I had an interesting challenge last week in my work on translating Robert’s Adventures. It’s summer and the protagonist has discovered H.G. Wells. He gets everything he can from the library. While his friend is fishing, Robert lies reading, and imagines himself in the stories: “Der Umzebarer Mensh”, “Di Milkhome fun di Veltn”, “Ven der Shlofndiker Dervakht”, “Menshn vi Geter”, “Der Oysterlisher Bazukh”, and so on.
Normally, I’m just trying to render the Yiddish as well as I can in English. And normally, ‘as well as I can’ means understanding what it means, and saying the same thing. If I’m really lucky, I have some sense not just of what it means, but how it means. Is the author being playful, serious, poetic, or familiar? Is there a reason he chose the particular words he did, besides the primary, overt meaning? Then I try to do the equivalent in English, fully understanding that there is no exact equivalent.
But in this case, there is a right answer. These stories were published in English, and so the only correct translation is to give the titles in the words Wells used. I found a list of Wells’ books and short stories and identified everything except “Menshn vi Geter.” Although it didn’t matter to the Robert story what book it was, I wanted to get it right. I looked at a web page with plot summaries of Wells’ stories and finally decided that the most likely equivalent was “The Man Who Could Work Miracles.” Apparently the concept of super powers was around before comic book superheroes.
On the next page, Robert is imagining himself as the hero of When the Sleeper Awakes. He leads a small group of rebels against the mekhtike farvalter. Who is, or are, the farvalter? The only way for me to understand what he imagines he’s doing was to get some sense of the story, which luckily was available online in its entirety for free. So I started browsing, then reading, the original Wells story. Hey, translating is tough work, but somebody has to do it. At first I thought the farvalter was the Council, but then, checking back in the Yiddish dictionary I realize it had to be The Steward.
Then I came to the Plapl Mashinen that stand in the city squares and agitate for the government. Well before Orwell, Wells saw war as waged with words. The dictionary definition of Plapl was ‘chatter’, ‘babble’ or ‘gibberish’. Any would be equivalently clear for what role Robert’s reading played in the plot, but again, this was a specific translation from the English. The right answer was easy to find, but it puzzled me for a different reason.
A text search of the English story quickly turned up Babble Machines, but then why doesn’t the Yiddish language use the Hebrew word ‘Babel’ for ‘babble’? It turns out they have nothing to do with each other. Yes they are both about speech being unintelligible, but babbling comes from an infant’s tendency to repeat syllables. My dictionary gives ‘pitpeyt’, nimneym’, or ‘milmeyl’ as ways to babble in modern Hebrew. The same kind of impulse underlies the origin of the word ‘barbarian’. Romans viewed foreigners’ speech as unintelligible, as though they were just saying, “Bar, bar, bar.”
By contrast, Babel, according to the Torah, comes from ‘Bilbel’, which means ‘to mix’, ‘to stir’, or ‘to confuse’. God mixed the languages in order to confuse, thwart and then scatter the arrogant people of Babel. A typical commentary on the Torah might remind us that having just one language and ‘few words’ can lead to easy communication, but also to simplistic thinking. Isaiah Berlin wrote eloquently about the hazards of simplistic ideologies, arrogance, and single-minded goals: “There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.”
If diversity of perspectives and even of values is healthy, that also justifies my tendency to take a skeptical or critical perspective in these musings. I figure there are enough others who will be happy to stick to the party line. The Babylonians apparently did not think the name for their city of Babel came from any mixing up, but meant, “Gate of God,” or “Gate of the Gods.” Why, then, tell this elaborate story about a different name origin?
National myths are political documents as well as spiritual ones. Abraham is of Babylonian origin. He’s about to leave and become the father of the Hebrews. Babylon is of course, bigger, richer, more powerful, more technologically advanced than our little breakaway tribe will be for centuries. Citing their imposing Ziggurats and gates not as glorious achievements, but as acts of hubris that led to confusion and scattering is a perfect story to comfort and justify the scattered.
Political uses of scripture, then and now, are legion. For example, I also read the Ham story as essentially political rather than moral, as a way to illegitimize Ham’s son Canaan. Since later we are going to want to take the Canaanites’ land, it’s important to make sure that it isn’t really their land, and the farther back we can establish this the better. The long lists of names followed by descriptions of their territories in the Noakh parshah tend to bore the modern reader, and rightly so. They are attempts to put a divine imprimatur on some political order or another, as though Abram’s claimed dynastic line through Terah all the way up to Shem (father of all the Semites) is going to help us. On the other hand, contemporary writers who want to use the Ham story to claim that Judaism was racist from its origins don’t seem to have much of a claim. Yes, Ham’s children are Ethiopia (Kush), Egypt (Mizraim) and Lybia (Put). But none of these are said to be cursed. Only his fourth son, Canaan.
When does a story given in the Torah serve the truth, when does it give one truth among many, and when is it like a Plopl Mashine, flooding the airwaves with the official government line? After my first post about the Torah, my mother accused me of pilpul. Now plopl means chatter or babble or gibberish, but pilpul is the lengthy discussion of trivial details. Both can obscure what’s important. But I’m in a fix. I am writing as a language learner, who really ought to confine myself to the small stuff. I’m not a biblical scholar, with answers to some of these questions, nor am I a Rabbi. Were I in that role, I could try to make a coherent sermon about purity vs. diversity, about the concept of a species, about the ideas that link the Flood, Ham, and Tower stories. I might come up with some general way of thinking about descent and decency, about when to keep things simple, and when mixing it up is good. But that would be arrogant of me. I’m not aiming that high. Instead, I am happy to pick a word or three, squeeze them a little and see what comes out. For today it’s enough to get away with saying that a claim for the origin of Babel as bilbel (to confuse) is probably a bilbul (a slander).