Translation as Theology

The German-Jewish cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, concluded his (infamously difficult) essay, “The Task of the Translator,” with the following line:

The interlinear version of the Scriptures is the prototype or ideal of all translation.

Whatever else Benjamin meant by this, he was at least proposing that it would best, when reading any translation - and especially the translation of sacred writings - to have the original there alongside it.

I agree with him on that. And so, with that image in mind, as I worked on the translation of Avot d’Rabbi Natan for Sefaria I was always conscious of two things: 1.) that the one-day reader of this translation would indeed have immediate access to the original, and 2.) that this original was a text that carried a sacred status.

These unique conditions, I felt, implicated me in twofold responsibility: I had to translate the actual words accurately enough so that the reader who could look back at and understand the original would be able to recognize the relationship between the two texts; but I also had to render the theology behind the words faithfully enough that the reader who would not understand the original would nevertheless be well-directed toward the religious concepts that the words implied. This latter duty required me, in the course of my work as a translator, to also play the part of a theologian.

Every translator, I presume, attempts some act of balancing between Accuracy and Readability, and I was no exception. Any given word or phrase in the text might stop me for an hour as I struggled to find an equivalent that was both true to the original and would also flow well in a modern English sentence. I remember, for example, sifting through various dictionaries and commentaries to see how they had treated the word ‘אימום,' imum, (AdRN 19:4) - and considering possibilities such as ‘dressmaker’s model’ or ‘dummy’ - before landing on: ‘mannequin,’ a word I liked better and felt would be more familiar to the modern reader. These were fun and interesting challenges, and I enjoyed the work of problem-solving.

But it was the explicitly religious terminology - the words that were freighted with theological meaning - that gave me the greatest pause, and forced me to think more deeply, not only about semantics, but about beliefs - my own and those of my Sages. I also presume that these cases are far more interesting for the non-translator to hear about. So I would like, in this introduction to the translation, to share a few examples of the sorts of words and phrases that prompted religious as well as linguistic speculation, and the sorts of decisions I made.

1. תפילין - “tefillin [prayer-boxes]”

Here is the strange example of a Hebrew word whose standard English translation is even less familiar than the original. I have always marveled at the very existence of the word, ‘phylacteries,’ which derives from the Greek for ‘amulet.’ What a strange thing, to have come up with a distinct, separate word in English for this Jewish ritual object. I remember once, being at the airport and having a TSA agent ask me what “these” (my tefillin) were, and replying, “Um, these are my... phylacteries,” only to have her give me a blank stare, and to realize that I would have communicated just as much by telling her, “these are my tefillin.” In fact, giving the Hebrew would have probably been clearer communication, for at least then it would not have sounded like an English word one might be expected to know.

If this is true for the TSA agent, then all the more so for the average reader of Jewish texts in English, who is more likely to have heard the word ‘tefillin’ in some Jewish context, and have some visual association with it, than the word ‘phylacteries,’ which I have never once heard Jews use amongst themselves.

Still, ‘tefillin’ is by no means an especially familiar word, and one surely must come up with some translation for it. So what are they? Well, tefillin (pl.) consist of parchment inscribed with particular Biblical passages, that are inserted into small black boxes which are then threaded through on one side with leather straps so they can be worn against the arm and upon the head, usually during the morning prayers.

But that is a description, not a translation. So the clearest way I could think to express that in a word or short phrase was, ‘prayer-boxes,’ which at least sounds like something they might be called. But then, that doesn’t make much sense on its own, either. So finally, I decided to keep the transliteration of the Hebrew word, italicized, and put ‘prayer-boxes’ in brackets afterwards, in the first appearance - and then to use them both, interchangeably, depending on what better fit the context.

