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Translator's Preface from R' Yehuda Ibn Tibon: very rich food for thought
Thread poster: Evert DELOOF-SYS

Evert DELOOF-SYS  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:33
English to Dutch
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Jun 30, 2003

A must read seminal writing for anyone involved in translation and certainly very rich food for thought.
All comments welcome!


Pointed out by several people and most recently by Yolanda Broad, who wrote:
This is one of the seminal writings on translation, one that I have been
reading about for a long, long time. It is every bit as fascinating as various third hand reports had portrayed it as.

To read it, click on the link with the above title to get to the text
(the rest is in Hebrew).

Here is the explanation that I found on Ticom, one of Lantra's offspring

The centerpoint of the site is a translation into English of a text written in 1162, by R' Yehuda Ibn Tibon. The text is hauntingly
familiar to us all, nearly 900 years after it was written. The translator of the text is Zvi Offer, who kindly donated his talent to the site.

There are some bugs yet to solve, but you can still enjoy it nonetheless

Here's the preface. People who read Hebrew should go to the above mentioned site.


R. Yehuda Ibn Tibbon’s Introduction to Hovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart) by R. Bahya ben Yosef Ibn Paquda

Translation: Zvi Ofer

Saith the translator: May the name of our God be blessed for ever and ever, for He created all in His wisdom and strength and chosen humanity as the pinnacle of His creation and the marvel of his handiwork. For He did grant the spirit of His wisdom unto mankind and illuminate our eyes with the light of His spirit, as it is written: But it is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty, that giveth them understanding [Job 32:8] and The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the inward parts [Proverbs 20:27]. Yea, did he distinguish mankind with wisdom, as it is written: Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth, and maketh us wiser than the fowls of heaven? [Job 35:11] and Thou hast made him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under His feet [Psalms 8:7]. …

Now that our iniquities have led us to abandon the path of Torah and wisdom, the Divine Presence has departed, prophecy has ceased and the sacred spirit no longer dwells within us. But of these, the Lord in his infinite mercy has left us gleanings: Two young grapes in His vineyard and three particles of grain to enlighten each generation with wisdom. He giveth power to the faint; and to him that hath no might He increaseth strength [Isaiah 40:29]. It is they who have uncovered hidden wisdom, solved enigmas and explained the Torah in the Mishna and Talmud, they who laid foundations and erected pillars to sustain God’s Torah, upon which the House of Israel is established. They wrote tracts on ethics, morals and virtues that are more precious than gold and gems and assembled codes of behavior derived from the Mishna and Talmud.

They were followed by the Geonim, in the Kingdom of Ishmael – Babylonia, the Land of Israel and Persia – who spoke Arabic, as did all Jewish communities there. Most of their Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic commentaries were composed in Arabic, as well as their other written works and Responsa, as this was the language that people understood. Moreover, Arabic is an extensive and rich language that suits every topic and every need for speakers and writers alike. Its allegories are clear and straightforward, far more capable of reaching the core of all matters than is Hebrew, as we possess nothing in Hebrew save what we find in the Bible, that does not suffice for every need. In addition, they sought to aid the uninformed, who were not fluent in the Holy Tongue. Therefore, most of their writings on all subjects – whether Torah wisdom or other disciplines – were composed in Arabic.

There was also a remnant of our people in the lands of Edom [Europe], where accomplished Torah and Talmudic sages have dwelled since ancient times. These scholars did not indulge in any other studies, not only because Torah was their sole livelihood but also because they had no such books available until they were enlightened by the pure light of mitzvot and Torah, the great, righteous and sacred R. Meshulam, son of the veteran scholar R. Yaakov, of blessed memory. His insight is like the purest oil that lights the eternal light of wisdom. His soul cleaves unto the Divine Torah and to all God’s creations. Knowledge was his lot in life. He yearned for the books of wisdom written by the Geonim and does everything in his power to collect, copy and ponder the wisdom of Torah, language and faith, as well as collections of allegories, ethical principles and the proverbs of the Sages. His hand finds their delights as a nest (cf. Isaiah 10:14). With their mighty intellect, they understood all implications and inferences and begat offspring in the form of wise adages. They addressed personal virtues and opened gateways to the paths of awe and morality, enlightening us in our darkness and straightening our crooked ways. Yea, his hand is still outstretched to gather and ponder.

