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The process of interpretation when translating

BS”D

Most people have read a translated text of some sort, whether it be a novel, official text, religious scriptures or something else. There’s nothing weird in that, it happens more often than we are aware of. But there’s another thing we might not be so aware of, or even if we are, we don’t offer it much thought. When reading a translated text, we read an interpretation of a text – that is, when we read a text, which is translated from one language to another, the chance that the translator had to interpret the original text is great. Sure, in some cases the two languages are so close, that a direct translation can be done, for example with Danish and Norwegian, but for the most the case is that the translation involves two languages which are not that similar.

In my situation, studying religious text, this is most certainly the case, having sometimes to deal with text which do not only belong to different families (all languages belong to certain families, where they share some similarities with the other members of the family, often making it possible to either understand parts of written text in between the languages, or at least find a larger number of words they share), but also belonging to different times. For example, when I read the Talmud, I deal with a language belonging to the Semitic family of languages, which also covers Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic and so on, while myself speaking a language belonging to the Germanic family. The way of expression is very different in some cases.

Therefore it isn’t weird that we need a portion of interpretation when translating from the one language to the other, at least if we wish for the translation to give sense. I would like to present you for an example on this, showing you how many different ways a somehow simple text can be translated. The text is the first verse in the Torah, talking about the beginning of creation. The Hebrew text goes like this:

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

Now, it would actually be pretty simple to translate this text, simply taking it word for word, ending with a result like this: “In beginning created God the heavens and the earth.” The only thing that would come out a little odd would be the lack of ‘the’ in the start of the sentence, between ‘in’ and ‘beginning.’ That is in the text, but implicit. But even in my attempt to make a very simple translation of a very simple text did I make an interpretation, namely of the word אֱלֹהִים, which I translated to ’God.’ The word ‘elohim’ (as it is written in English) is a plural form of the word ‘eloah,’ meaning god. That is, what I should have written, had I made the precise translation, would be “in beginning created gods the heaven and the earth.” So why didn’t I do that? Well, the answer lies in the word preceding the word for ‘gods,’ ‘bara.’ This word is a verb, meaning ‘to create,’ which is being expressed in 3rd person singular, not plural. Of course one could suggest that ‘beginning’ is the subject creating ‘gods,’ but not only would that not give any sense (beginning created gods), it would also be wrong, since Biblical Hebrew is a VSO-language, that is, the verb precedes the subject. To explain, in Biblical Hebrew you would say “eat I the food,” not “I eat the food,” as is the case in English. So from this alone, the fact that we are dealing with a verb being expressed in the singular, while the subject is being presented in the plural, can we see that an interpretation is needed for the translation.

Having said that I want to present you for four different translations of the word, being found in the most used Jewish English translations, namely those of JPS, Artscroll, Soncino, and Judaica Press:

JPS 1985/1999 Artscroll Soncino Judaica Press
When God began to create heaven and earth In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth

The most noteworthy differences is in the first part of the sentence (Bereshit bara Elohim), but we also see one example in differing interpretations in the second part, namely with heaven/s, having JPS and Soncino interpreting it in the singular, while Artscroll and Judaica Press interpret it in the plural. The reason for the two differences is found in the fact that heaven in Hebrew is a plural word (as is for example ‘money’ in English). The question is how we understand it when we read the word, as a ‘name’ or as something expressing plurality of existence (this is also the case with elohim, is it one of God’s Names, or is it an expression of plurality)? JPS and Soncino interpret it as the former, Artscroll and Judaica Press as the latter.

When we look at the first part we see a more interesting differing between the translations, having JPS state that “When God began to create,” while Artscroll and Judaica Press both talk about the beginning of God’s action, though differing on whether it is ‘creating’ or ‘creation’ we are talking about, while Soncino agrees with the two that we indeed find ourselves “in the beginning.”

It is not without significant importance to deal with this interpretation, since it is a crucial question of ‘when.’ When are we finding ourselves here? In the beginning of time or in the beginning of creation? As we see, JPS wants to tell us that we are at a moment of time, where God began to create (heaven and earth), which is reflected in Artscroll’s translation, expressing the same idea in a different way, attempting to be more true to the Hebrew text. Judaica Press tells us that we find ourselves “in the beginning of God’s creation,” which alone would give us a sense that where we are (in time) is actually after God indeed did create, while Soncino leaves us with the question of “in the beginning” of what, though this is seemingly the most true translation.

So why not just leave it at that? Why not translate it as it says? Well, because that isn’t what the text says. The problematic word is ‘reshit,’ relating to something coming before something else, or rather, the start of something, not just “in the beginning.” The problem here is that ‘reshit’ has to be connected, telling something about the thing it is connected to, which here would be the ‘created’ and the object of ‘created,’ that is, what the verse actually says is “first God created heaven and earth,” which leaves us with the question “and then what?” It doesn’t deal so much with the matter of time, as it does with the order of creation. The word ‘reshit’ is also used in understandings as ‘source,’ ‘first fruit,’ and ‘origin.’ This is indeed what Artscroll and Judaica Press attempt to reflect in their translations, while JPS tries to express a sentence which give most sense for Western (or English speaking) readers, while Soncino attempts to follow the most ‘correct’ translations.

So what am I trying to tell with all this? Well, first and foremost I’m trying to share some thoughts with you on a subject I find interesting. I have written a little about this in another post, but with a somewhat different approach. Second off, I think it is important to be aware of this fact, when reading translations, especially when reading religious texts, where translations can be of crucial importance for the believer and his/her understanding of what the text wants to say. For example, when I read the first verse here in the Torah, I don’t read a text that is interested with the question of time whatsoever, but rather a text which is very interested in the order of creation. But for the Western reader, the question of time – when we talk about creation – is crucial, which also is why the question often pops up in various polemics. Basically, how I understand the text is rather as ‘God created heaven and earth as the source [of what follows],” not as “in the beginning of everything God created heaven and earth.” That doesn’t mean that my reading is correct, or that I would express that interpretation in my translation, should I translate it, but I would still attempt to translate the text as close to the Hebrew text, while still expressing what I believe the Hebrew text wants to tell us. And that is what every translator does, and that is also what we – as readers of translated texts – need to be aware of, when we read translations. Especially if we take part in polemics, studies of religions, or other forms of dialogue or discussions, which involves the use of translations and doctrines being expressed and searched in them.


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