Archpriest Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel: “Targum: Translation And Transmission”
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A new 2018-19 series of articles shared on the roots and the prospects that unite Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions to the realm of Jewishness and Hassidism,
Compared semantics and exegetical “paysages” by archpriest Alexander A.Winogradsky Frenkel (Patriarchate of Jerusalem). Below the tenth article.

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 wandered in the region and settled there. Others were the descents of all intermingled tribes and groups. Jews converted to Christianity, then to Islam and, at the Hebrew University, this is a subject of profound surveys conveyed over the past decades. This makes sense and can be easily traced back by comparing the names of the villages and the family.

To begin with, the Hittites sold the cave of Machpalah to Abraham and created the first strong link between the embryo of a Jewish identity based on faith in God and the local inhabitants.  A small tribe generated by a wandering Aramean from Haran and Ur-Kasdim in Sumer crossed with a lot of people and nations entered the Eretz Canaan – Eretz Israel, passing through the original Philistine land or Palestina.

Today, the international lingua franca or vernacular tongue is undoubtedly English. There is a specific way to speak English, to pronounce or write it, to make specific 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 blend English with all kinds of other languages or dialects. Is it a way to merge different tribes and people from so many backgrounds and build up a coherent society? Look! Until recently – the reaction is indeed in-born among them – the Japanese will stop speaking if they understand that you know or only understand some Japanese. And they would not help in learning the language that would only be a sort of social and mental “possession” of the Japanese.

They would first try the “alien” or foreigner and test how a person can be admitted to the subtle manner they put words into sentences, thus the way they think and reflect. Israelis have developed the same tendency over many years. Of course, we have the Anglo’s who arrived from all over the planet.  The question is uttered in many situations, although all kinds of people learn Modern Hebrew and use it in daily life: 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. For instance, Yiddish redeploys in religious circles but steps down in other groups. In Mea Shearim it apparently disappeared from the written announcements requiring to dress in a  modest way. It was replaced by Hebrew because a lot of foreigners come to visit them and cannot read Yiddish. Still, the Yiddish-speakers who belong to the very pious Jewish circles carried on and vehicles the expressions that first showed up in the ancient times, in the Mishnah and the original Hebrew and Aramaic parlances.

It introduced a real breach in the Jewish societal structures. Ultra-Orthodox Jews had to maintain the transmission of the Ancestors, of the Avot-אבות\Fathers and Sages, who brought the heritage by the medium of linguistic memory and the requirement to use a Jewish language. It is quite important. A language is metamorphosed (one could speak of a “transfiguration”) by those who make use of it. It is at the very core of the process of a revelation. Thus, Yiddish has linguistically passed the richness of the Hebrew and Aramaic revealed texts that remain understood within the specific living and oral traditions given at Mount Sinai and carried along the paths to Jerusalem and the Talmudic Academies of Mesopotamia.

This Yiddish language – a set of different dialects indeed – had developed from the frontiers of the Rhine (Alsace and Schwäbisch, Schwytzer-Dütsch) and got mixed to something comparable to Esperanto, including more than twenty-five languages (German, Slavic, Turkish, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic inter alia). It appeared in the 10th century. Too often, secularized Jews lost the “Mame-losh’n/מאמע-לושן, mother tongue”. It created even sort sort of lasting nostalgia among those whose parents refused to speak Yiddish with their children and wanted them to be “assimilated” in the many countries where they had settled. The new trendy Yiddish en vogue fans would read, eventually write but they would rather use their widely known mother tongues whether English, French, German, Spanish or Russian. The socialists, the “leftist” Bundists and other communists who were so creative in the world of the Jewishness have died out in between.

The Argentinian 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 (Ladino Life) with a good knowledge of Hebrew.

There is also a kind of Balagenglish that spontaneously refers to the Balkan messy situation as certainly to some protest against the British. Maybe the pioneers liked the idea of having their own Haganah Crown speech. You ask something in Hebrew, the answer comes in this Balagenglish, asking in return if you are from the Netherlands or… San Salvador.

