Friday, May 20, 2011

The Problem of Translation

The Bible can be a lovely source of inspiration, teaching and Occult wisdom. It can also be the basis for paranoia, slavery and psychosis. The problem is one of language and approach. First of all, English is an Objective Language. When we refer to things they are things. A fence is a fence, perhaps made of stone, or wood or chain link. The word Chet (Fence) also includes the ideas of separation and enclosure. Consider also the word Olam

Atah geboor l-olam Adonai. -- Thou are great forever Lord.
Malek Ha-olam. -- King of the universe.
Olam ha-yichud. -- The world of unification.
"Olam" is here translated as "World", "Universe" and "Forever." Hebrew words tend to represent concepts over physical objects.

It is, therefore, very difficult to simply assign a single translated meaning to Hebrew spiritual concepts. It is for this reason that we see books like the Chumash which combine English, Hebrew and commentary into a simplified form for study. When reading the English one can simply glance over to the Hebrew and find deeper meaning or even seek alternative ways of translating.

The Hebrew Bible is not a static thing either. Centuries of commentary, argument and discussion have been recorded to help one explore the inner meanings of the Scriptures. Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud make up what is sometimes called the "Oral Torah" as opposed to the "Written Torah." In many ways, taking only the written part of the Hebrew Bible (which includes Torah ("Teaching"), Nevi'im ("Prophets") and Ketuvim ("Writings")) is to take the entire text out of context. It is for this reason that commentary is included in the Chumash. For Jewish scholars, they are all part of the same sacred teaching.

The "Spirit" of the Torah is called Qabalah, a word meaning to pass from mouth to ear. It is the sacred, inner teaching and expresses much which cannot simply be given in words. It also forms the basis of the Western Mystery tradition of which I have long been an initiate. Again, the Western Bible tends to be interpreted without this "spirit" or "soul" nor with reference to the Oral traditions.

So we take these two problems, one of language and one of approach or understanding. We see that there can be great meaning within any Biblical passage. Remember that Jesus/Yeheshua was a Rabbinic scholar and would likely have been well versed in the Qabalah and whatever Oral Torah was available at the time. It is reasonable to assume that the originals of the "New Testament" books were possibly written by people educated in a similar way (though likely without the depth of a Rabbi).

Let us take a passage for our example. Noach was instructed to build an Ark. Genesis 6:16 gives the following instruction: "A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it." This is taken from the King James translation. The word which is here translated "Window" is the word "Zohar." This will be immediately recognized by any student of Qabalah as the name of one of the great Qabalistic books. Zohar is generally translated "Splendor" or "Brilliance."

Consider the following interpretive translations:
JPS 1962: "Make an opening for daylight in the ark..."
NIV: Make a roof for it..."
American Standard: "A light shall thou make to the ark..."
New American Standard: You shall make a window for the ark..."
The Message: "Build a roof for it..."
Jewish Publication Society: "A light shalt thou make to the ark..."
Young's Literal: "a window dost thou make for the ark..."
Darby Translation: "A light shalt thou make to the ark..."
Contemporary English: "Build a roof on the boat..."
New Life: "Make a window for the boat..."
New Living: "Construct an opening all the way around the boat..."

Each of these translations has had to interpret what was meant by the word Zohar. Out of 17 different translations the word Zohar is interpreted as a "light" 3 times, a "Window" 7 times, a "roof" 5 times, and an "opening" twice. Yet Hebrew has perfectly good words for all of these things. A window is Heh, a Roof is Gag, an Opening is Peytach. So why use the word Zohar?

If we examine the Oral Torah we can find a great deal of comment on the use of this word.

The Stone Chumash tells us
Some say it was a skylight▀×according to most commentators, it was the window Noah opened after the Flood (8:6)▀×and some say it was a precious stone [that refracted the outside light to illuminate the interior (Chizkuni)] (Rashi).
Midrash Rabbah states:
R. Hunia and R. Phinehas, R. Hanan and R. Hoshaia could not explain [the meaning of ZOHAR]; R. Abba b. Kahana and R. Levi did explain it. R. Abba b. Kahana said: It means a skylight; R. Levi said: A precious stone. [Which provided light from itself.]

