Saturday, September 1, 2012

Four non-literal children

The story of the four children/sons from the Passover haggadah neatly encapsulates many challenges in translating the haggadah: how faithful to be to the original Hebrew, how far to go towards egalitarian language (does anyone really care if the wicked child is referred to as “he”?), how to refer to God, which phrases are direct quotations of Torah passages and which phrases are restatements, when to use first and second and third person, how to think about both the reader and the intended audience.

Here’s a translation from the Red Sea Haggadah, posted on Open Source Haggadah:

The Torah speaks of four kinds of children: The wise child, the wicked, the simple one, the one too young to know to ask.
The wise child asks: "What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded you?" (Deuteronomy 6:20) To that one, you explain all the laws of Passover, down to the very last detail about the Afikoman.
The wicked child asks: "What mean you by this service?" (Exodus 12:26) By saying "you," and not "we" or "me," he excludes himself from the group, and denies God. Answer that child plainly: "This is done because of that which the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt." (Exodus 13:8) For me, not for you: had you been there in Egypt, you would not have been redeemed.
The simple child asks: "What is this?" Answer that one: "By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage." (Exodus 13:14)
Of the child too young to ask, it is written: "And thou shalt show thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt." (Exodus 13:8)
Two questions leap out: (1) Why is the wise child not rebuked for saying “you,” when the wicked child is rebuked for saying “you”? (2) Why do the wicked child and the child too young to ask deserve the same answer? I prefer to change both the wise child’s question and the answer to the young child to the inclusive “us” and avoid those questions on an initial reading.

The Union Haggadah from 1923 begins:
By a fitting answer to the questions of each of the four types of the sons of Israel, does the Torah explain the meaning of this night's celebration.
I hate this translation. While the four children are still types rather than individuals, they are now the only types. And the answers to come are mere beginnings, not actual explanations.

From 1787:
Blessed is the Creator, blessed is he, blessed is he who gave the law to his people Israel, blessed is he whose law expresseth of these four different sorts of children. The wise, the wicked, the simple, and one not having the capacity of asking.

The wise saith, what mean these testimonies, statutes, and judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded us? then thou shalt say unto him according to the Paschal, as it is ordered us.

The wicked saith, what mean you by this service? by which expression, he draweth himself from the community and denies the omnipotence. Then shalt thou say unto him, on this account did the Lord do this unto me, on my going out of Egypt, to me and not to thee, for hadest thou been there, thou wouldest not have been redeemed.

The simple saith, what is this? and thou shalt say unto him, by strength of the Lord he brought us out from Egypt the house of bondage.

And to him not in capacity of asking, thou must inculcate knowledge into him, as it is written, and thou shalt declare unto thy son, in that day, saying, this is done because of that which the Lord did unto me, when I came forth from Egypt.
This translation is a great place to start. I want children, not sons. I want to repeat “child” more, though, to keep this passage focused on responding to our children, even though the types of children can certainly reflect aspects of any adult.

The Torah speaks of four sorts of children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who cannot ask a question.

Then on to the children.

The wise child asks, “What are the meanings of these testimonies, statutes, and judgments, which the Lord our God has commanded us?” To that child we must explain all the laws of Passover, down to every detail of the Afikoman.

The wise child’s question is in contrast with the wicked child’s question in two ways: by whether the child is including himself in the community and by whether the child is acknowledging God.

Does the wise child’s question need to be so cumbersome? Testimonies? There has to be a better word to use there. We could echo the common “Ended is the Passover seder, according to custom, statute, and law” with What do these all mean, the customs, statutes, and laws which the Lord our God has commanded us? Or we could eliminate the direct question: The wise child asks about the meanings of all the customs, statutes, and laws of Passover which the Lord our God has commanded us. But then we don’t provide a direct example of how to ask. Should we divide up the wise child’s question into two questions, according to the two common translation options of what are they and what do they mean: What are these testimonies, statutes, and judgments, which the Lord our God has commanded us? What do they mean? 

