Friday, April 3, 2009

Lost in Translation

Recently there was a minor flap about the DVD subtitles used for "Let the Right One In" a Swedish Vampire movie. The movie is about the friendship between Oskar and Eli, a two hundred year old vampire child. Apparently the producers changed the subtitles from the original release for the DVD essentially dumbing down a more lyrical translation for a broader audience.
Reading about this controversy reminded me of issue of translation. As one of my professors in Rabbinic school liked to say, "all translations are interpretation." What we tend to forget whenever reading a translation of any text, but especially canonical literature like the Hebrew Bible, is somewhere along the line, an editor or editors made decisions about how to interpret words, phrases, and ideas. For the most part, these interpretations tend to be fairly innocuous, however, on occasion, it can be theologically significant, like the decision to translate a word as 'virgin' as instead of 'young woman.' All the more reason why it is worthwhile to learn more than one language. And if this is not possible, to at least look at multiple translations to see if and where there is consensus and disagreement.
This is in part what I find so wonderful about the Jewish approach. We may begin with the Bible, but only as a means of a broader sacred conversation. How we interpret the literature is as important as what is contained within its words. We may just need the help of a few lexicons to guide us along the way. For how we choose to translate and interpret our sacred writings really says more about us than it does about Scripture.

In Memory of Grandpa Ray


emmece said...

all translations are interpretation. I disagree. There a literal translations, allusions translations, metaphorical, idiom,etc. The Tanach is written in biblical Hebrew, with words borrowed from Aramic and Arabic. This is not the same as modern or later rabinic Hebrew. The Tanach uses prose and poetry. Prose is using few words a possible to make a point. This is way we see sometimes a few words in Hebrew and a lot in the English translation. Poetry is not always true to events as it has to ryme.

A rabbi was teaching the Tamuld and told a student, "You must know it says before you can argue it."

"For how we choose to translate and interpret our sacred writings really says more about us than it does about Scripture." I agree wholehardily.

Rabbi Sharff said...

To emmece - I think you made my point for me. How we choose to translate a text using literal, allusion, metaphorical techniques, etc., often times says as much about our choices as the originators of the text. My basic argument is one has to remember whenever reading a text in translation, the voice and interpretations of the translator become a part of the text.