A Culture Loses Its Flavor
By HILLEL HALKIN
Hebrew-English translation—a field in which I got my start
45 years ago with a stiff and unpaid rendition of a worthless and never
published story by a down-and-out alcoholic Israeli author in New York—is
booming. Numerous English volumes of Hebrew novels, books of poetry, and
historical and political works are published every year. Contemporary Israeli
authors like Yehuda Amichai, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman are now
known to American Jews almost as well as their own native writers.
And this is without mentioning Jewish religious texts, where developments have
been even more impressive. The last years have seen the appearance in English
of two complete new Jewish Bible translations; two more Jewish translations of
the Pentateuch; 34 volumes of the still unfinished ArtsScroll Mishna; 27
volumes of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah; the first volumes of Daniel Matt’s
projected 12-volume Zohar; the first 22 volumes of the Steinsaltz Talmud; and
the recent completion of the 72-volume Schottenstein Talmud. (Both the Zohar
and the Talmud, of course, are written in a mixture of Hebrew and its sister
language Aramaic.) Moreover, that’s just a partial list. Many other Jewish
philosophical, liturgical, halakhic, and homiletic texts can be added to it.
It’s getting to the point that one soon won’t have to know Hebrew at all to
consider oneself Jewishly literate—and this is precisely the problem. Of
course, every positive phenomenon has its down side. But the down side of the
boom in Hebrew-English translation has been steep indeed. It has involved
accepting, and in a sense even legitimizing, the disappearance of Hebrew as the
international language of the Jews.
It’s true that most Jews in most times and places in the past could not read
(much less write) Hebrew freely, although large numbers who couldn’t still
could cope with certain sacred texts. Yet until modern times, a fluency in
Hebrew was considered a sign of being an educated Jew. Any such Jew from one
part of the world could communicate in Hebrew with any such Jew from another
part of the world. Books written in languages that other Jews didn’t know, like
the Arabic of Maimonides’ Guide To The Perplexed or
Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari, were translated into Hebrew. As late as the last decade of the 19th
century, when the Russian Jewish intellectual Ahad Ha’am founded his
international Jewish review Ha-Shiloah in
Berlin, Hebrew seemed the obvious language for it.
Today the international language of the Jewish people has become English.
Jewish intellectuals from different countries converse in it; Jewish leaders
exchange views in it; when there is a scholarly conference in Jerusalem on S.Y.
Agnon, Hebrew literature’s sole Nobel Prize winner, it is held—I should know
because I participated in it—in English, too. Knowing Hebrew is no longer the
sign of the educated Jew. Indeed, far less American Jews can now read and speak
Hebrew than can Palestinian Arabs!
We Hebrew-English translators are not to blame for this; it is, rather, due to
the lack of Hebrew education in America. Of course, if we weren’t working so
hard to make Hebrew works available in English, perhaps more American Jews
would have to learn Hebrew. Yet why should hundreds of thousands of Americans
Jews have to learn Hebrew, you might ask, when a hundred Hebrew-English
translators can save them the trouble? Let’s be efficient!
The answer is obvious. It is not only poetry, as Robert Frost once put it, that
gets lost in translation; it is the innermost pith of all language, the
intimate feel and touch and interrelatedness of words that are never the same
when translated. A page of the Mishna or Talmud in English may be a useful aid
to studying the same page in the original, but it doesn’t begin to have the
original’s flavor. A Jewish culture in translation is a culture that has lost
its flavor. It may be better than nothing—any competent translation is—but
better-than-nothing is less than a people with a 3,000-year-old tradition in
its own language deserves.
No, it’s not the fault of translators that business is good. We just shouldn’t
feel so good about it.
This essay is
reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility April