Translation or blah blah?

Jews came from all over the world since the creation of the State of Israel. With regards to the local inhabitants, there has always been a huge diversity of cultures, languages and dialects. Since the 6th century, the Arabic tongue developed among the population that was passing by in the area and settled or were the descent of all intermingled tribes and groups. Jews converted to Christianity, then to Islam and this is studied, at the present, at the Hebrew University. This makes sense and can be easily tracked back through naming, names of the villages and family names.

From the time of the Hittites who sold the cave of Machpalah to Abraham and thus created the first strong link between the embryo of a Jewish identity based on faith in God in a small tribe generated by a wandering Aramean from Haran and Ur-Kasdim in Sumer, a lot of people and nations entered the Eretz Canaan – Eretz Israel, passing through the original “Philistine land or Palestine”.

Today, the international lingua franca or vernacular tongue is undoubtedly English. Thus, there is a specific way here to speak English and to pronounce or write it and make special mistakes locally considered as correct. It is quite different from the London Cockney that became national Australian speech. It is our melting-pot, village mixer. We are blending English with all kinds of other languages or dialects. It does not mean that we merge a society that way.

Look! Until recently and they still have that attitude, the Japanese will stop speaking if they understand that you know or only understand some Japanese. And they would not help in learning the tongue that is only for the Japanese. Or, they will require some evidence why you are not “acting with enmity”. Israelis have developed the same tendency over many years. Of course, we have the Anglo’s and they arrived from all over the planet. But how come that you speak Hebrew and can even write and read it? You must be Jewish somehow. Before this blessed friendly plug-in happens, people will stubbornly speak with anybody in our Pidgin English – and even with patented Israelis that did not have the local look at first glance. No problem, it is en vogue.

Yiddish redeploys in religious circles but steps down from other groups in Mea Shearim to be replaced by Hebrew. On the other hand, we focus on some sort of English Jewish Israeli Palestinian Center/Jerusalemite Isringlish; it cannot be Ladino of course, even if the numerous North American and U.S.A. speakers are more and more influenced by Spanish. Our Argentinean newcomers are Pampa-Spanish with some taste of Ashkenazi Yiddish added to Uruguayan Cervantes Ladino del tiempo de la Conquesta. Buenos-Aires is still more Yiddishkayt and Vida Ladina with a good knowledge of Hebrew Hebrew than Israel. Here, we use a kind of Balagenglish that spontaneously showed up from the Balkan messy situation and certainly some protest against the British. Maybe the pioneers liked the idea of having their Haganah Crown speech. At the present, we do it with love and consistency. You asked something in Hebrew, the answer comes in this Balagenglish, asking in return if you are from the Netherlands, San Salvador. As in the good old day of Shalom Aleichem, Russians only know Russian. It depends how things can evolve. But most former Soviet Israelis want to learn English.

How strange thus that, after two 400 year periods of strong Ottoman presence that ended in the years 1920es, Turkish is totally absent from the Israeli and Arab memories. It is a language of prestige, but the Turks never promoted the installation of their citizens in the large Ottoman Empire. They only sent officers and executives, governors, sultans, whatever, who left with the wind when the Empire collapsed. How peculiar for a great nation that claims so many links with Europe, Judaism and Christianity, remained fenced culturally. It evidently reconnected, after the fall of Soviet Union, with all the Central Asian Turkish-speaking States (Turkmenia, Uzkekistan… Mongolia). It means a vast and powerful oil and raw material network. But it is fascinating how a tongue ceased to be used in almost one day… and to my knowledge there is only one Turkish family in Jerusalem that still speaks Turkish and settled here. Though, Turkish is very important at the present, with the Uighur presence facing Chinese Hans. But Chinese does penetrate into Israel and tourism undoubtedly makes it an international visible Esperanto as well as a speech. As concerns Turkish, this is quite an unusual phenomenon in the history of “self-protected linguistic imperialism” developed by some “ruling Empires”.

We continue somehow to mock the prodigious and immense work of Eliezer Ben Yehudah who revived the Hebrew language. I daily have to frequent people who would simply say: “Hebrew? It enters by my left ear and goes straight out through the right one”. Or they would ask, with some innocence: “When will they disappear? / leave the country these Hebrew-speakers?” There are terrible defects in teaching the language to the newcomers or to the workers. One of the cheapest Jerusalem Ulpanim is mostly frequented by Arabs who have enough common sense to be taught the language adequately. Russian newcomers have their tricky ways but the rising generation is typically Hebrew. Balagenglish allows something: to hide who we are before being sure it is worth to show something exact about who we really are. This harms the development of the national tongue in a country where there are ca. 500 mother languages and numerous tiny dialects

“Yesh li chalomיש לי חלום – Ich habe einen Traum… I have a dream”. T. Herzl’s words are taken, maybe by some hazard, from the Talmud (Berachot 55b). In terms of tongue-dreamers, Ludwig L. Zamenhof (1850-1917) is a model of the flourishing Polish-Yiddishland blossoming thinking abilities. Born in Byalostok, Russian tzarist Empire, he was so impressed by the multitude of tongues that separated the inhabitants of his native town (Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Russyn-Subcarpathian, Romanian, German, Hebrew, Gipsy-Tsygany), that he created the famous international language called Esperanto: ”Se mi ne estus hebreo en la ghetto, la ideo pri la unuigo de la homaro…. Neniam tenus min tiel obstine en la dauro de mia tuta vivo/ If I were not a Hebrew from the ghetto, the idea of unity of mankind would never have kept me busy with such obstination during my life”, he stated.

