Who Needs Hebrew?

By Yehudah Mirsky
Thursday, January 6, 2011

In 1967, on a visit to Jerusalem, the American novelist Saul Bellow met Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Israel's Nobel laureate in literature. "This spare old man," Bellow would recall, "asked me if any of my books had been translated into Hebrew. If they had not been, I had better see to it immediately, because, he said, they would survive only in the Holy Tongue." And what about Heinrich Heine's imperishably fine German, Bellow asked? "Ah," replied Agnon, "we have him beautifully translated into Hebrew. He is safe."

"He is safe." Even Heine, the ironic heretic, is tucked in the ark that will bear Hebrew across the floods of time. But which Heine, or which Bellow, will be in that ark? In Hebrew translation, he will inevitably be different from the Heine or the Bellow of his first incarnation.

The anxieties of translation come with the territory; the enterprise itself is all about crossing territory, moving evanescent words from one place to another in the hope that nothing will get lost. Still, Agnon's implied claim—that, thanks to its association with both a people and a faith, Hebrew alone guarantees perpetuity—is more complicated than one might think. 

Recent months, for example, have seen the completion of significant translation projects from Hebrew into . . . Hebrew. One is the publication of the final volume of the Steinsaltz Talmud (named for its mastermind, Adin Steinsaltz); another is the new, Ram Tanakh (named for its publisher). Of the two, the Talmud project is the less surprising, given that multi-volume work's strong leavening of Aramaic, its famously complicated style, and the history of its deliberate demotion in classic Zionist ideology, which sought to recapture the Bible's primal energies and therefore needed to discard the rabbinic lenses through which the Bible had been read for nearly two millennia.

But this same centrality of the Bible to Israel's state school system and secular culture is precisely what makes the Ram Tanakh so startling. Many Hebraists and language purists have been dismayed if not downright appalled by the appearance of this work, which presents the Hebrew original side-by-side with a modern Hebrew translation. And yet there is no getting around the fact that for many Israelis, already several generations removed from tradition, the experience of reading biblical Hebrew unaided is akin to what American college students undergo when trying to make their way through Chaucer (if they still do).

That a connection to the sacred is no longer dependent on Hebrew, ancient or modern, is made clear by another phenomenon of our time: the proliferation of translations of sacred texts for Orthodox Jews. In English, the main force here is the ArtScroll publishing enterprise, which seeks to promote its acculturated version of ultra-Orthodoxy and turn it into the lingua franca of all observant Jews. Perhaps even more jarring, commercial publishing houses have been releasing English translations of classic religious texts and rabbinic rulings, bypassing altogether the nexus between knowledge and authority that once limited entry into these sources to those who had invested the time and effort to learn how to read them. True, the same aura that added to the texts' enchantment kept them securely in the hands of elites; in that sense, for better or for worse, translation in modern times has gone hand in hand with the loosening of religious and political authority. 

As anyone who has tried his hand at it can attest, the act of translation is risky, and can easily stumble. It is itself an act of faith, not only in the ability of translator and reader to jump from one shore to another, but in there being something to find on the other side.  But what does it say about so many American Jews that they are content with reading everything in English translation? That they appear to feel they aren't missing anything, or don't experience the falling-away of Hebrew as a loss? And what can possibly be the excuse of the Orthodox? 

At the end of the day, Agnon may or may not prove to have been right that Jewish writing in languages other than Hebrew will not survive. But as for writing that is self-consciously bound to the tradition, it is certainly unlikely to endure in the absence of a vibrant Hebrew culture, grounded in a Hebrew republic of letters. Without some genuine and internal connection to living organisms in possession of a past, present, and future, the translated words, lovely and well-chosen as they may be, will simply dance themselves away.


You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/translation


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