That, and at the pseudo-Jewish summer camp I was forced to go, one of the counselors enthused about his Hebrew-learning program, concluding with: "And now when I pray, I can actually understand the words! I can actually understand what I'm praying about!"
We all stared at him, awestruck by the new realization.
To be able to sit through the 3-hour Conservative Shabbat morning prayer service and actually understand the words! Or to know what we were singing about as we sang all these fun Hebrew songs!
I thought that sounded pretty cool, too.
And in case you were wondering, the Conservative prayer books with the facing English translation rife with "Thee" and "Thou" and "Blessed art...." were not helpful to secular American teenagers educated in public schools.
(Interestingly, Conservative and Reform dogmatists are the first to accuse Orthodox Jews of mindless indoctrination. Yet Orthodox Jews are largely the only group that does actually teach people to understand what they are praying.)
But I digress.
Needless to say, whoever is doing the translation has complete control over the interpretation and can manipulate it however they want--if they want.
And hopefully they don't.
Yet even the best and most sincere translator struggles with translating Hebrew works into the vastly different and poorer language of English. An entire concept expressed in one Hebrew word may need a whole paragraph of explanation in English.
And this doesn't even begin to cover unconscious personal bias or the plain fact that perfection is impossible and there will always be mistakes in even the best translation.
Sometimes, people get upset about something a Sage wrote. But he didn't actually write or mean what that person is upset about. The person is reading a translation that either interpreted the Sage's words incorrectly or interpreted the Sage's words as correctly as possible, but essential nuances are missing because the English term simply does not allow for them.
Of course, translations between linguistically similar languages (like from Arabic to Hebrew) or philosophically similar languages with a lot of linguistic similarities (like Yiddish to Hebrew) can be done with higher accuracy and comprehension.
Screaming, Groaning, and Shining
When I first started reading Breslover books in English, I noticed a lot of talk about "screaming."
You need to "scream out" to Hashem, this one "screamed" something to that group, etc.
And while I liked the philosophies, I was a bit concerned about all the apparent screaming going on in Breslov over the past couple of centuries.
To me, "screaming" is a very loud, high-pitched, ragged sound of sheer terror and panic. And sure enough, the Hebrew word litzok can be translated as "to scream."
But litzok can also mean: to cry out, to shout, to call out, or to yell.
So after I learned Hebrew and also the frum nuances of Hebrew, I could read Breslover books in English and understand what they meant because now I've become familiar with the original Hebrew terms.
This came to a head recently when reading a wonderful and tremendously inspiring book originally written in Yiddish.
And then translated into Hebrew.
And then translated into English.
Fortunately, the translator includes quite a few of the original Yiddish phrases. Because even with all the similarities between Yiddish and Hebrew, and all the linguistic similarities between Yiddish and English, there are Yiddish terms that don't have an equal in Hebrew or English. For example, "a lichteger teg." It's translated as "a shining day"—which is a good translation. But lichteger teg implies something a lot more geshmak than "a shining day" implies. It's more like a day filled with spiritual light that emanates from you having lived that day right.
Or the value of Yiddisher krechts—translated as "Jewish groaning." And there is really no other way to translate it. Fortunately, the book uses a couple of paragraphs to explain the term.
But my point is that there is no Hebrew or English equivalent to Yiddisher krechts.
And so on.
Thank "Dive," She Doesn't Have to Get Up THAT Early!
Another time, I was happily reading an excellent English translation of a 19th-century work. Yet when it discussed the best way to raise your daughters, it advised parents to regularly wake their daughters up "in the middle of the night" to make their future life as married women easier.
Now that didn't sound good.
So I checked the Hebrew original and sure enough, it said: "b'ohd laila"--while it is still night. Meaning, one should habituate one's daughters to getting up early in the morning while it is still dark outside so that when she has her own home, she'll already be used to getting an early start on her day and things will go better for her. Which makes sense in the times of no indoor plumbing or electricity, because the earlier a housewife got up, the more smoothly her day went.
And not that you just need to pointlessly roust your ninth-grader out of bed at one o'clock in the morning. ("Mwuhahaha, sweetheart! Just getting you used to having a newborn so you'll be nice and exhausted before you even start! My mussar sefer told me to do this! Ha-ha!")
Another time, an otherwise excellent translation cautioned the reader to be respectful with any terms referring to Hashem, even terms that are in a foreign language like
"Dive, which is the name of G-d in Spanish."
Now, I'm sure that the translator knows that "Dive" is not the Spanish translation of "God."
But it's easier to miss a step when in the Hebrew original, "Dio" is spelled דייו. Which does indeed look like "Dive." Presumably, the original author did not want to spell it דיו because that is the spelling for the Hebrew word "ink."
Furthermore, as the alert Chava of Hava haAharona pointed out in the comments, God's Spanish Name is actually "Dios." So the original author actually meant "Dio, which is the Name of God in Ladino" (which is to Spanish what Yiddish is to German).
Thus, the literal translation is: "....it is the Name of God in the Spanish [Sefaradi] language."
Sefaradi can either mean a specific group of Jews, and then it's clear that the author meant Ladino OR it can literally mean "Spanish," in which case the author could mean the official language of Spain.
Here is the Hebrew and an English transliteration so you can see for yourself:
דייו) שהוא שם השם בלשון ספרדי)
(Dio) sheh hu Shem Hashem b'lashon Sefaradi.
It's easy to see why this would cause confusion.
Yet it was still a really good translation with only a couple of blips like that.
Such blips are unavoidable.
As we see here, because religious Jews have commonly used more than one language, a translator may also need to know some Arabic, Ladino, Aramaic, or Yiddish when translating an otherwise Hebrew text, which increases the challenge of achieving an accurate and comprehensive translation.
And Some Things, We'll Never Know
Because books like Rav Ibn Paquda's Duties of the Heart, the Rambam's Guide to the Perplexed, and the Ben Ish Chai's Laws for Women were all originally written in Judeo-Arabic, most of us will never be able to consult the original.
In Laws for Women, for example, the original was also written in rhyme. The Hebrew translation maintained the rhyme, but how much of the original meaning did it sacrifice to maintain the rhyme? And then that Hebrew translation has been translated into non-rhyming English.
(The truth is, I got a tremendous amount out of the English translation and I've heard other women enthuse about how much they benefited from the Hebrew translation. So it probably is good reflection of his thoughts, even if certain things are missing.)
Just a Tweak Here and There--For the Greater Good, Of Course
Finally, some translations intentionally omit or add material.
This can happen both with current magazine articles or older books.
I was surprised to discover that the English-speaking world is more censor-prone, both in regard to subject matter and adjusting a written work to fit a type of "frum PC" (as defined by whoever).
(But this can also happen innocently when trying to polish up stylistic points lacking in the Hebrew original.)
Despite the appearance that, say, the Israeli charedi world appears less tolerant or more rigid than than the English-speaking charedi world, this isn't necessarily true. Reading even a modern-day article in the original Hebrew will often portray the truth of a matter more than its polished-for-publication English translation.
Well, these are just some things to keep in mind when reading in translation.
I'm not saying that translations should be mistrusted altogether; they definitely provide access to invaluable wisdom that would otherwise remain unknown.
But I learned the hard way that they should be read with an open mind and that when a reader comes across something that makes them go "Huh?", the original should be consulted, if possible. And if not possible, then to give the original author the benefit of the doubt.