What Do Jewish Texts Tell Us About Translation?
Translations are an integral part of our collection. Learners come to Sefaria every day to read texts in languages they understand, to compare interpretations, to teach, and more.
However, translation isn't just a modern phenomenon. Jewish texts indicate that translation has been going on for millennia.
And for as long as Jews have translated their texts, they have also discussed if, when, and how to do so.
So, let's take a look at what some of the core texts of the Jewish canon can tell us about this ongoing conversation.

Translation as Ancient Practice

Early rabbinic writings include numerous references to the preparation and use of translations. This shows us that textual translation has a long history in Jewish life, even as it has been a topic of some debate.
For example, Megillah 3a in the Babylonian Talmud (compiled between 450 and 550 CE) recounts the origins of Targum Onkelos, an Aramaic Torah translation that has been regarded as an authoritative text up until the present-day. In talmudic times, public Torah readings included verbal translations into Aramaic, a practice that has continued in Yemenite Jewish communities.

Why Translate?

(ח) וַֽיִּקְרְא֥וּ בַסֵּ֛פֶר בְּתוֹרַ֥ת הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מְפֹרָ֑שׁ וְשׂ֣וֹם שֶׂ֔כֶל וַיָּבִ֖ינוּ בַּמִּקְרָֽא׃ {פ}
(8) They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading.
Jewish textual translation has been practiced (and debated) for so long because it serves an essential purpose: enabling deeper understanding of our stories and teachings.
Mishnah Sotah, one of the foundational pieces of rabbinic literature, includes a midrash (narrative commentary) about the biblical directive for the laws of the Torah to be “clearly elucidated” (Deuteronomy 27:8). In order for the laws to be clear, the Mishnah says that they were written in 70 languages.

Translation as Meaning-Making

The goal of translation is to convey the same idea in a different language. But in order to do so, one must interpret the meaning of the original. According to the Jastrow dictionary, the word תַּרְגֵּם is simultaneously used in the Talmud to mean "interpret," "translate," and "explain."
This raises the question of what makes for an accurate translation: being as literal as possible or focusing on intent? Are these necessarily the same thing? Tractate Megillah tells a story of 72 Jewish sages who translated the Torah into Greek. As part of this process, they introduced slight changes to the text in order to clarify for readers what they understood to be the correct meaning of the original Hebrew.

Differentiating Translation & Original

As common and important as translation has been in Jewish history, we can also find examples of wariness around the potential misrepresentation or misunderstanding that can occur through translation. The Talmud goes into detail about when a text must be written or recited in its original language and when it can be presented in another language. These kinds of conversations among the rabbis suggest that while translations are valuable for deepening our understanding, there are also unique purposes to text in its original form.
So what does this all mean for us in the present-day? Check out these behind-the-scenes insights from modern translators of Jewish texts.
Stay Connected: Newsletter | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter