Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Guidelines for an Orthodox Jewish Torah translation

The Italian proverb (and English cliche) goes "Traduttore, traditore," "Translator, traitor." And yet translation is vital else important works be closed to many. It is in this spirit that the many, traitorous translations of the Torah have taken place. In my opinion every one I have read, without exception, is lacking in different ways. No, I cannot do better, but I can offer some preliminary guidelines for an English translation of the Torah from an Orthodox perspective:
  1. Rigorously follow Masoretic conventions. Divide the text according to pesuchot and stumot divisions. Entirely ignore standard chapter divisions. Rigorously use the te'amim (trope) for parsing sentences.
  2. Transliterate Hebrew names and places. Forget about Moses, forget about Jacob. Every person's name should be transliterated into English characters (always using a consistent transliteration scheme). Every first instance can be asterisked: Moshe* (*Moses)
  3. No King James-isms. There is nothing wrong with striking passages which the King James committee translated well into English. But from the point of view of an Orthodox Jewish Torah translation, it is far better to think outside the box rather than employing recognizable terms from existing translations simply because its easy to just crib them. In other words, Cain (or, I should say, Qayin) does not rhetorically ask God if he is his "brother's keeper."
  4. No politics. There have been numerous instances of one or another work getting "in trouble" by critics who want the work to have done what it didn't. In the 1920s, a grandson of R. Samson Rafael Hirsch caused a stir with a literal translation of Shir Ha-shirim. Translators must resist the temptation to look over their shoulder, to render diplomatic or self-conscious translations. The only criteria must be emet, as best as possible, and there ought to be a willingness to let chips fall where they may (although deliberately seeking controversy is similarly to be avoided for the same reason).
  5. Be consistent. If the translation is going to be a Torah she-be'al peh translation, fine. Let it be so. Let it translate Gen. 21:21, Yishmael's wives as Fatima and Aisah (as Targum Y. does)--or let it not. The key is consistency, rather than slipshod cherry-picking through gemaras and midrashim and meforshim without rhyme or reason.
I've got a few more, but I can't find my notes. More will be added later (on critical scholarship, rabbinic guidance etc).

Feel free to rip mine apart and add your own.

Partly relevant link.

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