Jeff Waxman brought my attention to an article in the June issue of Commentary by Hillel Halkin entitled “The Translator’s Paradox.”
It’s primarily about the relationship between Hebrew and Jews, about how translation is aided the demise of Hebrew as the primary language of Jews:
Matti Megged and I were, unwittingly, at the front edge of a wave that has changed Diaspora Jewish life, preeminently in the United States. But the change has not been all for the better. It has contributed to the loss of Hebrew as the international language of the Jewish people. [. . .]
English has become the new international language of the Jews because it has become the international language of everyone. But it has been aided in its displacement of Hebrew by Jewish assimilation, which has deprived millions of Jewish children of the Hebrew they once acquired as part of a religious upbringing. Although a functional literacy in Hebrew was very far from universal in traditional Jewish communities, it was the defining mark of a Jewish education and the aspiration of every Jew. In terms of translation, Halkin sees both sides of this practice:
Translation is double-edged. It is the great go-between of humanity, the international hawker of cultural wares, the oldest and most powerful of all globalizing forces. But it is also a golden calf, a false representation. It reveals and thus conceals. It clarifies and so obscures. It betrays our secrets to mankind.
Living in translation has its advantages for the Jewish people: it facilitates communication among them, disseminates Jewish culture, creates a new Jewish literacy to replace the old one that has been lost. Yet it dilutes the culture it disseminates, weakens Jewish distinctiveness, puts Jews at a remove from themselves. It makes them vulnerably transparent to the outside world. A people?s language is its private home; in it, it can pursue its own business, conduct its own quarrels, make its own jokes, let down its hair; it can be itself without fear of eavesdroppers. One can argue in a Jewish language about Judaism, about Zionism, about any aspect of Jewish life, but one argues in a language, not about it; the language itself belongs to all. Precisely because it is neutral, language has always been the strongest of communal bonds, the magic circle that no interloper could cross. Some of his claims might be a bit broad, but on the whole, this is pretty interesting. (As is his comment that “it is not uncommon today for leading Israeli writers to sign translation contracts with American or European publishers even before they begin work on a book.”) This piece echoes some of the sentiments in Esther Allen’s essay in To Be Translated or Not To Be, although Halkin puts more emphasis on the process of translation than I think she would.