This is only the most extreme example of a problem I encountered quite often: what does one do when a Hebrew word enjoys much more common usage than its English counterpart? Another example of this phenomenon is the word ‘Shabbat.’ Now, ‘Sabbath’ is no ‘phylacteries.’ English speakers know what a Sabbath is. And yet, the word ‘Sabbath’ has a somewhat archaic quality; it is rarely used in either Jewish or non-Jewish contexts. Meanwhile, ‘Shabbat’ is a common enough Jewish word that even those with some proximity to a Jewish community may have heard it or seen it written. And again, all the more so would someone who had spent time in a Jewish setting be familiar with the word, ‘Shabbat.’ So, I concluded, the time has come, in the world of English translations of Jewish texts, to simply leave the word, ‘Shabbat,’ untranslated.

A different, but related, problem arises with names. How does one translate רבי יהודה? Is it ‘Rabbi Yehudah,’ or ‘Rabbi Judah’? And how does one translate משה? Is it ‘Moshe,’ or ‘Moses’? It made sense to me to split the difference, and to transliterate the names of all the rabbis, but use the standard English versions for all Biblical figures. Here again, my primary consideration was frequency of usage. English speakers are quite familiar with the anglicized versions of most Biblical names: Abraham, Rebecca, David, etc. - and so I went with those as well. But the same readers usually would not have the same familiarity with anglicized rabbinic names: ‘Rabbi Ishmael,’ ‘Rabbi Nathan,’ and (the surprisingly Spanish-sounding) ‘Rabbi Jose.’ No point in using those stiffer and less familiar versions when I could just call the rabbis by their actual names. So I chose to spell them out as they sound in the Hebrew (Yishmael, Natan, Yossi). Interestingly, this split meant that the Biblical person, tribe, or Kingdom was ‘Judah,’ while the Rabbi - to return to my first example - was ‘Yehudah.’

2. מלאכי השרת - “The angels who serve God”

This phrase is most often translated as, ‘ministering angels’ - as in, the angels who minister to, or serve, God. Because this is a standard and common reference to a particular class of divine beings, the temptation is to give them a formal-sounding name, like a kind of official title. The problem is, ‘minister’ is just not a verb we use very often, so it sounds a bit archaic as a gerund adjective. It is still common to use the word as a noun, however - as in, ‘The Minister of Defense.’ This gives the phrase ‘ministering angels’ a kind of bureaucratic feeling that I think is not intended by the original phrase. These are, quite simply, the angels that are there to serve God, and though they sometimes have opinions of their own, service is their primary objective. So I went with “the angels who serve God.” Given the alternative, this was not a difficult choice, though I will admit it starts to sound a bit clunky with repeated use in the same passage.

I include this example to make the point that sometimes an updated translation is warranted, for the sake of good theology, even when no perfect replacement can be found.

3. הקדוש ברוך הוא - “The Holy Blessed One”

I certainly did not come up with this phrasing, but I would like to explain why I chose it over the more common, and perhaps more literally accurate, “The Holy One, Blessed Be He.” The primary answer is quite simple: I found it preferable not to gender God. This is not simply an ideological or political preference (though I admit it is surely those as well); it is, first and foremost, a theological one.

While, in ancient Hebrew literature, we do most often use the male pronoun for God, I believe this is largely the product of Hebrew grammar which, in addition to having masculine and feminine nouns, also defaults to the male pronoun when there is either a mix of genders (as in, ‘they,’ when made up of males and females) or no gender at all (as in, ‘it,’ when not referring to a particular noun, such as, “it is true that…”). So we could either see the common practice of male-gendering God as simply the recognition of ‘God’ as a masculine noun, or a default to the male in the absence of gender. It is usually technically the former, since God is, after all, a character (and therefore a noun) in Hebrew literature Who nearly always takes male singular verb forms.

