Thursday, 16 April 2015

Translation Mistakes, part 1

This post could have been titled "This is not a review: Future Tense by Rabbi J Sacks", but I'm only going to focus on one part of the book for now. That part is on pp.232-234 from the section "The Voice of Hope".

Below is the first of the sections that highlights what the implications are of mistranslation. Since I am reading through Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation) and translating the commentary of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero for a second time, I am becoming painfully aware of just how big an impact mistranslation can have.

Here is the quote from Rabbi Sacks (warning: long!) answering the question about what the 4 distinctive messages that G-d seeks to say to the world via the Jewish people, its laws, life and history:

"...The Great Mistranslation

The first occurs at the formative moment in the life of Moses, when the prophet encounters God at the burning bush. God summons him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, but Moses is reluctant. 'Who am I,' he asks, 'to be worthy of such a task?' God reassures him, and then Moses asks, 'Who are you? When the Israelites ask, who has sent you, what shall I say?' God replies in a cryptic three-word phrase, Ehyeh asher ehyeh (Exodus 3:14).
It is fascinating to see how Christian Bibles translate this clause. The King James Version reads it as 'I am that I am.' Recent translations are variants of the same idea. Here are some examples:

I am who I am.
I am what I am.
I am - that is who I am.

These are all mistranslations, and the error is ancient. In Greek, Ehyeh asher ehyeh becomes ego eimi ho on, and in Latin, ego sum qui sum: 'I am he who is.' Augustine in the Confessions writes: 'Because he is Is, that is to say, God is being itself, ipsum esse, in its most absolute and full sense.' Centuries later, Aquinas explains that it means God is 'true being, that is being that is eternal, immutable, simple, self sufficient, and the cause and principle of every creature'. And so it continued in German philosophy. God became Hegel's 'concrete universal', Schelling's 'transcendental ego', Gilson's 'God-is-Being' and Heidegger's 'onto-theology'.
The mistake of all these translations is obvious to the merest beginner in Hebrew. The phrase means, 'I will be what I will be.' The verb does not use the present tense. Elsewhere, the Bible does. In the Ten Commandments, for example, the first verse reads, 'I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.' Here the present tense ('I am') is used. But then, that verse does not speak of God's name. It speaks of his deeds. Here, however, Moses asks God for his name. God might have replied, as did the angel who wrestled with Jacob, with a rhetorical question, 'Why do you ask for my name?', implying that the very question is out of order. There are things that human beings cannot know, mysteries they cannot fathom, matters that transcend the reach of human understanding.
But that is not what God says. He does answer Moses' question, but enigmatically, in a phrase that needs decoding, God tells Moses to say to the Israelites, '"I will be" sent me to you. ' It is as if God had said, 'My name is the future tense. If you seek to understand me, first you will have to understand the nature and significance of the future tense.'
'I am that I am' is a translation that owes everything to the philosophical tradition of ancient Greece, and nothing to the thought of Ancient Israel. The God of pure being, first cause, prime mover, necessary existence, is the god of philosophers, not the God of the prophets.
What, then, is the meaning of 'I will be what I will be'? The name itself never recurs in the Hebrew Bible, but there is a later echo, in the great scene in which God appears to Moses on the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf, in which he says, 'I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion' (Exodus 33:19).
What this means is that God cannot be predicted or controlled. He cannot be confined to categories or known in advance. He is telling Moses, 'You cannot know how I will appear until I appear; how I will act until I act. My mercy, my compassion, my strategic interventions into history, cannot be controlled or foretold. I will be what, when and how I choose to be. I am the God of the radically unknown future, the God of surprises. You will know when you see me, but not before.'
To be sure, in one sense, the future is connected to the past. God keeps his promises. That is an essential element of Jewish faith. But this very fact reveals the difference between predictability on the one hand, and faithfulness on the other. Objects fall, gas expands, particles combine: these things are predictable. But people freely honour obligations that they have undertaken because they are faithful. That is the difference God never fails to teach Moses and the prophets. 
God's name tells us that he is not an entity knowable by philosophers or science, deducible from the past. God awaits us in the unknown and unknowable future. That is the first stage of the argument: the God of Israel is the God of the future tense..."

Kind of makes me wonder how many other mistranslations have had such a profound impact? In particular in translation of Kabbalistic literature...