Page 78 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 34

Basic HTML Version

On the Art o f Translation
tr a ng e
m a y
se em
this paper “On the Art of Translation”
goes back seven centuries and begins with Moses Maimonides’
Moreh Nevukh im ,
“Guide of the Perplexed.” When Samuel ibn
Tibbon decided to translate the Guide from Arabic into He­
brew, he conferred with Maimonides as to what modus operandi
would be most suitable. Maimonides proffered the following
suggestions: "A translator must first understand the content,
and narrate and explain that content in the language in which
he is working. He will not escape changing the order of words,
or transmitting phrases in single words, or elimination of voc­
ables, or adding them so that the work is well ordered and ex­
pounded, and the language of the translator will follow the
principles governing that language.”
Although ibn Tibbon’s translation seems to adhere too liter­
ally to the Arabic, Maimonides felt that it was adequate and
voiced his gratitude to the translator. In fact, that translation
became the standard for subsequent translators to emulate. It
should here be added that, since both Hebrew and Arabic share
a common Semitic matrix, their respective grammar, morphology
and syntax are less difficult to reconcile than, say, from Hebrew
into English and vice versa.
The formidable problems that must be surmounted by a trans­
lator are adumbrated in a cryptic remark made by Franz Rosen-
zweig in a letter to Gershom Scholem: “Only one who is pro­
foundly convinced of the impossibility of translation can really
undertake it.” This attitude, however, did not deter Rosen-
zweig from collaborating with Martin Buber in translating the
Bible from Hebrew into German. After Rosenzweig’s death in
1929, Buber continued the project alone.
When Robert Frost wrote, seemingly half in jest, “Poetry is
what gets lost in translation,” and when Hayyim Nahman Bialik
quipped, “Translating a poem is like kissing a woman through