The wicked child asks, “What do you mean by this service?” This child is excluding himself from his community and denying God. To that child you shall say, I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt. For me and not for him; if he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Not with that attitude, young man. The response to the wicked child is harsh, hopefully untrue, and memorable. There are some great discussions about whether the best literal translation to start the response to the wicked child is “blunt his teeth” or “set his teeth on edge.” What I haven’t run into is discussion about a difference between carnivores and herbivores being sharp teeth vs. blunt teeth, and that blunting his teeth is therefore a way of excluding him from partaking of the Passover offering, the roasted lamb. The wicked child excludes himself from the community, and we in turn exclude him from full participation.

Small word choices matter. The child is excluding himself from [his/the/our] community. Each of these have different implications. I prefer “his” because a seder often includes participants who are not part of the Jewish community, and because it indicates that even when the child is excluding himself, the community does not actually stop being his community.

The simple child asks, “What is this?” Tell him, with a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, where we were slaves.

Out of Egypt, rather than forth from Egypt, because the simple answer starts with escaping slavery. Coming forth from Egypt implies the journey toward, whether it is toward freedom, toward Israel, or toward receiving the Torah. The Hebrew very nicely repeats “out of”: out of Egypt, out of the slave house. There are additional layers of meaning with that phrasing, saying that we were brought out of Egypt and out of the slave house, while directly equating Egypt with a slave house.

For the child who cannot ask a question, you must teach him, as it is written: And you shall show your child on that day, saying, we do this because of what the Lord did for us when we came forth from Egypt.

Show your child along with the words, because words may not be enough for a child who cannot ask a question. Reinforce the inclusive “we” as much as possible, both to reassure the child that he is included and to contrast with the exclusion of the wicked child.

If the same translation is used for the response to the wicked child and the silent child, then I’d want to put the wicked child after the silent child, and explain that the identical answer is because the wicked child’s question is no more meaningful than not asking a question at all. This is a softer way of dealing with the wicked child (and one I haven’t seen discussion of), though much less faithful to the traditional approach.

14 comments:

Lisa said...

As a newcomer to the seder, one thing that always bothered me was the suggestion that children are either wise or wicked. The answers to the questions suggest that you can categorize the children by their interest in participation: the child who wants to participate, the child who does not want to participate, the child who is learning to participate, and the child who does not yet know what it means to participate.

Michael said...

There are four types of children who can be at a seder.

The child who wants to participate asks about all of the customs and commandments of Passover. For that child we must answer every question, down to every detail of the Afikoman.

The child who does not want to participate asks hostile questions or no questions at all. This child may be excluding himself, but remember that no child is beyond redemption. To that child you shall say, “I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt.”

The child who is learning to participate asks simply, “What is this?” Tell that child, “With a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, where we were slaves.”

And you must teach even the child who does not yet know what it means to participate. It is written: And you shall show your child on that day, saying, we do this because of what the Lord did for us when we came forth from Egypt.

Michael said...

The order of the children does matter, and the current order neatly reflects stages of development from oldest to youngest. We expect a rebellious phase, and certainly hope it will be followed by happy and interested participation.

When the simple child was instead the ignorant child (in earlier forms of the Hebrew text), the wise child contrasted with the ignorant child rather than with the wicked child.

The wicked child, or the child who does not want to participate, is still present at the seder table. We acknowledge the fact that they are still willing to show up by showing that we will still fulfill the commandment from Exodus 13:8. Even in the face of hostility from our own children, the commandments still apply to us.

Jed said...

I really like the recasting in terms of levels of, and interest in, participation. Nice.

shmuel said...

Hi. I came via a link from Jed, over on Facebook...

"Two questions leap out: (1) Why is the wise child not rebuked for saying 'you,' when the wicked child is rebuked for saying 'you'? (2) Why do the wicked child and the child too young to ask deserve the same answer? I prefer to change both the wise child’s question and the answer to the young child to the inclusive 'us' and avoid those questions on an initial reading."

This not only misses much of the point of this passage, but actively works to defeat it.

Those two questions are supposed to leap out. They're raised at most seders (well, the Orthodox ones, anyway; I can't speak for others), and any Haggadah-with-commentary worth its salt includes them and a set of answers. Aside from the lessons given by the answers, the exercise is meant to spur people into the active questioning that's a hallmark of the seder.

