The New Machzor: Faithful Translations



By Leon Morris

Some Rabbinic texts suggest that the first translation of the Torah into Greek received a kind of divine imprimatur by the Holy One himself (or, herself). Seventy translators each produced an identical translation, a miraculous feat! In contrast, other Rabbinic sources explicitly assert that the day the Torah was translated into Greek was as disastrous to the Jewish people as the sin of the golden calf. So, for the past 2,500 years, translation has been fraught with danger and also with very strong reactions. And so, too for our machzor.

The fresh, poetic translations found within the new Machzor are perhaps the very first thing that pilot congregations have noticed. The philosophy that our primary translators, Rabbis Shelly and Janet Marder, have embraced is to achieve a faithful translation that is the equivalent to the original Hebrew, but not identical to it. Shelly writes in the introduction to the pilot for Rosh HaShanah morning: “We want to replicate the beauty, the poetry, and the richness of imagery and metaphor that the Hebrew prayer presents. That is all but impossible if one translates word for word or phrase for phrase; to replicate beauty, poetry, and richness we must translate ‘idea for idea’ and ‘feeling for feeling.’”

Our own discussions about translation find some surprising parallels within the Catholic Church.  The English-speaking Catholic Church recently introduced a new missal for the Mass. It chose English words that reflected a more “accurate” translation of the Latin. But such a philosophy of translation ran counter to the wishes of many laypeople and clergy.  You can read more about this here.

In the pilot machzor, Shelly writes, “We strive here for English renderings that are as pleasing to heart, mind, soul, and ear as the original prayers are in Hebrew.”

Here are 3 renderings of the prayer, Hayom Harat Olam compiled by Shelly.  Though they differ from one another, the translations below are considered by their authors to be faithful renderings of those Hebrew prayers.

Gates of Repentance (1978, Reform)

This is the day of the world’s birth. This day all creatures stand before You, whether
as children or as slaves. As we are Your children, show us a parent’s compassion; as
we are slaves, we look to You for mercy: shed the light of Your judgment upon us, O
awesome and holy God.

Mahzor Lev Shalem (2010, Conservative)

Today the world stands as at birth. Today all creation is called to judgment, whether
as Your children or as Your servants. If as Your children, be compassionate with
us as a parent is compassionate with children. If as Your servants, we look to You
expectantly, waiting for You to be gracious to us, and as day emerges from night
bring forth a favorable judgment on our behalf, awe-inspiring and Holy One.

Our forthcoming Reform machzor (a work in progress)

This day, the world is born anew, and all creation awaits Your judgment.
We are Your daughters; we are Your sons —
So love and remember us in the way of mothers and fathers.
We are Yours in service —
so let there be light to guide us in the corridors of justice and on the path of holiness.

And here are 3 different translations of Areshet S’fateinu:

Gates of Repentance (1978, Reform)
O God Supreme, accept the offering of our lips, the sound of the Shofar. In love and
favor hear us, as we invoke your remembrance.

Mahzor Lev Shalem (2010, Conservative)

May the words of our lips be pleasing to You, exalted God, who listens, discerns,
considers, and attends to the sound of our shofar blast. Lovingly accept our offering
of verses proclaiming Your remembrance.

Our forthcoming Reform machzor (a work in progress)

Taste the sweetness our lips sing to You, God Most High. You are knowing and
attentive, watchful and aware when we call out: T’kiah! Lovingly, favorably receive
our Service of Zichronot!

What strikes you most as you compare the three translations of each prayer?

What is most important to you about the English translation of a Hebrew prayer?  What are the qualities about a translation that you value most?

Rabbi Leon Morris is on the editorial team of the new CCAR machzor, and is the rabbi of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, NY. 

This post originally appeared on the Central Conference of American Rabbi’s Ravblog.

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