The Tragedy of Translation

As we enter the month of Kislev, and the weather turns colder, we start thinking about Chanukah, menorahs, latkes and donuts.  Some of us, of the more nerdy variety, start to think of Philo Judeaus, the Septuagint, Alexandria and Greek tragedies.  One aspect of the Greek opposition to Torah was their objection to the idea that any one people could be “chosen” or have a Divine revelation.  Their campaign against Judaism and the Jews did not focus on physical extermination, but rather attempted to eradicate the Jews as a special people.

On the other hand, the Hellenists exhibited curiosity about Judaism and wanted to know what is said and what its philosophy was.  One example of this was the Emperor Ptolemy’s translation of the Torah into Greek.  The Talmud   relates that Ptolemy gathered 72 Sages, placed them in 72 separate cubicles and commanded them to translate the Five Books of Moses into Greek.  Miraculously they all translated the Torah in exactly the same way, and they all made 13 changes from a literal translation in order to prevent the Greeks from misinterpreting the Torah.  Although as a contemporary Rabbi commented, he could never understand why it was miraculous that they agreed – they were in separate cubicles, after all.  Had they been in the same room and agreed – that would have been a miracle.

Although this translation project would appear to be a positive event, perhaps as a step toward disseminating the ideas of monotheism and morality, the Jewish Sages looked upon it as a disaster.   The tragedy is that the Torah cannot ever be captured in translation.  No language can do justice to its depth, beauty, infinite layers and nuances other than Hebrew.  More importantly, the Greeks would now present the Torah, the essence of the bond between the Jews and G-d, as public property to be accessed by anyone.  They would argue that the Jewish people no longer had any claim to a “special relationship” with G-d, since anyone could take Judaism 101 at Athens University and know Torah just as well.  In truth, in order to properly understand Torah, one must have the Oral Tradition, which the Greeks did not.  The true covenant between G-d and the Jewish people was manifested in the intimate and personal relationship of the Oral tradition, even more than in the publicly available and accessible Written Torah. The Sages also compare the Torah in translation to a “lion in a cage.”  When you have seen lions in their native habitat, free to roam, hunt and live as they please – a lion in a cage is a sad, somewhat dull substitute for the original.  The same is true of the Torah in translation – it is a sad substitute for the original.

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