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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776
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Translation and Interpretation

  1. It should be noted that in Gates of Repentance, Gates of Prayer for Weekdays, At a House of Mourning, and Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays, each interpretive reading is indicated with an open circle at the start of the reading.


  2. I think this discussion began with the Elu D'varim, the obligations without measure, and the specific example was levayat hamet, which is translated in GOP as "to console the bereaved," but actually means "to accompany the dead." Other examples in the same prayer: v'hashkamat beit hamidrash shacharit v'arvit is translated "to attend the house of study daily" but actually means "to get up early to the house of study for morning and evening prayer," and vahava'at shalom bein adam lachaveiro, which is translated "to make peace when there is strife" but actually means "to bring peace between a person and his/her friend." The "translation" that irks me most is for the first of the blessings for the daily miracles: asher natan lasechvi vinah lehavchin bein yom u'vein laila, where the translation is "who has implanted mind and instinct within every living being," but which literally means "who gave the rooster the sense to know the difference between day and night." This is typical, and misguided, in my view. The translators seem to have felt the need to get away from the literal and change it to something more "decorous," more metaphorical, and more universal.


  3. I have no problem with clearly identified interpretive presentations in English, especially since Gates describes them (and I haven't been hit in the face with anything to the contrary) as reflecting the spirit of the Hebrew.

    The UPB dealt with "unacceptable" concepts in the traditional liturgy by changing them in both languages--brings redemption in place of brings a redeemer (mayvi geulah, not mayvi go-el), gives life to everything rather than gives life to the dead (mekhayeh hakol, not mekhayeh meytim).


  4. The discussion thread on translations, literal and otherwise, in Reform prayer books displays a relatively recent interest in the literal translation of the Hebrew text. Reform liturgy since its beginnings in Germany has used the vernacular precisely to avoid the literal meanings when they are deemed uncomfortable, and to provide interpretive translations/paraphrases as a matter of course. It was only with the publication of Gates of Repentance that some textual indication was given (in the form of a small circle) of English text that was a creative meditation on the theme of the Hebrew and not in any way a translation...[T]his is, I believe, the first generation of congregants that has expressed an interest in what the Hebrew text actually means!


  5. Aside from creative license, euphemisms and rewrites for modern sensibilities, isn't the literal translation of Hebrew itself sometimes complicated? As an English major, I learned to appreciate the skilled translator who could deduce, from the idioms and quirks of a foreign language, how to write a good translation that preserved the intent of the writer. Literal translations generally aren't good; they can be useful and helpful if studied, but they usually don't convey the "spirit" of the original. It takes an exhaustive understanding of both the original language and the translation's language to concoct greatness.

    I applaud everyone for wrestling with this issue, and I find it exciting that you mention that we are the first generation of Reform Jews to really bring this issue to the forefront. The best result of all this arguing over translations is that more and more people will explore the original Hebrew and learn what it means and eventually develop a wide enough knowledge to do their own translations in English, if they so wish, understanding the Hebrew in their own way--and then sharing with the rest of the class, as it were.


  6. There are spots where Gates of Gray and Gates of Blue changed both Hebrew and English, spots where it clearly identified interpretation as opposed to translation, and there are spots, as in alu d'varim, where it does neither. You can even see more of this if you look at the petition prayers of the weekday Amidah with a copy of an Art scroll and/or Sim Shalom open along with Gates.

    However, all of this, if we turn it just a bit, makes for wonderful education, commentary and dialogue, either in a learner's minyan, in an adult class, or as a sermon, for embedded in all of these changes is the Reform Movement's theology and focus of the time. It also gives individuals pause and food for thought when they hear the differences.


  7. "Literal" itself must be shorthand for an idiomatic, thoughtful, and poetic rendering of the original. The Hebrew originals are, in fact, poetic, making use of standard poetic rhetorical devices (parallelism, metaphor, etc.). Our English renditions have sometimes been too colloquial (or too clunky) by comparison. Say what one will about the UPB, the language nonetheless was very thoughtfully crafted and very literary. We have a tendency to "talk down" today and that has invaded liturgical production. (There is very insightful analysis of this problem with respect to American Protestant liturgies in the 60's and their aftermath, "The Common Word: Recovering Liturgical Speech," by Catherine Madson the summer, 2002, issue of CrossCurrents. It can be accessed online at

    The issue of a "literal" translation of our prayers, then, takes all these issues into consideration, but attempts to render accurately the sense of the original without too obvious euphemisms or theological updating that would constitute a paraphrase, however light. Have a look at David de Sola Pool's traditional Shabbat prayer book and you'll see how this can be done very nicely. (It requires considerable literary and linguistic sensitivity--a fine sense of both Hebrew and English style.)


  8. This discussion prompts me to share a line of text:

    "Rabbi Judah said: If one translates a verse literally one is a liar; if one adds anything, one is a blasphemer and accused of libel." Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 49

    I came across this text in my study of the process of Storahtelling with Amichai Lau Lavie this summer. It seems very pertinent to our discussion. Our translators/interpreters of prayer walk a very fine and difficult line.


  9. The Hebrew has poetry, and beyond that, there's a sense of where the words come from--where the same words are used in the Torah, the rabbi?s discussions of why those prayers are important. No translation can make up for understanding the words in Hebrew and knowing the background of the prayers. Perhaps that's why music is so important to us. Music is a way to recapture the poetry and the emotion without the time and effort that it takes to learn Hebrew.



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