Monday, April 03, 2006

Translator-traitorisms: the Holy Ghost

There's an Italian expression, traduttore, traditore, or translator, traitor. The delicious thing about this proverb is that when rendered in another language, such as English, the very point is illustrated! It is true that in English these two Italian words begin with the tr sound. But there is no mistaking that the pun the expression makes use of through soundalike words is lost. Translator, traitor just doesn't capture the crispiness of traduttore, traditore.

But I digress.

I came across a particularly egregious translator-traitor error as follows. In 1867 C. D. Ginsburg
published an important English language book on the masorah מסורת, which contained Hebrew versions with English translation and notes on יעקב בן חיים ן' אדוניהו's introduction to the original Bomberg edition of the מקראות גדולות, "Jacob Ben Chajim Ibn Adonijah's Introduction To the Rabbinic Bible" and the same for the important masoretic work מסורת המסורת of ר' אליהו הבחור, "The Massoreth Ha-Massoreth of Elias Levita", (reprinted w. intro. by Norman H. Snaith by Ktav in 1968).

In the Introduction to the Rabbinic Bible section the following can be found, in a piece discussing keri u-ketiv, קרי וכתיב:
ולכן הוצרך לפרש אמתת המלה ההיא כפי הספור, והוא ענין הקרי אשר שם מבחוץ, כי ירא הסופר הקדוש לשלוח ידו בדברי המדברים ברוח הקדש וכתיבתם
Ezra had therefore to explain such words in harmony with their connection, and this is the origin of the Keri which is found in the margin, as this holy Scribe feared to touch the words which were spoken or written by the Holy Ghost. (emphasis mine)
We shouldn't let the word "ghost" throw us off. Ginsburg was rendering this Christian concept into the terminology of 19th century British English. But it is hardly a better translation if he had written "spirit" instead. Immediately it should be obvious that יעקב בן חיים ן' אדוניהו did not have in mind the Holy Ghost when he wrote those words (yes, he did later convert to Christianity). In addition, there was no cause to capitalize those words, because whatever the Jewish concept of רוח הקדש is, it isn't a proper noun.

The worst mistake a translator can make is to insert him or herself into a text, as Ginsburg did here.

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