I’m pleased to announce the third volume in the “Prayers of Awe” series: We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism. Representing the 15th time I’ve collaborated with my father, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, the book contains my translations of ancient Hebrew liturgical poems, along with detailed notes about why I made the decisions I did, so it may be of interest to those who are curious about how I approach translation.The book also contains detailed essays on the topics of sin, human nature, and repentance, as well as dozens of shorter pieces approaching those same topics from a multitude of viewpoints. As my father writes:
All my life, I’ve wondered about the High-Holiday confessions in Judaism, and I finally edited a book about them. Called We Have Sinned, it just came out from Jewish Lights Publishing, and it represents a multitude of Jewish voices on the topics of sin, human nature, and repentance.
The book is a beginning of a conversation. I hope we can continue it here.
Translating the Hebrew presented some particularly interesting challenges for me. Right off the bat, I had to deal with the central prayer in the book, ashamnu, which consists of an alphabetic acrostic of 24 verbs in a row, all roughly meaning “we have sinned.” More generally, much of the poetry is built around synonyms. As I write in the book (p. 92):
This creates a double challenge for the translator.
First, words often have fewer synonyms in English than in Hebrew. When that is the case, so that there is no natural English for all of the Hebrew synonyms, we must choose between accuracy and naturalness. But the poetic force of the Hebrew comes less from the nuance of each word than from the cumulative impact of the combined string of synonyms, so a non-natural translation for a specific word impacts not only that word but the words around it as well.
A parallel example would be this familiar phrase from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (act 2, scene 2):
Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season,
When in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?
A “translation” of the second line along the lines of “when in the why and the cause of what happened is neither poetic assonance nor reason” matches in some regards but misses the mark in others.
I think similar issues sometimes impact Bible translations.
I’ll try to post more from the book soon.
From the About page comes this question:
I have a couple concerns in Gen 18:14. 1) “for the LORD” is prefixed with a mem which is what you see in Gen. 24:50 but is translated there as “from the LORD”; 2) Why is dabar translated as “anything.”
This is an excellent example of why all of the words of a phrase have to be translated together, not one by one.
The prefix mem in Hebrew does two things:
1. The mem indicates “from,” as in your example of Genesis 24:50: mei-Adonai yatzah ha-davar, literally, “from-Adonai went-out the-thing,” or, in English, “this matter comes from Adonai.” (The bold-face is to help compare the words with the next example.)
2. The mem indicates comparison, as in Genesis 24:50: ha-yipaleh mei-Adonai davar, literally, “Q-will-be-wondrous more-than-Adonai thing,” or, in English, “Is anything too wondrous for Adonai?” (Again, the bold-face is for comparison with the previoius example.)
The word “too” in English is one way we express comparison, and the word davar becomes “anything” in English because of the complex interaction between thing/something/anything/nothing. (“I see a thing.” “I see something.” “I don’t see anything.” “I see nothing.” All of these correspond to the Hebrew davar.)
So what we see is a detailed interaction of Hebrew grammar and English grammar. The correct translation comes from using Hebrew grammar to decode the sentence, and then re-encoding the sentence using English grammar.