R. Phinehas said in R. Levi's name: During the whole twelve months that Noah was in the Ark he did not require the light of the sun by day or the light of the moon by night, but he had a polished gem which he hung up: when it was dim he knew that it was day, and when it shone he knew that it was night. [Cf. Sanh. 108b.]

R. Huna said: Once we were taking refuge from [Roman] troops in the caves of Tiberias. We had lamps with us: when they were dim we knew that it was day, and when they shone brightly we knew that it was night.
The reference above [CF. Sanh. 108b] is a reference to the Talmud tract Sanhedrin. This particular piece is quoted from the Talmud.

The Midrashic collection Legends of the Jews elaborates further:
Great wisdom was needed for building the ark, which was to have space for all beings on earth, even the spirits. Only the fishes did not have to be provided for. Noah acquired the necessary wisdom from the book given to Adam by the angel Raziel, in which all celestial and all earthly knowledge is recorded.
The book, which was made of sapphires, he took with him into the ark, having first enclosed it in a golden casket. All the time he spent in the ark it served him as a time-piece, to distinguish night from day.

The Zoharayim reports: " R. Johanan said: The Holy One, blessed be He, instructed Noah, 'Set therein precious stones and jewels, so that they may give thee light, bright as the noon.' Gersham Scholem in his book Kabbalah tells us "..but as early as the Sepher ha-Bahir it [the Sepheroth] is related to the Hebrew sappir ("Sapphire"), for it is the radiance of God which is like a sapphire."

Perhaps we can consider the following line of though.
  • Noach placed a "light" in the ark.
  • This light also acted as a time piece.
  • The light was a precious stone.
  • The stone may have been a book made of sapphire.
  • The book of sapphire acted as a time piece.
  • They both are said to have radiated (emanated?) light in order to tell time.
  • This served as a form of guidance for Noach so that he knew when it was day and when it was night.
  • The light coming from the sapphire can be the eminations (sephiroth) of the divine radiance (zohar).
  • The sephiroth make up the Tree of Life, the Qabalah.
  • A book of sephiroth would then be the Qabalah.
  • During the darkest days and surrounded by Chaos the Qabalah (Tradition, Mysticism, Wisdom) guided Noach.
  • If the story is didactic then perhaps we can put this light in our own "ark"; our own selves.
  • This inner light acts as a guide for us through darkness.
  • The Qabalah helps us to discover and reveal that inner light to ourselves and others.
  • We are assured (by the story of the Flood and the Ark) that by relying on this light to guide us we will always make our way safely through the darkness and find a safe place to land when it is over.
  • The light within is a gift from God (as the book was given to Noach) and it shines the brightest when we need it most.
This may, or may not, be "the one true meaning" but the point is not to prove such. The point is to show that it is very difficult, likely impossible, to create a translation of the Bible which can convey the depth and possible breadth of meaning which is inherent in the original. That to try an literally translate the book alone is to rip it from the depth of its tradition, like cutting off the tail of an elephant, painting a picture of it and then explaining to people "this is an elephant."

Between language, tradition and the various levels thereof, we cannot simply rely on a single translation and assume that it is "correct" or that the meaning "cannot be lost in translation." Whether you believe that the Bible is a teaching tool recorded by humanity, the Divinely Inspired Word of God or the Direct Writings of the Divine, it doesn't change that the words you see in the English, Latin and Greek cannot convey the complexity of the Hebrew and Arameic texts. If you feel that there is nothing of value in the Bible, I do urge you to consider it in light of a good course in introductory Qabalah. (Consider Fortune's The Mystical Qabalah as a possible place to start).

And the next time someone bashes you over the head with some interpreted translation which "proves" you're a bad person and are going to hell, start asking them how they came to this conclusion and whether or not they examined the secondary, yet vitally important, texts referring to their precious passage.