However - and this is the critical point - I do not believe that any serious Jewish theologian ever literally considered God to be a male, in the way that a human man is a male. Indeed, I do not think the Hebrew Bible itself, though it sometimes employs phrases like God is “a Man of War,” ever considered God to be an actual male, in the sense of having a sexuality, a sex organ, or a gender identity. Frankly, the very idea rings in the Jewish theological ear as a heresy. It is true that both Biblical and Rabbinic literature sometimes use the male language associated with the God to draw out the possibility of an intimate male-female relationship between God and the people of Israel - most classically in the Book of Hosea - but this is about as obvious an example of metaphorical language as these literatures could provide; God is no more an actual man in this dynamic than are the whole people of Israel an actual woman. (It is also true that the Kabbalists played a lot with the male imagery of God, but this was most often in service of their cosmological mission to unite the masculine and feminine aspects of God, and of existence itself. In this supreme unification, then, God becomes wholly and truly manifested precisely in the process of losing separate, gendered identities.)

I am not suggesting that the use of male language to describe God is entirely arbitrary. Surely it is not mere happenstance that Hebrew defaults to male, rather than female, pronouns. I am simply making the case that our strong associations of maleness with God are formed primarily as a consequence of language, and not of Jewish theology.

The natural impact, however, of constantly using this male language to describe God, is that the God of Jewish tradition comes to be thought of as not just male, but a male. This widespread, though sometimes unconscious, perception is a terrible affront to both women - who are indicated to be less like God than men - and to God - Who becomes limited by this human category in a way that seems patently absurd. As a translator, I would add that the problem is much worse in English, where the effect is glaring, than in the original Hebrew, where at least readers are used to nouns carrying gender and pronouns defaulting to the male.

Therefore, I believe it is the spiritual responsibility of the translator of these sacred texts, where possible, to neutralize the gender of God. In the case of the ‘The Holy Blessed One,’ the solution is rather elegant, I think. Not only does it appear non-gendered, it also reads more smoothly than, ‘The Holy One, Blessed Be He,’ with its awkward comma. And again, in the original Hebrew, the הוא (He) does not stick out in the same way and seem to shout, “God is a He!” the way it sounds in the English. So I was very pleased to have this option.

Having said all that, I will now pivot and admit that it did not always seem possible to avoid gendering God, and in many cases felt I had no alternative. Indeed, I did so in the most obvious way, which is to stick with the male pronoun when God was, in fact, referred to only by a pronoun. I tried at first to always substitute ‘God’ and even ‘Godself,’ but eventually found that the sentences would start sounding tangled and difficult to read. As committed as I am to all I have said above on this topic, a translator also has a responsibility to make the text eminently readable. So, while I was always conscious of the sacrifice, I felt that sometimes theology had to bow to the proper flow of the language. Other translators may make a different calculus, or find other solutions, but this is the balance I landed on, with the humbling recognition that sometimes good translation and good theology are simply in tension with one another.

4. ה׳ - The Eternal

Here we arrive at the most difficult word to translate of all. In fact, almost by definition, it is impossible to translate, because it is God’s name, the particular name by which God is known to the people of Israel, and anything but The Name itself is not true to the intimacy implied by that disclosure. Add to that dilemma the Jewish tradition that the actual name was so sacred that it was only fully pronounced once a year, in the Holy of Holies, by the High Priest, and that the rest of the people, even in their prayers, substitute the word Adonai - meaning, “My Master.” Then add to that difficulty the practice of not even saying Adonai outside of a sacred context like prayer, and saying instead, Hashem - meaning just, “The Name.”

So what is to be done? It feels antithetical to Jewish sensibilities to attempt to transliterate the name, as a critical scholar (or a satirist) might. There are those who transliterate just the consonant letters of the name, in all-caps, as follows: YHVH - and thereby render it unpronounceable in English (which is, perhaps they figure, just as well) but visually similar to the original Tetragrammaton (the four-letter name which, mind you, is not even fully printed in the original Avot d’Rabbi Natan). But that has always looked strange to me in English, as if God’s name was literally unpronounceable, and instead to be merely scanned by the eyes as if it were some kind of secret code, like a wink to those in the know. Whatever other theological function that serves, it is not a translation.