When he heard that one of the Sages of Spain, namely R. Bahya ben Yosef the Dayan (Rabbinic Judge), composed a work dealing with the duties of the heart, the foundations of the concept of oneness, his spirit longed to see it for himself. When he obtained it, I was bidden to translate it into Hebrew for him. Once he heard about the book’s content and approach, his soul would not rest until he ordered it copied [translated]. Thus he bade me to translate its first Gate (Section), that is called Oneness (The Gate of Wholehearted Acceptance of the Oneness of God). Although his wishes are precious to me, I perceived that he had asked me to embark on a mission I would have preferred to avoid and from which I had always kept my distance. On several occasions, generous and beloved sages from those places sought to persuade me to translate some of the writings of the Geonim from Arabic to Hebrew. I would not be persuaded, however, as there is much caution to be observed in such matters.

In brief, all books I have seen translated from Arabic to Hebrew, without exception, have been distorted by the translators, who altered the content and thereby obliterated its purpose. This is a threefold loss: First, some of them were not sufficiently experienced and fluent in Arabic; second, even if fluent in Arabic, their expertise in Hebrew may have been lacking; third, even if facile in both languages, perhaps they failed to understand the author’s intentions and feelings, instead translating according to their own comprehension and knowledge in a manner that did not conform with the author’s own approach. Perhaps the translator possesses all these qualities. Clearly, the presence of any one of them suffices to alter content.

Moreover, the third quality itself applies in two ways: The translator may be one who is not a practitioner of the discipline at hand and does not understand its content and methods, who considers it his objective to translate the language as he understands it and as he sees fit. Alternatively, he may be an expert in said content and methods who did not receive the work directly from the author or one who was in contact with him. Consequently, he may have a different understanding of many of the issues and will tend to translate the author’s words accordingly, possibly applying his own inference. This may result in contradictions due to incorrect reading, to confusion with other issues of varying degrees of similarity, confusion between a particular case and a general rule and so on. I have noticed that some of the greatest scholars have failed in this mission.

In addition, we cannot express all our thoughts allegorically and reach the core of a matter as briefly and elegantly in Hebrew as we can in Arabic, because Arabic is a highly extensive and lucid language, responding to all its speakers’ desires. As noted, we do not possess sufficient Hebrew [sources] for this purpose. Therefore, one who translates from one language to another must be expert and fluent in both languages, familiar with all their precise rules, roots and local dialects, as well as their syntax, semantics, morphology and taxonomy, placing each word in its proper category, each among its own family and ancestors. For there are so many Arabic words that have multiple interpretations, their meaning attested to only by their placement, structure or form. The Hebrew root peh-qof-dalet, too, has several meanings. There are many others like it in the Bible that need not be recalled here.

Therefore, one must possess a clear and appropriate knowledge and understanding of the book’s underlying concept. Otherwise, one might distort its purpose, obliterate its wisdom, inviting accusations by authors and readers alike for blocking their path with error. After all, it is the translator who is now creating the book, like a father and teacher. Were the translator capable of translating word for word, without adding or subtracting anything, he would save himself this obstacle and guilt. However, translations of this type are difficult to understand for anyone who is not an accomplished scholar of the Holy Tongue and their style is not especially pleasing or accommodating. Moreover, language difficulties may hinder comprehension.

All the above indicates that the translator must exercise caution in every respect. If he is competent in the discipline to be translated, he may proceed. If not, he ought to desist, as a translator cannot amend language without enhancing one matter and diminishing another, without adding and subtracting. At times, the translator must use a word that is only an approximation [of the original] or replace an unfamiliar parable or allegory with a similar one common in the target language. In general, a translator should be aware of the syntax of both source and target languages to produce an acceptable and accurate translation. When translating, he may choose words at his own discretion, so long as they are readily comprehensible and do not alter the author’s intent.