This physician wanted to heal a deep defect of connectedness. Interestingly, Esperanto is like a construction set; it is even more precise than human reflection by its capacity to set up numerous words with prepositions and suffixes. Then, it is a typical Jewish and European Inter-Christian idea. The words are mainly taken from European languages and would never be adopted by Asia, Africa. We assist to the wide spreading of Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Arabic, Malaysian (Indonesian) and Spanish. Swahili and the Bantu dialects conquer Africa. But L. Zamenhof had a special dream that still abides our souls. It sounds like in Bereishit: “(everyone on) all the earth had one language and the same (one) words (“devarim achadimדברים אחדים”)” (Gen. 11:1). This is related to the survival after the flood. The Christians would speak of a “Pentecostal” unity phenomenon. The Jewish tradition insists on the fact that “safah achatשפה אחת = a coherent, exact, incorrupt words and means of real understanding”. “Lax lips and low indistinct speech show wounds that also affect the mouth” (Makkot 32a). Thus, “devarim achadimדברים אחדים = not the same, but rather each word had one precise, clear and specific meaning for all humans, a common substance”. Words were not misleading, dubious, full of nuances that could ambiguous contradictions. We do need this sort of flexibility in any human speech, but it is also the mark of some uneasiness.

One of the most difficult tasks for the humans is then to “translate”. This is indeed a twofold activity and two different professions. A person who translates texts is not like an interpreter who would translate orally. Hebrew “metargumanמתרגומן” apparently applies to both because “davar” is can be an oral or material (written) object. We rarely think of the splitting into many tongues after the attempt to build Babel. Was it an act of arrogance towards God (confusion/bilbul-בילבול)? Or, a way to reach the Gates of the Almighty (Bav-El)? “Translation” implies the requirement to make use of a loud and strong voice “ragemרגם” (Assyrian). This means that human beings are deaf and mute to each other by nature. This is the point. “Targemתרגם = to explain, interpret, red orally and translate at the same time into another tongue”. This is found in the Book of Ezra 4:7. It shows that from the very beginning the Word of God were not heard, not listened to or distorted and needed permanent upgrading of comprehensiveness.

Until now, the Yemenite communities will always read the reading portions in Hebrew, then in Aramaic in the targum of the proselyte Onkelos and finally in Arabic. This method of translating/interpreting can bring to a complete estrangement to the basic meaning of the sacred texts. Ergo, it is wise to check all the various levels of explanations and meanings of words specific contexts and periods.

This is why the Jewish tradition is only at a stage of a new birthing after 3,000 years of Jewishness expressed in opposed environments. Not conflictingly opposed, but showing partial aspects. At the present, Israel is incredibly bound to reconnect with the Hebrew heritage which is immense and firstly belongs to the Hebrew identity. On the other hand, Judaism will have to positively approach the Septuagint (LXX) or Greek version, presumably translated by 72 Hellenistic Jewish scholars of Alexandria upon the request of the Ptolemaic Kings (III c. B.C.).The legend specifies that they started and ended the “targum/ metagraphi – interpretation” on the same day and showed the same translation! This was the Bible mainly used by Jews and the first Christians. The Jews stopped using it in the II c. But, there is a move in many parts of the world: the LXX version is studied in the Jewish communities as showing important features of the Scripture and liturgical background. It is useless to quarrel about differences collected over ages. It is wiser to point out and check at length how Jews came to make this “interpretation” of the TaNaKH and how it relates to our contemporary and future envisioning of who we are and how we go ahead.

On Thursday 9th of July, the Armenian Church commemorated Saints Mesrob(p) and Sahag who translated the Scripture into Armenian. Mesrob created the Armenian alphabet in 404 and other Caucasian alphabets, bringing the Greek version of the Septuagint adopted by the Eastern Orthodox Churches to Armenia and from there to Persia. The Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian, Georgian, Slavonic translations of the Scripture follow the Greek version of the “Seventy”. On June 28th, the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorated Saint Hieronymos (Jerome) of Stridonium who translated the Bible from the Hebrew and the Greek texts into Latin, which became the age-long read Vulgata. He lived and died in Bethlehem.

Italians say: “Traduttore, tradittore = translator – traitor”. We are often submitted to waves that are drifting away. The one and coherent words are often today reduced to a minimum of consistency. Or they are accepted by individuals and selected groups “free satellites”. Targum, “metagraphi”, interpretation presuppose to hear and listen carefully. There might be one sign that this is possible when Tradition makes us aware of the number of generations, worlds of knowledge and experience that teach patience and wisdom to be open-minded anyway, anyhow and still in the shadow of the Most High.

av aleksandr [Winogradsky Frenkel]

July 11/June 29, 2009 – 20 de Tammuz 5769 – כ’ דתמוז תשס”ט

One thought on “Translation or blah blah?

  1. Ther are one or two errors in your comments on Esperanto here. You are right to some extent to say that “The words are mainly taken from European languages and would never be adopted by Asia, Africa.” Some of Esperanto’s vocabulary is indeed European, but its structure is far from European. I was in Cameroon earlier this year, and of course I used Esperanto. There are Esperanto associations in a number of African countries. As for Asia, the Chinese Radio offers a lively website in Esperanto.

    Take a look at


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