Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Thoughts on translating the haggadah

I remember when I first started noticing that the English in the prayerbook did not match the Hebrew. I had thought I could find the words I knew in Hebrew, match them up with the English words, and start to learn the other Hebrew words. But the translations didn’t work that way, as translations often don’t. Some parts were close translations, but other parts wandered off apparently using the Hebrew simply as inspiration.

A close translation is important in many contexts: when studying the original language, when translating for a patient or doctor in a medical context, when translating in a courtroom or in a legal setting. But people differ as to how much poetic license they might want a translator to take in other contexts. A word for word translation is unlikely to capture rhythms and internal rhymes, cannot replicate wordplay and word associations, and will inevitably remove, change, and add nuances and emphases. All of these things affect the reader’s understanding of the text, but then no two readers understand a text identically anyway.

For the Passover haggadah, I’m looking for a translation of each passage that captures the primary intent of the passage, and I don’t believe the primary intent of any passage in the haggadah is to confuse or alienate the reader. The haggadah is explicitly intended for a broad audience, including children. The haggadah is the only Jewish text some people ever encounter, the only Jewish text some people ever read aloud, and the only Jewish text many people are ever asked to explain or discuss.

There cannot be a single ideal translation. But we can choose among translations which make sense to us now and which still honor the primary intent of the original language. Whatever we decide that intent is.

The good news is that no haggadah has to stand alone. No haggadah has to pretend to ask or answer all questions. Vardibidian can have his annotated haggadah with good commentary, and Shmuel can have his haggadah that tries as carefully as possible to replicate the nuances of the original Hebrew, and Lisa can have her haggadah with good transliterations, and the world’s shelves are large enough for all of these and thousands more. For those of us who care, we can find several best haggadot, each with different strengths and weaknesses, and the best ones for us will each be different.

I want to make a haggadah which can be of good service to many different readers in the moment at the seder table, including participants who are uncommitted, uncertain, untrained, or concerned about feeling unwelcome. The seder can be a positive experience for those participants as well, and the haggadah should help make it so.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

When I was growing up, we always used the Maxwell House Haggadah, but my father always used his grandfather's haggadah. Different translations, but close enough that we could still follow along.

A friend told me that the Carol Boyd Leon haggadah is very good for families with young kids, but I have not tried it personally. http://carolboydleon.com/dayenu!_haggadah