Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Translator's Notebook: Translating Ambiguous Present-Tense Plural

I have been translating Rif for a while now, and have developed a sense of some of the difficulties of translation. Should one translate literally at the expense of stilted language? Or translate to generate the general sense, in more flowing language? What if the language is ambiguous? In most works of translation (and, e.g. in machine translation), you need to give a single translation, as opposed to an n-best-list of the top n best possible translations.

One thing I've found myself struggling with is the plural present tense. In past and future tenses, Hebrew is fine. It is a pro-drop language, which means there is no explicit pronoun there, because it has rich morphology, with the pronoun modifying the verb instead (e.g. amarti, amarta, yichtov, etc.). In present, neutral tense, though, Hebrew is not pro-drop. Thus, omer is not enough to tell me who is speaking. Is it ani omer, ata omer, hu omer? The pronoun is really required, and is often present. Thus, holech adam el chenvani, a person may go to a shopkeeper -- we specify adam, which shows that this is the third person (hu).

Indeed, it seems fairly consistent in Mishnayot/baryata that for the singular case, it is either past tense third person or present tense first person.

However, it feels more difficult when we encounter the plural present tense case. The word omrim might occur in a Mishna or brayta, and we do not know who is talking. Is it atem omrim, anachnu omrim, or hem omrim? It is somehow the style to leave it out, which leaves this ambiguous. It does not really matter since what is at play is the command of what one may or may not do, and this is conveyed regardless of the pronoun attached. Yet a translator -- at least into English -- must resolve this ambiguity.

The most logical assumption would be that it would be third person plural (hem), just as the standard third person singular (hu). The approach I've seen most commonly in other translations is to render it as the third person singular ("one, he"), or as the first person plural ("we").

Why render it "we?" Especially where a third person singular already exists (e.g. machzirin oto), the inclination may be to say, "well, we already have the third person here, so the Mishna is telling us how to deal with him." But also, if no other pronoun is specified, and it is instructions about what to do or not to do, somehow "we" do something or should not do something feels more natural.

I recently came across a case that makes clear, at least in one case, how Shmuel the Amora understood a neutral tense plural verb. Citing from my own translation at Alfasi:
אין מבקעין עצים מן הקורות ולא מן הקורה שנשברה ביו"ט ואין מבקעין לא בקרדום ולא במגל ולא במגרה אלא בקופיץ.
בית שהוא מלא פירות סתום ונפחת נוטל ממקום הפחת ר"מ אומר אף פוחת לכתחלה ונוטל
They do not chop wood from beams or from a beam which broke on Yom Yov, nor may they chop with an axe, a saw or a sickle, but {only} with a cleaver {of a butcher}.

{Beitza 31b}
A closed {our Mishna lacks the word סתום} house which is full of fruits which became breached, he may take from the place of the breach.
Rabbi Meir said: He may even breach it initially and take.

והא אמרת רישא אין מבקעין כלל
א"ר יהודה אמר שמואל חסורי מיחסרא והכי קתני אין מבקעין עצים לא מן הקורות ולא מן הקורה שנשברה ביו"ט אבל מן הקורה שנשברה מעיו"ט מבקעין
וכשהן מבקעין אין מבקעין לא בקרדום ולא במגל ולא במגרה אלא בקופיץ
תנ"ה אין מבקעין עצים לא מן הסואר של קורות ולא מן הקורה שנשברה ביו"ט לפי שאינו מן המוכן
But the reisha {beginning of the Mishna} said that one should not chop at all!
Rav Yehuda cited Shmuel: The text is deficient and this is what it means to say: "They may not chop from beams, nor from a beam which broke on Yom Tov, but from a beam which broke from erev Yom Tov they may chop. And when they chop, they may not chop they with an axe, a saw or a sickle, but {only} with a cleaver.
A brayta also says so: They may not chop from the stack of beams nor from a beam which broke on Yom Tov because it is not "prepared."
How should we go about translating אין מבקעין. I will tell you what Artscroll does. It remains consistent with it usual style and translates "we may not chop." There is a problem with this, though. Rav Yehuda cited Shmuel that the Mishna was as if deficient in its language:
א"ר יהודה אמר שמואל חסורי מיחסרא והכי קתני אין מבקעין עצים לא מן הקורות ולא מן הקורה שנשברה ביו"ט אבל מן הקורה שנשברה מעיו"ט מבקעין
וכשהן מבקעין אין מבקעין לא בקרדום ולא במגל ולא במגרה אלא בקופיץ
The key phrase here is וכשהן מבקעין, "and when they do chop." The word hen is there, and so it must be third person plural. So what does Artscroll do? Throughout this entire statement of Shmuel, they make every אין מבקעין into "they may not chop." But, they do not then go back and change their translation of the Mishna, just a bit earlier -- they leave it as "we."

I went back and changed it. I would guess that I really should be consistent and change all the hundreds of other instances of ambiguous neutral tense plural as well, but at least I was consistent in this instance. Until I see evidence otherwise, I am going to try in general to render it as "they," even though it feels a bit more stilted.


Anonymous said...

You are right that translating is very difficult. Indeed it is an art and skill which take much practice to acquire. However, you are simplifying the problem at hand: the question is not just how to translate this particular word, but what is its meaning in the context. When the plural is used, the Mishnah usually is not referring to a specific group of people. It means as Artscroll translated "we" do something or don't do something (more proper would be "one" does not chop wood, but that does not capture the plural). Artscroll's position can be understood, because after we mention that someone is chopping we can then refer to those people as "they".

joshwaxman said...

I agree with much of what you said. And even if it is third person plural, third person plural might have the same role in Mishnaic Hebrew as the first person plural has in English.

Yet, Artscroll is not just translating discussion about the Mishna when it gives Shmuel's statement, but rather is presenting a hypothetical reconstruction of the Mishna with the "deficient" part inserted. If so, there should be consistency between the translation of the Mishna and Shmuel's hypothetical reconstruction. They could have left "we" in Shmuel's statement but that would have produced apparent internal inconsistency when they reached "hen." So they change even the original parts of the Mishna to "they," and then have the contrast between the two "Mishnayot."

I'm not knocking their translation. Everyone makes choices to optimize various features, often at the expense of others. And it is an art form, as you say.


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