Brother, Where Art Thou?

Maybe because we’ve been reading on Shabbat about the brothers Moses and Aaron, I was particularly sensitized to brothers when our Torah study class recently read Jacob’s dying exhortation to his sons. What particularly struck me was the efforts of several Biblical translators to avoid translating achim as brothers.

Our teacher, Rabbi Andrea London, along with many class members, had the Women’s Torah Commentary, and most of the others had the revised Plaut Commentary, both of which present Chaim Stern’s translation of Genesis. My text was the Art Scroll Stone Chumash with a translation by Nosson Scherman.

The line we were talking about reads, in the Hebrew, Shimon v’Levi achim, klei chamass m’cheirotaichem. Left to my own devices, and aided by my own desk dictionary, I would render this Simeon and Levi are brothers; their weapons are instruments of violence. (My Ben-Yehuda-Weinstein Pocket Dictionary also offers kinsman or countryman as possible ach translations, but neither of these figure in the translations of Genesis I consulted.)

Seeing achim, I was startled to hear Rabbi London read Simeon and Levi are partners; instruments of violence are their plan. And my surprise was only enhanced when I looked at the translation I had in front of me: Simeon and Levi are comrades; their weaponry is a stolen craft.

Encountering these two different translations, or non-translations, of the same word, I did some further homework, and found that the 1995 Jewish Publication Society translation makes Simeon and Levi a pair. The 1917 JPS, following the King James, has brethren, which I see as old-fashioned but acceptable. Robert Alter translates the phrase under scrutiny as Simeon and Levi, the brothers, although there is no the in the Hebrew. Everett Fox chooses Simeon and Levi – such brothers – no such in the Hebrew either. (There are also further variations in the translation of klei chamass m’cheirotaichem, but they’re not germane to the main thrust of this discussion.)

Now, in defense of the eccentric renderings, their contrivers were obviously trying to get into Jacob’s mind, and to convey what he was trying to convey. We know that Simeon and Levi are brothers, two among the twelve; and they are also brothers to Dinah, in whose defense they earned the scorn their father is expressing. But, if we know Hebrew, we also know that if Jacob had wanted to say Simeon and Levi were partners, he could have called them shutafim; if he had wanted to call them comrades, he could have said chaverim; if he had wanted to identify them as a pair, he could have used zug. But the text reads achim – brothers.

As I have recounted before,, I once overheard a business colleague scolding his secretary. “You shouldn’t have done what I said, you should have done what I meant.” From opposite ends of the religious spectrum, Rabbis Scherman (Orthodox), the comrades man, and Stern (Reform), the partners man, agree that brothers alone is not good enough for helping us understand what Jacob meant, it’s important to convey that they’re two of a kind.

This leads us to the core question: what IS the job of the translator? Is it to tell us what the original language says, or what it means? Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler introduced me to the idea that any translation is a commentary; and in a different spin on the difficulty of going from one language to another, the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik is credited with the simile that reading poetry in translation is like kissing the bride through her veil. Fellow-blogger William Berkson cites an Italian proverb that equates translation with treason.

One indication of the importance of a text written in a language other than the reader’s own vernacular is the availability of multiple translations. Why do we need more than one? One reason is that, even though the source text is static, language in general is dynamic, so while one generation’s translation may combine fidelity and fluency, a few generations later, the fluency may have disappeared. A concept like the familiar form in the second person singular (thy and thine) doesn’t exist in Hebrew nor in contemporary English – so a locution that combined fidelity and fluency in the era of King James would provide neither today. But we leave it alone in Shakespeare (this above all, to thine own self be true) while we change it in liturgy (All the world shall come to serve Thee/You).

Since my obsession with translation surfaces especially in the context of Torah study (and to a lesser extent, in the context of liturgy), my first impulse is to want the translator(s) to be as faithful as possible to the inherent meaning of the words. The commentary can then suggest how those words might be understood. Even in a Bible edition without commentary, the explanation can be handled in a footnote.

If I owned the printing presses, I would follow the rabbinic PaRDeS tradition. Pardes, as a word, is translated orchard, but as an acronym it encapsulates p’shat, remez, drash, and sod. In this updated PaRDeS approach, the p‘shat is the simple translation, remez is the context, drash is the interpretive explanation, and sod (for which the p’shat is secret) is the lesson to be derived., In such a case, the p’shat would be achim. The translator’s “reading,” like partners or comrades, would be the remez. The back story – Simeon and Levi’s actions in defense of their sister – would be the drash, interpreting why Jacob has paired these two sons in this way. The sod here would be contained not in the word achim itself, but in its amplification as their mutual commitment to violence.

But I don’t own the printing presses, and I continue to brood about the variations on the achim theme: partners, comrades, a pair. They all seem to suggest that brothers (at least these brothers) have a bond beyond common parentage. As a corollary, we find words like brotherhood and fraternity (from the Latin frater, brother) that extend a brotherly bond to closely linked men without common parentage. It’s interesting that when the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods changed its name to Men of Reform Judaism, it left the name of its magazine unchanged: Achim. Brothers. When we sing Hinei ma tov u ma na’im shevet achim gam yachad, we think, or at least I think, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity. Think, too, about Schiller’s Ode to Joy, typically sung to Beethoven’s music. Wouldn’t you translate Alle Menschen werden Brüder as All men become brothers?

No, if you’re part of the gender-sensitive Reform movement, you’d probably translate it as All people become siblings. But that’s a blog post for another day.


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