Pre-empting that in this section seems particularly ironic, as this section is explicitly about the importance of such engagement. All participants are supposed to ask questions (respectfully, not scornfully), and if anyone isn't participating, we should try to draw them out. Spoonfeeding is a last resort.

And messing with the translation to eliminate the questions built into the text is perhaps a step beyond spoonfeeding.

Michael said...

Are you starting with an English version at your Orthodox seders? I’m surprised, and I was not suggesting changing the Hebrew.

There are many questions worth asking from this passage, and I prefer that there be room for other questions first if the participants are starting from the English rather than from the Hebrew.

While the answers to the wicked and fourth child are identical in the Hebrew, they are almost always differences in the translation. If you want to privilege the question of why both children deserve an identical answer as one of the primary points of the passage, you certainly should provide identical translations.

Spoonfeeding is an inaccurate and derogatory way of describing the choice to encourage other questions first. Your overall argument can trivially justify any level of obfuscation or elision in the existing text as a means of encouraging questions. And your final sentence suggests a religious demand to never change a word, even though the haggadah itself in this very passage asks the wicked child’s question from Exodus 12:26 and then provides a completely different answer than prescribed in Exodus 12:27.

Of course the commentary in an expansive haggadah-with-commentary should address at least the second question, but that can readily be done regardless of the translation used simply by pointing out that the Hebrew is identical. Given how many haggadah commentaries do not directly address either of these questions, not everyone agrees as to which questions are the most important in this passage.

Michael said...

On the topic of people asking questions, I wanted to point to the Right Question Institute. I heard Dan Rothstein speak at TEDxSomerville last spring and more recently a couple of people from there did a lengthy interview on NPR, and they have compelling ideas about the power of teaching people to ask the right questions (or any questions). You can see the TEDxSomerville talk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JdczdsYBNA.

shmuel said...

No, the Orthodox seders I've been to start with the Hebrew, using English translations only as a supplement.

While the answers to the wicked and fourth child are identical in the Hebrew, they are almost always differences in the translation.
That surprises me, and certainly doesn't hold true for the Orthodox translations I have onhand. I can't see any justification for not having them be identical (aside from the one you offer, which I'm still not quite sold on).

"Spoonfeeding" referred not to your translation choices, but to the procedure for dealing with the son who doesn't know how to ask.

Why the haggadah recasts the wicked child's utterance is an excellent seder question itself, but I admit I don't see the relevance here... unless you're equating translating an existing liturgical work with writing one.

I do think the original text matters, and that seeming "obfuscations and elisions" are generally intentional. On the other hand, I certainly accept that all translations (whether sacred or secular) are incapable of capturing all the nuances of the original. Any translator has to make difficult choices, retaining some elements at the expense of others. Changing words and phrases may be necessary for clarity, concision, idiom, and even euphony. (For example, going to your next entry, while I think "testimonies" is probably the most literally accurate translation of eidos, I can understand why you'd like to get rid of it. [Perhaps "rememberances" would work, without the Christian overtones? Or would that be too confusing as well?])

What I took exception to was the suggestion that the translation should be changed not to make for a better translation per se, but to avoid questions. To me, that seemed at cross-purposes with the seder in general, and this passage in particular. I have a better idea of where you're coming from now, and it's a better place than I had thought at first, even if I disagree with it. :-) I think it's reasonable to want to attack other questions first, but I'd think that's a matter best left to moderation on the part of the seder leader. With that said... I jumped on with this post, and it seems likely that I'm missing the context of what your project is here, so perhaps I should have asked about that first. :-)

shmuel said...

(In the interest of honesty and full disclosure, I should probably also clarify that while my background is Orthodox, and I was observant for the first 30 years of my life, I am not at present. It's complicated. [wry smile])

Michael said...

It’s not just that translations are incapable of capturing all the nuances of the original. Translations come with their own language context and create their own nuances, whether you want them to or not.

