Lost in translation?

Remember the Pepsi marketing faux pas in China? Their slogan, “Pepsi brings you back to life”, was plastered on billboards in the less attractive Chinese version: “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. Mercedes shared a similar slip-up when the Benz became “Bensi”, which means “Rush to die” in Mandarin. Yeah, not a great brand name for a car. Translation errors abound, some hysterical, others historical. A local South African favourite is the sign on a government building that proudly proclaims, “Mental Health Prevention Centre”. That explains a lot.

Rendering information into a different language can be a minefield. Just ask Google Translate. Mark Twain warned against reading health books, lest you die of a misprint. Get a word wrong when translating the Torah, and you could spawn a whole new religion.

That explains why the Talmudic Sages recoiled when the Egyptian Ptolemy insisted they produce a Greek translation of the Torah. The sages called that day “As challenging as when the Golden Calf was built”. A slip of a quill might have implied that the Torah opens with the name of a deity who created our G-d. Fortunately, Hashem inspired each sage to edit the potentially misleading verses appropriately. With the Golden Calf, the Israelites proposed an alternative to G-d. A poorly translated Biblical phrase could do the same.

None of us relies on an Ancient Greek siddur to understand the prayer service, but we’d be adrift without the English. Fears of heresy aside, Judaism wouldn’t survive the twenty-first century without translations of our Jewish holy texts. Why were the rabbis anxious about having a Greek rendering of the Torah? It would have been handy for the assimilated Jews of Alexandria. Besides, there was precedent. This week’s Torah portion records that Moshe translated the Torah into seventy languages. He later instructed the Israelites to carve those translations on huge boulders after they crossed the Jordan into Israel. Translating the Torah, it seems, is kosher.

We laugh at the glaring mistake in the Asian riverside sign, “Carefully fall into water”. The Swedish marketing team didn’t laugh when they discovered the ambiguity of their English slogan, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”. We can spot a bad translation a mile away. A more nuanced inaccuracy has a greater chance of being misleading. Subtle errors are the most damaging.

When Moshe- or any other great Jewish leader- spearheads a translation of the Torah, you know their team will get it right. When Ptolemy of antiquity or today’s Google-accredited “scholar” tries to interpret G-d’s word, steer clear. They may come across as scholarly or esoteric yet be misaligned with Judaism. When your bearing is one degree off course at takeoff, you land on the wrong continent. In the Information Age, caveat emptor. Not every book that claims to speak for Judaism does. On the upside, we have more reliable translations of Torah works- in print and online than ever in history. Our access to Jewish knowledge is unprecedented. We can study Tanach in French, Talmud in Spanish and Shulchan Aruch in Russian. Thanks to visionary Jewish leaders and meticulous translators, Moshe’s dream of a Torah accessible in any language is a reality.

Inspired by a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, published in the 24th volume of “Likkutei Sichos”. 

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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