Figurative Language in Translation
Is there a right or wrong way to translate idioms and expressions?
The preface of the ArtScroll\Mesorah Machzor for Rosh Hashana states, “Where a choice had to be made, we generally preferred fidelity to the text over inaccurate simplicity, but occasionally, we had to stray from the literal translation in order to capture the essence of a phrase in an accessible English idiom.”
Loyal to the decision of “fidelity to the text”, the esteemed translator of the Machzor rendered the line from “The Foundation of Repentance” (by Rabbenu Yonah) —
ועתה נשאני לבי כו’ לשוב אליך באמת כו’ ולהיות מודה ועוזב
“to return to you sincerely etc., to become one who confesses and forsakes [his sinful ways], etc.”
This while knowingly disregarding its origin from Proverbs (28:13) —
“מכסה פשעיו לא יצליח ומודה ועזב ירחם”
It could have been rephrased as: “to confess and forsake iniquity”, without parentheses and a stilted reading, but that’s his prerogative. As they say, “so far so good”…
The problem begins, when faithful to his method, he translates this phrase —
… בבקר בעת הקיצו משנתו יחשוב בדעתו כי ישוב ויפשפש במעשיו
הגיע עת האכל ויחפש ולא מצא את התרפים אז יהא מודה ומשבח לפני בוראו על אשר עזרו כו
“If mealtime comes and one searches and has not found abominations, then let him thank and give praise before his Creator for having helped him etc.”
Here the translator has fallen into a trap of his own doing. Yes, the original “Teraphim” are indeed “abominations”, as per Genesis 31:35.
ותאמר אל אביה אל יחר בעיני אדני כי לוא אוכל לקום מפניך כי דרך נשים לי ויחפש ולא מצא את התרפים
“She (Rachel) said to her father, “May my master not be angry that I am unable to rise before you, for I am menstruating”. He then searched and did not find the abominations (idols)”.
But basic logic and the entire context convey that the real meaning here is in fact ‘light’ sin, as opposed to the extreme “abominations”!
The immediately preceding paragraph reads (in ArtScroll translation), “When he raises this matter in his heart and spirit, then he will guard himself from sin. He will beware even of sin that is taken lightly etc., this refers to the sins and good deeds that a person crushes with his heels and considers to be meaningless”.
This tells us to have the Teraphim line translated instead as “…and upon examination has found no sin”, or at least “and one searches and has not found sins”.
By now, the translation is in actual error; the kind that puzzles the reader, and forces him to re-translate the text in the vernacular so it makes sense.
ArtScroll is basically the “Gold Standard” of Torah Hebrew-English translation, so I am definitely not trying to put them down. My own translation skills don’t even come close. What I am trying to do, is point out how even the best of us can arrive at such a situation.
What do we learn from this?
- Know your author. Rabbenu Yonah, like many Rishonim, frequently uses poetic expressions from Tanach (and often Chazal). Rabbenu Yonah simply relied on the reader’s acquaintance with Tanach and Chazal.
- Slowly read through the entire text you intend to translate, just to note all such examples. Include anything that seems suspiciously out of place or grammatically jarring. If you can’t quite place an expression, ask a friend. This job requires going and checking before jumping to the obvious translation.
- Still, not every borrowed terminology needs to be altered in translation. Numerous phrases in “The Foundation of Repentance” are idiomatic; yet don’t necessarily modify the meaning in translation (these are called “Transparent Idioms”).
- Follow some general rule. But whatever translation school you follow, consider breaking loose when things get out of hand.
Hopefully, aiming the kind of constructive self-criticism presented in this post will mean each successive generation of Torah Editors need not ‘reinvent the wheel’. “As a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant”, we can ever progress and improve, if we are open to learning.
P.S. I ought to write a future post on the difficulty of editing and publishing heavily lyrical works, such as Piyutim (liturgical poetry), the works of many Sephardic sages or Rabbi Yaakov Emden.