And because language changes over time, nuances of the original 900 years ago (when the current haggadah text stopped being edited and rearranged) or 1900 years ago (when portions of the haggadah were in their current form) are different from nuances of the text today.

And that’s with ignoring how social, political, and religious contexts affect our understanding of language, all of which makes impossible the notion of a neutral translation.

We can have a translation attempt to aid the reader in understanding the source language, for which a good approach would be something like the Artscroll Interlinear Haggadah. Try to follow the source text word by word, and keep as much of each original sentence structure as possible. That has its uses, but is not the only valid approach to translation.

I’m interested in an English translation which resonates with readers who are not starting with the Hebrew and may never get to the Hebrew, and which is clear and interesting to participants with far less background than you (and even far less background than me). I also want the language to be easy to read on the page, easy to read aloud, and easy to listen to, so that participants can focus on the ideas conveyed by the language first. The haggadah gives us the gentlest imaginable encouragement to careful textual analysis with the finger/hand plague counting shtick, which would have no rational place if we were to assume that all participants were all wise, all well-learned in the Torah, and all inclined to sit up all night.

Your typical seder is different from my typical seder, and the participants at yours are different from the participants at mine. You may see tremendous value in difficult and offputting language, whereas I see its costs outweighing its benefits. That’s not because your seder and participants are more or less valuable, but because they are different.

So that’s a bit about where I’m coming from and where I’m hoping to get.

shmuel said...

See, I agree with everything you said in that last post, except for your suggestions about what my position is (and the sentence about the finger/hand thing, which seems of more interest to the wise/learned/up-all-night crowd than the neophytes). I am not particularly hung up on sentence structure, and certainly don't privilege difficult and offputting language. But that doesn't change the fact that I think the first duty of any translation is to be faithful to the original.

If it helps any... my favorite translation of the Torah, and the gold standard for a translation that meets the goals you suggest, is Aryeh Kaplan's The Living Torah. I fell in love with it when I read his translation of Genesis 20:9, which is:

Abimelekh summoned Abraham and said to him, 'How could you do this to us? What terrible thing did I do to you that you brought such great guilt upon me and my people? The thing you did to me is simply not done!'

These are crystal-clear idiomatic choices... and far more faithful to the meaning of the text than a more literal word-for-word translation, like ArtScroll's "Deeds that ought not to be done have you done to me!"

So, yes, I am foursquare behind having clear, interesting language that is easy to read, and can be understood by those with little or no prior knowledge of the source. But, in a translation, all of that is in in service of accurately translating the original, not a justification for not doing so.

I think this brings us to the crux of the matter: in this post, you describe the issues at hand as "challenges in translating the haggadah," but go on to include challenges in adapting or redacting it.

In the original Haggadah, it is clear (as you say, these are things that "leap out" at the reader) that the wise child ends his question with "you," and that we give the same answer to the wicked child and the one who doesn't know how to ask. (I could see some slight wiggle room on the former, but not the latter.) A translation that is faithful to what the text says in these instances would be just as clear, interesting, and readable. These particular tweaks have nothing to do with translating the text, but are rather matters of changing the text. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with crafting your own derivative work—lots of people have done that to the haggadah, with far more radical changes—but that presents different challenges than those faced by a translator.

To sum up, if you're looking to create a streamlined Haggadah 2.0 which leaves out various bits of nuance to provide an easier on-ramp into the themes you want to prioritize... go for it. Kol hakavod. Just embrace the fact that you're making an adapted work, not just a translation.

Shmuel said...

tl;dr: if your first sentence had had "adapting" instead of "translating," I still might have disagreed with your choice here, but I never would have argued the point. :-)

Michael said...

You’re repeating yourself, Shmuel. I’m aware that you disagree with me, and it’s not interesting to keep reading the same disagreement restated. Your understanding is not the only valid one, your priorities are not the only valid ones, and if you want a translation which is perfectly faithful to what matters to you about the text, you should craft one yourself.

Shmuel said...

I thought I was making a different point this time around (to the point where I was afraid my followup might be taken as a reversal of position), and I certainly make no claim to having the only valid position, but I shall bother you no more.