Yonatan Sredni

Lost in Translation: Why’s the 10th of Tevet a Greek tragedy?

Although not glamorous, my main role (or at least the one that takes up most of my time) as a journalist for CTech, the English language technology news site of Calcalist, Israel’s leading financial daily, is to translate select articles written by Calcalists’ journalists from Hebrew to English for publication on CTech.

While I realize that the translations are important, nowadays with the advent of Google Translate — which is by no means perfect, but it does most of the “heavy lifting” for me in my translations, leaving just a few fixes here and there which it gets wrong — I don’t give the “art” of translation much thought.

However, the minor Jewish fast day, the 10th of Tevet (Asara b’Tevet), which falls this Tuesday (from dawn till nightfall), gives me pause to consider the importance of what can get lost in translation.

The 10th of Tevet commemorates the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia — an event that began on that date and ultimately culminated in the destruction of the First Temple and the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah. It is one of the multiple Jewish fast days associated with the destruction of the Temples.

But there are other tragic Jewish historical events that are commemorated on the 10th of Tevet as well. They include the traditional anniversaries of the deaths of Ezra and Nechemia (on the 9th of Tevet) who represent the restoration of Torah study and practice after a long spiritual drought, and the return (albeit in disappointingly small numbers) of the Jews to the land of Israel from exile.

In our times, an additional element was added to the 10th of Tevet — it has been declared as Yom Ha’kaddish HaK’lali — a day of saying Kaddish and remembering victims of the Holocaust whose actual dates of death will remain forever unknown to their families and all of Israel.

What does all of the above have to do with translation? Well, there is one additional event (which occurred on the 8th of Tevet) which is linked to and marked on this fast day — the “tragedy of the Targum Shiv’im“, the first (and coerced) translation of the Torah into Greek (know as “The Septuagint”). The day is considered as “dark” as the day of the Sin of the Golden Calf.

According to Wikipedia, “On the eighth of Tevet one year during the 3rd century BCE, a time of Hellenistic rule of Judea during the Second Temple period, Ptolemy, King of Egypt, ordered the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, a work which later became known as the Septuagint. Seventy two sages were placed in solitary confinement and ordered to translate the Torah into Greek. Judaism sees this event as a tragedy, as it reflected a deprivation and debasement of the divine nature of the Torah, and a subversion of its spiritual and literary qualities. They reasoned that upon translation from the original Hebrew, the Torah’s legal codes and deeper layers of meaning would be lost. Many Jewish laws are formulated in terms of specific Hebrew words employed in the Torah; without the original Hebrew wording, the authenticity and essence of the legal system would be damaged. The mystical ideas contained in the Torah are also drawn from the original Hebrew. As such, these would not be accessed by individuals studying the Torah in Greek (or any other language) alone.”

So, maybe the Torah just doesn’t translate easily, but what’s that got to do with me and translating articles from Hebrew to English about hi-tech news from Israel?

Perhaps the lesson is about the feeling that gets lost in translation. A friend related to me that when she was in ulpan class, some of the first songs they learned in Hebrew were Arik Einstein’s classics. Although his songs can and have been translated, they really only work in Hebrew. Einstein sensitively sang: ‘Oof gozal’, which packs more of an emotional punch than its literal translation ‘fly away little bird’. His song ‘Se’ah le’at‘ loses much of its emotion when translated as ‘drive slowly’.

Perhaps Einstein’s ‘Ani ve’ata ne’shane et ha’olam’ can be fittingly translated as ‘You and I will change the world’. But the line which follows: ‘amru et ze kodem, lefanei, lo meshane‘ which I saw translated as ‘Others have said it before me, but that doesn’t matter’ is perfectly accurate as a translation, but surely doesn’t express the meaning and feeling that Einstein intended when he sang it in Hebrew.

Don’t get me wrong, I am so thankful we live in an era where any text, phrase or word can be translated to any language which just a click of a button, thanks to Google Translate and other such programs. But perhaps the tragedy of the 10th of Tevet was not in the translation of the Torah into Greek (or any language for that matter), but the fact that it defused the desire for those who wished to study Torah to learn it from the original holy Hebrew text. Why bother learning Hebrew when a translation into a language you already know would suffice?

An American friend of mine, who has lived in Israeli for many years, told me how she was once inspired to contact the legendary Israel Prize-winning scholar and Torah teacher Nechama Leibowitz. She was very excited to speak to her as she had all her books on the weekly Torah portion in her library at home and so very much enjoyed learning from them. She finally found her Jerusalem home phone number and called her.

After taking note of my friend’s thick American accent, Prof. Leibowitz asked my friend if she had read her books on Torah in their original Hebrew or in the English translation.

My friend sheepishly admitted that her Hebrew was still quite poor and she had read the English translation.

Nechama Leibowitz voiced her strong disapproval and admonished her in her thick German-accented English. “Don’t you understand?!” she said forcefully. “It was not “God” who created the world – it was “Elokim“!”

Perhaps Robert Frost said it best: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”

About the Author
Yonatan Sredni is a journalist and editor at CTech by Calcalist. With degrees from the US and Israel, he has a background in journalism, public relations, and creative writing. In addition to TOI and CTech, his articles have been published in The Jerusalem Post and on NoCamels and Israel National News.
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