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Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

Surgeons don't rely on textbooks translated in China. The same principle applies to Torah.


We recently bought our kids a game of Battleship. Actually, we bought the game Sea Battle, one of those imitations churned out from the great factories of China, and sold in our local discount store for half the price of the original.

"Sea Battle," declared the box in bold letters, is a "Funny Two People Game." I must admit they were right about it being “funny,” at least as far as the English directions which included such gems as: "Players will dispose five pieces of warship on the fundus of the box according to their own plan, but don't link the warships in a beeline horizontally or vertically only, and don't dispose the warships out of the coordinates."

While I was busy looking up the word "fundus," my husband went on to read that, "If you hit your counterworker, you can keep on bidding." My boys would certainly have been delighted by the idea of giving a whack to the other player, but they fortunately did not understand a word we were reading.

I pictured some hapless technical writer sitting at his computer somewhere in the Far East, flipping through his English dictionary as he tried to come up with the most precise translation for the Chinese word for “opponent” (counterworker) or “the lower part of an organ” (fundus).

(Of course, things can swing the other way, too: “Long time no see” is a word-for-word translation of a Chinese expression that has become a mainstay of spoken English.)

Instructions for Living

Having lived in Israel now for nearly three years, my Hebrew has come a long way. I can read a newspaper article, converse with a cab driver, and speak with my clients at work, all in Hebrew. However, I know my limitations. As a speech therapist, I will treat articulation disorders, voice disorders, and oral-muscular disorders. But I will not treat language disorders. Not in Hebrew, not past the linguistic level of the average 5-year-old. My vocabulary and innate sense of grammatical structure is not precise enough.

If a certain level of fluency and expertise is required even to properly translate the directions to a children's game, how much more so is it necessary when translating a document of vital significance. Imagine if that Chinese writer had been given the assignment to translate a medical textbook that future doctors were to study from. The fundus of my stomach would suddenly not be so tickled.

Torah principles are applied to the ever-expanding world of technology, medicine and industry.

When God gave us the Torah 3,300 years ago, He was handing us the most important document in history. For every person, in every place, at every time, the Torah is the ultimate guidebook for living. God, in His infinite wisdom, determined that this manual should be given in shorthand – with the principles clearly stated, able to be applied to the ever-expanding world of technology, medicine and industry. God chose this method in order to keep the Torah alive, fresh and dynamic – not some staid encyclopedia gathering dust on a shelf.

So to mine all the treasures from the Torah, we need a translator, someone with special training

to know how to extract the numerous lessons that may be contained within a few terse words.

Who should be chosen for such a job? The "Sea Battle" translator? What about someone like myself, whose Hebrew is reasonably fluent? No, not good enough. Even a native Hebrew speaker? One might be capable of rendering a word-for-word English translation, but not the critical task of applying the principles behind the words – i.e. grasping the nuances of how to make it meaningful. Funny two people game, anyone?

Just as I would expect the translator of a medical textbook to be well-versed in the fine points of medicine, I would certainly not settle for anything less than the greatest expertise when it comes to the instructions for living. This expertise is acquired through a total immersion in Torah study until it becomes the very air one breathes, coupled with a total personal commitment to the traditions of our people, and the willingness to bear the burden of history on one’s shoulders. Maimonides explains that a Jewish Sage must possess seven qualities: wisdom, humility, fear of God, aversion to materialism, love of truth, pleasant personality, and an unimpeachable reputation.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was a great and humble man who lived in a small, nondescript apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. When Siamese twins were born in Philadelphia, the hospital's Chief of Surgery (who was Dr. C. Everett Koop, later to become Surgeon General of the United States) told the team of 20 medical professionals:

"The ethics and morals involved in this decision are too complex for me. I believe they are too complex for you as well. Therefore I referred it to an old rabbi on the Lower East Side of New York (Rabbi Feinstein). He is a great scholar, a saintly individual. He knows how to answer such questions. When he tells me, I too will know."

It is at the time of Shavuot, the anniversary of our receiving the Torah, that I most appreciate the transmitters of our tradition. After all, without them, where would we be?

No doubt scratching our heads, as we dispose of our warships on our fundi, still smarting from the hit of our bidding counterworkers.

May 15, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 13

(13) Ronni, June 14, 2010 8:56 PM

The "Bible"

Especially in the area of religion things are mistranslated all the time. Have some fun and speak to a "Black Hebrew" who just love quoting hebrew without the proper pronunciation or knowing what they are saying at all. They'll use this to twist the words of the Torah around and make up things to fit what they want to believe. I understand Christians do the same thing. It's very sad when someone who doesn't speak Hebrew uses a bogus translation to tell Jews what it says in the Tanach.

(12) Bob Hensler, May 21, 2010 1:09 PM

And the Rabbi said...

Good story, and a reminder of the responsibility of the translator. But two questions are raised... can we rely on an English version of Torah? And what did the Rabbi say to do?

(11) elise, May 21, 2010 12:44 AM

I wouls have loved to know the rest of the story with Rabbi Feinstein and the twins.

(10) Anonymous, May 18, 2010 5:28 PM

So, which translation(s)?

This piece gets someone who might be interested in Torah study only part of the way. The question it never answers is which translation(s) may be most helplful and which more misleading. Having less Hebrew than the writer, and as a participant in a multi-gender and -generational lay-led Torah study group at my shul, I have found no single answer. In fact I have found the opposite, that a variety of translations and commentaries -- after all, a translation is often as not part commentary in and of itself -- is the most effective study aid. On rare occasions and in some peculiar circumstances, even the third-generation translations (Hebrew-Greek, Greek-Latin, Latin-English) of the Christians' "Old Testament" can offer insight into our somewhat shared sacred texts. My own favorite is the Soncino Press edition by Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, first published in 1936, but I have also gleaned much from the Jewish Publication Society, Plaut (Reform), Eitz Chaim (Conservative), Artscroll and recently published "Torah: A Women's Commentary" (Reform) translations. Others in our study group favor Everett Fox or Robert Alter. As the bat kol pronounced, "Eilu v'eilu divrei elokim chayim."

(9) Beryl Tritel, May 17, 2010 1:44 PM

Excellent Article

I found the article to be well written and thought provoking. I like the way that she was able to take the simple message of the game and translate it into a meaningful message for us all. I would like to read more articles by this talented writer.

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