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Translations of the Zohar

Professor Avraham Elqayam

I would like to add some thoughts to the recent discussion about the Zohar translation. My distinguished colleague, Prof. Pinchas Giller, has brought up the notion that philological and etymological richness makes the Zohar text untranslatable. A similar position was voiced by my teacher, Prof. Yehuda Liebes, who has compiled an extensive Zohar lexicon.

The issue is very wide -- one can address philosophical aspects of translation, as well as psychological, spiritual, mythological and theological ones. Here I would only touch on some of the more direct issues -- the tension between the concept of a absolute translation versus the concept of relative ones.

I do not dispute the textual richness of the Zohar, and I do not dispute that some of this richness would surely be lost in translation; however, I hardly think this precludes the idea of translation. It only precludes the idea of a canonical, absolute translation. Every translation is transitory, every translation is relative to time, place, current norms of translation, excepted solutions, translator interpretations and mannerisms  -- all these change, and translations change with them. A translation which was good fifty, twenty, even ten years ago, may not be so today. So we translate again. We make new solutions to the old puzzles. In another ten or fifty years, someone will try other solutions.

There isn't, and cannot be, a "King James" canonical translation of the Zohar. And there isn't, and cannot be, an absolute translation of the Zohar. Nor should there be. There can be many relative translations, as many as there as skilled translators willing to bend to the task. Each brings his or her own interpretation and solutions, his or her own work of art.

Rinna Litwin, a gifted Israeli translator, has once likened the translator's work to that of the performing artist who performs a musical piece.  Each performer brings along his or her own unique interpretation, so that no performance is the same; and yet, each performance is a work of art, just as the original composition is a work of art. Each performance is valid, in its own way.

The Zohar is the eternal music, heard by those who have the heart to hear it as well as the ears and brains. Every time we read it, we translate, we interpret. Whoever reads the Zohar, whether they make an explicit act or translation or just an implicit one, conducts his own interpretation and makes his own unique musical contribution.

Ve-hamskilim yazhiru ke-zohar ha-rakia` [should I translate this? ;-) ]

Avi Elqayam

Comments on translating the Zohar by Prof. Giller | Further Comments on translating the Zohar by Prof. Giller

posted on the Donmeh mail list
Sat, 12 Jun 1999


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