Shavuot, translation and my religious life

Last night (this morning?) I stayed up until dawn, studying Torah with an amazing group of people from three different synagogues and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. We talked about Sinai and Derrida and the significance of the threshing floor in the Book of Ruth, about reason and revelation and Dutch Jewry in the 17th century. And we talked, of course, about translation.

I often wonder about how my religious life affects my ideas about translation, and vice versa. I am a Jew who can barely read Hebrew, and so my religious life, like that of many of my ancestors, depends on translation. I think the idea of translating religious texts makes some people uneasy – after all, how can we understand all the nuances of a word in a language that isn’t our own? If we pray in a foreign tongue, might we accidentally pray something we don’t believe? Are we betraying the text if we translate it in a way that has never been done before?

I tend to see the use of translation as a strength, rather than a weakness, of my own particular flavour of religion. After all, religions evolve. It’s what they do. A story that means one thing in one era comes to mean a different thing entirely, as the needs of society change. For example, I keep kosher because it makes me think about my food and where it comes from; it makes the act of eating holy and connects me to my religious traditions every time I buy groceries. Buying locally and seasonally, trying to live on this planet in a sustainable way, are all part of my kashrut. Doubtless the first Jews to keep kosher did not do it for these reasons. I don’t know why they did it – perhaps it was to distinguish themselves from the tribes around them, or because shellfish kept in the desert with no possibilities for refrigeration are unlikely to be safe to eat, or because their leaders told them it was God’s will and they believed. I don’t think it matters, really, as long as we can still find meaning in the practice several thousand years later.

It’s the same with translation. I enjoyed reading this article about Russian-to-English translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, entitled ‘Done with Tolstoy’, and in particular this quotation from Larissa regarding the idea of a definitive translation:

“Some translations live for a very long time—but that does not mean that there should not be new translations. In fact, if there are no new translations, that means something’s wrong. The work is dead.”

We used to translate the Tetragrammaton as ‘the LORD’, but now my movement translates it as ‘the Eternal’ – calling to mind God not only as Adonai, but also as Shekhinah. We used to translate avoteinu as ‘our forefathers’, but now we translate it as ‘our ancestors’, encompassing the other half of humanity in our English words without making any changes to the Hebrew. These translations are relatively new, but they are not wrong – they merely focus on different aspects of the original. It makes me more aware of the way that every word in every language shimmers at the centre of a cluster of possible translations.

I don’t know, maybe some people would see it as a betrayal, or at least a distortion, that I recite blessings in Hebrew and ignore the fact that all the grammatical endings for God are masculine – because I can do that, because I don’t speak Hebrew and my languages are able to express genderlessness in a way that Hebrew can’t. Maybe if I feel that far removed from what the Hebrew ‘really says’ I should just go away and start my own religion, based on environmentalism and gender equality and all those modern notions I hold so dear. But I figure, Jews have been talking about Judaism for millennia now. We have books and books full of learned people’s arguments about how to be good, how to be holy, what it was God ‘actually meant’ by certain passages, certain commandments. If we can interpret every story, every Biblical figure, in multiple different ways, why not every word as well? The things we think are important when we read Torah might not be the same things Rashi thought were important, but he is dead now, and we are alive and Torah is alive. It survives and thrives because it has different meanings for different people, because there is no definitive translation, because we can never be ‘done with Torah’.

My God speaks in translation, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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One Response to Shavuot, translation and my religious life

  1. Pingback: Introduction: Part 4: Grammar | Taryag Mitzvot

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