Dayenu – Let’s Stop Mistranslating Sacred Texts
I’ve purposely waited until the Haggadot have been put away for the year to comment on issues that emerged in the discussion of the highly touted New American Haggadah (NEH) produced for Pesach 5772 by the wunderkinder editor Jonathan Safran Foer and translator Nathan Englander.
I have seen NEH, which is not truly a new Haggadah, but a new presentation of the inherited liturgy; however, I haven’t actually studied it. The blogosphere analyses and dissections were enough to put me back on my soapbox about translation of classic texts.
Leaving aside some “notice me, notice me” eccentricities in Englander’s English renderings of the Hebrew – God of Us for Eloheinu rather than a simple Our God as the most prominent example – these subjects have been noted in the reviews:
- Hewing to traditional gender renderings – God as masculine, four sons rather than four children
- Interpretative translations rather than faithful translations, which I discussed earlier .
- Words not translated, only transliterated, like mitzvah and chametz, which I consider a cop-out.
The justification for transliterating rather than translating seems to be that chametz and mitzvah have no easy English equivalents, and are well enough known to seder attendees. Yes, some words have exact parallels from language to language, so a chien is neither more nor less than a dog, while mitzvah is not directly paralleled by commandment. But leaving mitzvah untranslated puts a stumbling block before the one who is blind to Jewish tradition, or even insensitive to Jewish languages. (Mitzvah in Yiddish is different from mitzvah in Hebrew – good deed rather than sacred obligation.)* My preference is to get as close an equivalent as is possible to what the word meant when it was written and clarify when necessary through such external aids as footnotes, glossaries, or commentaries.
The guide is the historic PaRDes approach to studying Jewish text — what’s the simple meaning, what did that signify in the context of its time, how has it been explained over the centuries, and what should it convey to us today. The translator can come as close as possible to the p’shat, the simple meaning, relying on the external aids to explain ambiguities and changes over time in the meaning, usage, and acceptability of words in the “new” language. I am horrified by the revisionism of texts like the despicable new editions of Huckleberry Finn which, in the interest of today’s political correctness, eschew the word “nigger.” Similarly, in the New JPS (1985) Torah translation, yad chazakah, accurately rendered in most Bibles as “a strong hand, becomes “a greater might,” a dishonest choice presumably made to avoid anthropomorphizing the Deity.**
Of course, the most frequent and obtrusive device to avoid anthropomorphizing is de-gendering, which can work adequately with nouns (ruler or sovereign rather than king), and not at all with pronouns, as discussed on this blog. Providing two versions of the same prayer addressing God in the reader’s choice of masculine or feminine, as in The Open Door, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell’s recent Haggadah for the CCAR, is a gimmicky and somewhat heavy-handed but honest way to remind all those at the seder table that both sexes are made b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. ***
But there is another way to deal with the complex issue of rendering God genderless in either of two languages which don’t readily permit it. Get over it! Dayenu. It has been sufficient. After a generation of sensitivity to (legitimate) feminist concerns, we have raised consciousness about the historic biases built into rabbinic practice – and in the Reform movement have striven pretty successfully to put them behind us and to live our egalitarianism. But we haven’t eradicated the language problem, or the psychological problem of how to envision God, and our efforts to do so just get in the way of the poetry of prayer. Torah tells us God’s appearance may not be known, Hebrew by its structure renders God in the masculine, **** and English only allows us make God genderless by disproportionately emphasizing the gender issue. Our theology of an unknowable God and our history of a male-centered tradition should be taught, not ignored. We can only understand where we are and where we are going if we know where we have been.
*This is different from transliterating in the interest of gender-sensitivity, as in Adonai, or Avinu Malkeinu to avoid Our Father Our King, or the unsatisfying Our Parent Our Sovereign. Read more about this in my previous blog post. Avinu Malkeinu is also less a stumbling block, because there’s less pressure to cater to a stranger at High Holy Day services e than at a seder.
**In the Haggadah, the strong hand is typically joined to an outstretched arm by “and.” I do like Englander’s putting the hand on the outstretched arm, joining them physically rather than conjunctionally.
*** A separate feminist issue is bringing in the women where they never were before. Adding the Matriarchs and Miriam into the liturgy may disturb the flow of the music, but doesn’t distort the spirit of the prayer, it only obscures the historicity of women’s presence in the Rabbis’ consciousness. Deciding when to translate b’nai Yisrael as children rather than as sons of Israel actually leads to useful distinctions.
****The exception is when on opts for an alternate name, like Shechinah, not found in the Bible (nor am I aware of it in the conventional liturgy).