The ancient translators, the authors of the Targumim, who translated the Torah and the Bible [into Aramaic], indeed substituted alternative replacing parables and allegories. For example, Onkelos translated “…with a high hand” [Exodus 14:8] as “bare-headed” in Aramaic, as that was the idiom for one who stands his ground. Several commentators and translators have interpreted and translated books of the Bible and the Mishna and Talmud into other languages. We note various differences among them, but because the originals are intact and available and each interpretation and translation stands on its own merits, no harm has been done. Rather, their works will be read by the multitudes and knowledge will proliferate.

When an author is found to have erred or to have omitted or understated some concept or other, it will be said that he has done all he can and that such are the limits of his wisdom. A far worse accusation is incurred by the translator of a book or other written work by an author who has been thorough and cautious – one who has examined the issues and differences of opinion, balanced one against the other and studied the topic intensively – who amends and damages the work yet presents it as authentic. When people read it, they will blame every error on the author.

We may take an example from the author of the present work, R. Bahya ben Yosef. Although he only composed original works on issues that concerned him and did not translate those of others, he considered desisting lest he diminish comprehension of the clarity of the Arabic language. His works, however, indeed reflect perspicacity in the intricacies of language. If so, then a fortiori, a person of my ilk ought to eschew translation for all the aforementioned reasons.

It is common practice to attack and excoriate anyone who expresses something new in this generation, whether by translating or by writing essays, poetry and the like. Those who are prudent will avoid embarking on this mission, particularly regarding [the works of] others, fleeing the languages and machinations of the human race.

I composed this preface to inform the public that it was not my own heart and mind that led me to accept this mission. I am not unaware of all the above matters. Nevertheless, I subjugated my own will to that of the person who bade me to do so and chose to forgo my honor in favor of his. I obeyed his will and hastened to do as he desired. I placed my soul in his hands and would not remain silent. I stood as a target to the archers’ arrows and gave my back to the smiters (cf. Isaiah 50:6). Withal, I was as cautious as possible not to divert the words of the author from their path. I translated word for word, although the style was not as elegant as I would have desired. When unable to do so, I would study and examine the text until I understood it and then translate it to the best of my ability. When I had any doubts, I would consult references of the relevant discipline and translate only when my comprehension was clear.

I realized that the author, of blessed memory, omitted something that ought to have been included or at least noted at the beginning of his book: A glossary of the terms taken from external disciplines to propound his ideas and their meaning in those disciplines, for such is the practice of the wise in all works of knowledge. There are nouns and verbs which the masses are unfamiliar and find incomprehensible. Some also have alternate meanings. Perhaps he did so because, as he indicated, he wrote this work as a testament to himself and his colleagues. However, he stated subsequently that he also wanted it to benefit the rest of mankind. As such, he should have sensed, as I did, that one who is not expert in these terms nor accustomed to these disciplines would inquire about them.

The reader of this translation should not reproach me for having included a few verb and noun forms that do not exist in Hebrew. It was the importance of this mission and the paucity of the language that led me to do so. Furthermore, translation scholars who preceded us also used forms borrowed from Arabic, that is similar to our own language in most respect. Let them not criticize me for having mingled Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew at times or for using the latter in lieu of the former, as I adopted the closest style [to the original] available in the translation.

Those who correct me where necessary are to be praised, for the reader may be wiser than the translator and the listener wiser than the speaker. May scholars who examine this work at any time find the strength to examine the text and correct its errors, sharing their vast wisdom generously.

When we beseech God to save us from all hindrances and absolve us of guilt for our deeds, we will also pray that he rescue us from the stumbling blocks of our words and the iniquities of our lips, as His Messiah doth ask of Him: Set a guard, O Lord, to my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips [Psalms 141:3].

And so I begin to translate the words of the author. May the Lord God assist me, Amen.

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Translator's Preface from R' Yehuda Ibn Tibon: very rich food for thought

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