Monday, May 25, 2009

Lost in Translation

Parshat Naso contains the description of the ritual of the Sotah (suspected adultress). This ritual is rich with descriptive imagery of what can happen to a husband and wife who allow animal desires to override their rational thought. For example, the husband is overcome with insane jealousy (5:14), and the wife brings barley as a korban which is associated with animal feed (Rashi 5:15).

However, I would like to use the Sotah ritual as an opportunity to pontificate about the importance of reading pesukim in their original Hebrew. There is a beautiful phrase that is used to describe a part of the Sotah ritual, and it is impossible for this phrase to be conveyed in translation. (Certainly an English translation - I cannot claim that there is a language out there that might be able to give a faithful rendering of the Hebrew. Anyone know Esperanto?)

The Sotah is forced to drink a potion that even Severus Snape could not prepare - and this potion will have a nasty impact on the Sotah's limbs if she is indeed guilty of adultery. R. Aryeh Kaplan (a noted kabbalist) translated the description of the potion as, "the curse-bearing bitter water," in his magnum opus - The Living Torah. This translation is a big improvement over the 1917 JPS translation which uses the following traslation: "the water of bitterness that causeth curse." Yet The Living Torah is still a far cry from the richness of the original Hebrew phrase: מי המרים המאררים (mei hamarim hamarrim). This phrase is a rhyming alliteration and the literary power is lost in translation, because neither the rhyming, nor the alliteration can be conveyed in English.

A few words about this bitter cursing potion. Water is usually a positive symbol, and it is generally associated with birth and Torah. However, if the Sotah is guilty of adultery, then the bitter cursing water is a source of death and not life. It is interesting to note that in Massechet Berachot (32b - I think), Chazal explain that an innocent woman who undergoes the Sotah ceremony would become pregnant. So actually the מי המרים המאררים is less of a potion and more of a catalyst - if the Sotah is gulity, than that sin is catalyzed into a physical punishment. If the Sotah is innocent, then the water has a positive effect on her.

If you like my little d'var Torah - great; but more importantly, I hope you have learned the lesson of reading pesukim in the original Hebrew! Don't get lost in translation.

ps - I have not seen the movie.

pps - The image is taken from wikimedia commons and is pretty neat. It is a:
Scan of plate 19 of the 1880 translation of the 1849 Johann Scheible (editor) version of The Sixth And Seventh Books Of Moses. No Author given. "The sixth and seventh books of Moses: or, Moses' magical spirit-art, known as the wonderful arts of the old wise Hebrews, taken from the Mosaic books of the Cabala and the Talmud, for the good of mankind."

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