As in the good old days of Shalom Aleichem, Russians only know Russian. It depends how things evolve. But most former Soviet Israelis want to learn English. Their children are quite likely to learn Arabic, mainly against the will of their parents and grandparents who arrived in Israel after the fall of communism. They are aware that Israel is located in the midst of a full Arabic-speaking cultural space that expands from Iraq to Morocco, from the Maghreb to the Mashrek. They also get to the reality of the deployment of the Arabic language through the Quran all over the world. President Reuven Rivlin’s father, Yosef, made the first translation of the Quran into Hebrew in 1936…

To a lesser extent, the new generation understands that Arabic is a major Christian language. Many former Soviet immigrants are not considered as “Jewish by nationality”. They feel very free and are interested in contacting Arabs of different legal statuses in the region. Others do visit the monasteries and churches of the different Christian jurisdictions. This aspect is not really known overseas.

How strange 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 linguistic memories. The monks of the Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem were often born in Turkey or had to learn it as the Syrian-Orthodox priests of the Holy Land who came from the ancient Aramaic-speaking region of the Tur-Abdin monasteries. Turkish is a language of prestige, but the Turks never wanted their citizens to settle in the large Ottoman Empire. They only sent officers and executives, governors, sultans, whatsoever, who left with the wind when the Empire collapsed by 1919.

It is quite peculiar for a great nation that claims to have so many connections with Europe, Judaism and Christianity whilst remaining culturally fenced. Turkish 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 economic and cultural network.

It is though quite fascinating how a tongue ceased to be used in one day… and to my knowledge there is only one Turkish family in Jerusalem that still speaks Turkish. They never intended to return to Turkey… just the same way the only Scottish Gaelic-speaking family of Jerusalem who “maintains” in the Holy City. This is quite an unusual phenomenon in the history of “self-protected linguistic imperialism” developed by some “ruling Empires”.

With regards to Hebrew, some people continue to mock the prodigious and immense work of Eliezer Ben Yehudah who revived the language. I daily have to meet with people who would 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 expat workers. One of the cheapest Jerusalem Ulpanim (Center where Hebrew is taught) is mostly frequented by Arabs who have enough common sense to learn the language adequately. They need it in order to find a suitable job or to study in the different universities.

However, whatsoever fellings toward individuals or the State of Israel, Modern Hebrew is refreshing, up-to-date, even up-to-the-minute of mental, human, emotional, scientific, philosophical reflection and creation. Its revival is unique in the linguistic developments. It has been reviving and questions the reality of what “oral resurrection of a social linguistic medium” shows of the divine and human prospects. Hebrew has been handed over and somehow seized by the non-Jews whilst the good tidings of the Scripture had been heralded to all the Nations. The revival of Hebrew reveals a dynamic process that was initiated from inside of Eastern Ashkenazi Jewishness. Moreover, it somehow relies upon the talmudic flexibility and border-crossing adaptability of the Yiddish parlance. Modern Hebrew is curiously the unexpected oral and written vehicle of what resurrection suggests to contemporary ears and minds.

“Yesh li chalom/יש לי חלום – Ich habe einen Traum… I have a dream”. T. Herzl’s words are taken 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 appears as a sort of linguistic Lego toy. It is incredibly more precise than human reflection because of its capacity to set up numerous words with prepositions and suffixes. Then, it is a typical Jewish and European Inter-Christian tongue or linguistic concept. The words are mainly taken from European languages and would never be adopted by Asia, Africa.

Ludwig Zamenhof had a special dream that still abides our souls. It sounds like in Genesis: “(everyone on) all the earth had one language and the same (one) words (“devarim achadim/דברים אחדים”)” (Gen. 11:1). This is related to the survival after the flood.

The Christians would speak of a “Pentecostal/born of the pouring of the Holy Spirit” unity phenomenon. A kind of “glossolalia” (tongue revealing utterances)” that was experienced in the apostolic times and turn to be very trendy in the Western charismatic milieus. The Jewish tradition insists on the importance of the “safah achat\שפה אחת = a coherent, exact, incorrupt sequence of words and means of true understanding”. “Lax lips and low indistinct speech show wounds that also affect the mouth” (Makkot 32a), states the Tradition.

