answer and leaves it for later or for others to edit and translate for him.

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In addition to the great points made here and here, sometimes translating into English would actually make the text harder to understand (even by people not fluent in Hebrew).

Some Hebrew terms are names -- names of sources and people, names of biblical books, names of prayers, and so on. Translating those would likely add confusion no matter how correct the translation is. Something like "How does the Shulchan Aruch explain (something) about Kiddush?" is relatively clear, while "How does the Set Table explain (something) about Sanctification?" would lead to some head-scratching.

And then, once you're using Hebrew terms anyway, it's easy to keep using them even when you could do a better job of translating. For example, after seeing this question I realized that I could do a better job with my recent question about the Hallel service and edited in some translations. I was already talking about Sukkot and Pesach (festivals) and Hallel (a specific set of prayers), and I went on to use some other terms that I could have (and now have) translated.

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The problem of translating goes back many centuries. In Megillat Taanit (Chapter 13) we find:

בשמונה בטבת נכתבה התורה יונית בימי תלמי המלך והחשך בא לעולם שלשה ימים

On the eighth of Teves the Torah was written in Greek, in the days of Ptolemy the king, and darkness came upon the world for three days.

Maimonides wrote a letter to Joseph Ibn Gabar in which he responded to the latter's request that Maimonides translate his Mishneh Torah from Hebrew into Arabic. He wrote:

ואיני רוצה בשום פנים להוציאו ללשון ערבי לפי שכל נעימותו יפסד (Kovetz Teshuvos Harambam V'Igrosav)

Keep in mind, however, that I do not intend to produce an Arabic edition of the Mishnah Torah, as it would lose its specific flavor. (Stitskin)

This letter was written in Arabic, and Maimonides explained that something would be lost if he translated Mishneh Torah from Hebrew to Arabic. Yet, the Hebrew and English translations of this very letter differ in many nuances. For instance, the English has "keep in mind" where there is no parallel phrase in the Hebrew. The Hebrew has "בשום פנים" which would mean something along the lines of "in no form" or "under no circumstances", but the English does not have a parallel phrase. Which of these translations is more accurate? You won't know unless you can read the Arabic original Thus, even Maimonides's statement about something getting lost in translation gives us difficulty in translating it.

Maimonides also wrote a letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon about the latter's endeavor to translate Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed from Arabic to Hebrew. In this letter Maimonides gives Ibn Tibbon a speech about the correct way to translate:

I shall explain to you everything presently, after I shall premise one rule: the translator who proposes to render each word literally and adhere slavishly to the order of the words and sentences in the original, wil meet with much diffculty and the result will be doubtful and corrupt. This is not the right method. The translator should first try to grasp the meaning of the subject, and then state the theme with perfect clarity in the other language'. This, however, cannot be done without changing the order of words, putting many words for one word, and vice versa, so that the subject be perfectly intelligible in the language into which he translates. (Stitskin)

Maimonides thus says that a literal word for word translation is not a good one. However, the alternative has its drawbacks as well. If the translation is just the translator's paraphrase of the idea into the new language, the text loses a lot of its precision. This is an especially big concern when it comes to texts of Jewish law. Many times, arguments or rulings in Jewish law hinge on a super-close reading of the words and deriving insight from the precise words used, and even from the words not used. If the text you are using is not an exact rendering of the original text then all that intense analysis is essentially worthless because you are not analyzing the author's actual words.

As you can see, the perils of translating have been documented over the centuries. However, despite all the problems, the need for translations is very great as many people cannot read some important works in the original languages. Therefore many of the most important Jewish works have been translated into English (and other languages) in their entirety (e.g. the entire Talmud is available in English here) and on this site we endeavor to provide translations (or at least summaries) of Hebrew texts that we quote.

Even so, it is at times very difficult (speaking from experience – I have probably translated a good hundred Hebrew passages in answers that I've posted on this site) and sometimes almost impossible. For example, in this answer I cited a brief passage from a medieval biblical commentator. When I tried to translate it into English it just didn't work because half of the quote was a parenthetical statement that worked in Hebrew but would have been a disastrous sentence in English. The only way I could have done it would have been to rework the entire quote, and at that point I decided that that's not much better than just stating the point that I'm deriving from the quote (which is what I ended up doing).

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