Then there are the options of either directly using or building off of one of the classic substitutions. So I might have used: ‘Hashem.’ But that felt both a bit too colloquial, and also too particular to a certain cultural subset of the Jewish community that uses the term frequently. I suppose I could have used the English, ‘The Name,’ but that just sounds weird (“The Name spoke to Moses…”), and is, again, really not a translation at all.

Then there is: ‘Adonai.’ This full pronunciation is very rarely used outside of prayers, blessings, and public Torah readings, so it feels to me a bit too sacred for the purpose of perusing a rabbinic text. However, it is the tradition of pronouncing God’s name as Adonai - again, literally, “My Master” - that gives us the most common translation of the name, the one we have inherited from the King James Bible: ‘Lord.’ So this would have been the easiest and most obvious choice.

But I have never liked using the word ‘Lord’ - at least not for translation purposes (it’s great in a gospel song). First of all, it feels rather antiquated - very King James, indeed. But more than that, it strongly and specifically emphasizes the authoritarian nature of our God - God the Master, the Ruler, the Lord of all things. Now, I have no problem referring to God as a ‘Master;’ God is surely the greatest “authority figure” there is. But I do think it is a mistake - in both translation and Jewish theology - to continuously evoke this authoritarian quality as if it were God’s primary characteristic. For this is not the actual meaning of our primary name for God.

The four-letter Tetragrammaton forms a visual hybrid of the past, present, and future tenses of the verb, ‘to be’ - (היה, הוה, יהיה). So God is the One who was, is, and will be. Whether or not that was the original source of this name, it certainly carries this association for the reader of ancient Hebrew literature. It is also clear that the Torah intends to play on the theme of ‘Being’ embedded in God’s name - as we see in Exodus 3:14, when Moses asks what name he should give to the Children of Israel and is told, “Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh (I Will Be What I Will Be.) That is what you should say to the Children of Israel: Ehiyeh (I Will Be) sent me to you.” Then, in the very next verse, God adds the Tetragrammaton (“The Name”), and says that this was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In other words, the God that was back then, and is here now, is the same God that “Will Be.”

This name of God, then, is not one that is meant to express God’s authority, but God’s eternality - God’s persistence throughout time (or, as the medieval rabbis put it, “above” or “beyond” time.) The appropriate translation, I therefore felt, would be one that expressed this particular quality - something like: ‘The Eternal.’

However, I also believe that a translator ought to hesitate before introducing an entirely new translation for a word as central to a text (and a tradition) as this name of God is to any work of classical Jewish literature. The translation of the word, like the name itself, ought to feel somewhat well-established as a sacred term, in order to be able to convey both the familiarity and the gravitas which the primary name of God is meant to carry. The word, ‘Lord,’ for all its limitations, has certainly achieved that status. Would ‘The Eternal,’ I worried, sound too unusual, too newfangled, too much like an imposition of modern sensibilities on an ancient text?

So I went looking and asking around, to see how, ‘The Eternal,’ sounded to my peers and colleagues, and to see if there was any precedent for translating the name of God this way. To my great satisfaction, I found that indeed there was. In fact, it turns out that this is the standard translation of the word into French. Where English translations of the Hebrew Bible use, ‘Lord,’ parallel translations in French use, ‘l'Éternel.’ What a relief! The word I had come to on my own in English already had a long history of usage for this purpose in its French cognate. That history seemed more than sufficient to firmly establish this term in a tradition of usage in translations of sacred texts - so I went with it.

Choosing a name for God is a weighty task, indeed - for translator and theologian alike.

I hope these examples illustrate well both the challenges that accompany any translation, and the particular theological challenges that arise in the project of translating a sacred text. The solutions I came up with are inevitably imperfect, as every translation is, inherently, an imperfect rendering of the original. It is both a joy to be able to provide access to these texts which carry such deep meaning for me and for my people, and a pain to know that I will never be able to provide complete access to the beauty and the power of the original. I take some comfort in the realization that, after all, words themselves are limited in their ability to provide access to that realm of Higher Truth to which these sacred texts aspire, but can ultimately only allude.