Thus, “devarim achadim\דברים אחדים = not the same, but rather each word had one precise, clear and specific meaning for all humans, a common substantiality”. Words were not misleading, dubious, full of nuances that could grow into 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 human skills deals with how to “translate”. It is contrasted because it refers to a twofold activity and two different jobs. A person who translates texts is not an interpreter who would translate orally. Hebrew “metarguman” apparently applies to both because “davar\דבר” can either be an oral or material (written) matter.

We think at times 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 (Bava-El\בבא-אל) as understood by the Syriac tradition that follows the teaching of the Mishna?

“Translation” requires to make use of a loud and strong voice “Ragem” (Assyrian). This means that human beings are deaf and mute to each other by nature. This is the point. “Targem/תרגם = to explain, interpret, red orally and translate at the same time into another tongue” as stated in the Book of Ezra 4:7. It shows that, from the very beginning, the Word of God was not heard, not listened to – it was distorted. It must be subject to a constant comprehensive updating process.

Nowadays, the Yemenite Jewish communities are the only ones that systematically read the weekly portions in Hebrew, then in Aramaic in the targum of Onkelos the proselyte and finally in Arabic, i.e. the vernacular tongue. This method of translating/interpreting can lead to complete estrangement, a process that drifts away from 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. The production of “targumim”, on the other hand, supposedly removed the errors of misunderstanding.

This is why the Jewish tradition is only at a stage of a new birthing after 3,000 years of Jewishness expressed in opposed and contradictory  environments. Not involved in opposing conflicts, but showing partial aspects. At the present, Israel is incredibly bound to reconnecting 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 reports that they started and ended the “Targum/ Metagraphi/ μεταγραφή – interpretation” on the same day and showed the same translation! As centuries passed, theological hostility and disputes showed up along with a process of cultural and religious estrangement (Entfremdung), the Jews ceased to refer to the Septuagint officially. Greek had become a significant second language among the Jews as a result of the impact of this translation. During the Talmudic times, on Tevet 8 (= this year on December 16, 2018) some people used to observe a fast day, expressing the fear of the detrimental effect of the translation.”

This was the Bible mainly used by Jews and the first Christians. We see that Saint Paul quoted the Septuagint, not the Hebrew text. The Jews stopped using it in the AD. II c. The LXX version is still studied in the Jewish communities as referring to important features of the Scripture or liturgical background. It is useless to quarrel about differences collected over ages. It is more significant to point out and check at length how the Jews came to make this “interpretation” of the Bible and how it relates to our contemporary and future envisioning of who we are and how we walk ahead of full redemption.

There is a paradox: many Christians in the 19th century tried to explain the sources and the impact that Hebrew exercises on the Christian communities. Today, it is possible for the non-Jewish people and theologians, if any, to speak and discuss the Books of the Oral and Written Torah in Modern Hebrew. But the very core of the constant meditation and method of transmitting the faith relies upon living Yiddish and it never cease in the Yeshivot and challenge the materiality of interpretation of the full Scriptural traditions.

Time are not ready for the non-Jews (in particular the Modernists and the Catholics after the Second Council of the Vatican) to approach the texts by comparing the Yiddish style and the Christian age-long traditional teachings.

The Armenian Church commemorates Saints Mesrob and Sahag who translated the Scripture into Armenian. Mesrob created the Armenian alphabet in AD. 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 basically followed the Greek version of the “Seventy”. It is interesting to note that, on June 28th, the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates Saint Hieronymos (Jerome, Jeremiah) of Stridonium who translated the Bible from the Hebrew and the Greek texts into Latin, which became the age-long read Vulgata.

The Italians say: “Traduttore, tradittore = translator – traitor”. We are often mentally submitted to waves that drift away our abilities to correctly accept the in-depth meaning of specific semantics. 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 with much prudence.

Languages do echo the Mysteries as the sacraments of divino-human(e) existence and dynamic move toward the completude of all things.

Dear readers,

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About the Author

Jivko Panev

Jivko Panev

Jivko Panev, maître de conférence en Droit canon et Histoire des Églises locales à l’Institut de théologie orthodoxe Saint Serge à Paris, recteur de la paroisse Notre Dame Souveraine, à Chaville en banlieue parisienne.

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