The Literal or Figurative Translation of Torah


Photo Credit: Duncan Hull, Flickr

By Yonatan Gordon

This is a quick post born out of a question posed to me today. For the context of this question (and this answer) please read the previous two articles about marketing Torah: When Torah Goes Viral and Keeping Haredim Excited About Torah.

The question was about translating Torah. How should one translate Torah?

First to clarify. We are not speaking about the words of the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets or Writings, because there are many more factor at play (e.g., whether to include the words of the commentator Rashi into the translation itself, etc…).

Instead we are speaking primarily speaking about the translation of writings based on the Oral Tradition. Either the revealed, legal dimension of the Torah included in the Mishnah, Talmud, and legal works thereafter, or the inner dimension of the Torah, first taught in Kabbalah then later Chassidut. Important to note is that the approach we are now presenting in brief holds true whether we are translating within the same language or to another language. What is important  to keep in mind is the conceptual difference in approach.

For instance, even when a workbook for students remains in the original Hebrew, according to what was said in keeping haredim excited, an emphasis should be placed on incorporating hiddurim (lit. beautifications),  the inner soul of the Torah into the text.

When translating to a more modern audience, however, the focus should be on explaining the unifications between Torah and science (as explained in the viral Torah article). When “translating” Torah to be exciting and relevant to a modern audience, the first challenge is to explain its relevance.

There is an important distinction between translating the revealed dimension of the Torah (i.e., Talmud and Jewish law) and the inner dimension (Kabbalah and Chassidut). Both require precision, but Chassidut was meant to be adapted; to be thirstilly drank in by its readers and applied to the life of each Chassid according to their capabilities and soul root.

For this reason it is questionable whether a literal translation is the correct approach when translating Chassidut. Even if the intent is to translate a specific text, Chassidut itself expects that these teachings should affect the heart and enter the phyche. When carried out in a heartfelt and true manner, then this translation that may otherwise be called an adaptation, deserves to rightfully bear the title of a translation.

But the law is the law. When translating the law, the focus should be on setting one’s personal sentiments aside in order to convey the rulings with clarity.

For instance, the Lubavitcher Rebbe went to great length to explain when Maimonides included a personal prayer in his Code of Jewish Law. Since this was not a prayer book, the legal aspect of the inclusion of these prayers needed to be explained.

The thing to keep in mind is the audience. Again when marketing to haredim, the focus is on the hiddurim and how this new publication is further beautifying the pure and holy study of Torah and practice of mitzvot. But when “translating” Torah for a modern audience, the challenge is to explain the Torah according to the language of the times. For instance, we learn about the concept of drawing down (hamshachah) Godliness from higher to lower worlds. But if we want to speak in more accesible terms, instead of  “drawing down” we can use the word “download.”

Happy to answer questions as much was presented here, but in very concise language.


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