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Missing Faces. How messages get lost in translation

Throughout his book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Sacks shares many of the translators’ choices and how they have led to religiously inspired violence.

I am a big fan of audiobooks. I download them onto my phone and listen to them when I’m doing everyday tasks around the house and yard. I may listen to chapters from a few books in a day, or to the same book over several days. Sometimes I listen to a section a few times, add a bookmark and a little note about what caught my attention, and then continue listening. I often share my notes with family and friends. Sometimes my notes prompt me to re-listen to an entire book...more than once.

Recently I finished listening to Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—for the third time. In it, Rabbi Sacks explains how much of the religiously inspired violence we see in the world today stems from misreading the stories in Genesis that are shared by all three of the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Specifically, Rabbi Sacks focuses on the sibling rivalry in the stories of Cain and Abel; Isaac and Ismael; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers; and Rachel and Leah. Where many interpretations paint these biblical characters as either good or evil, Rabbi Sacks brings to light that all the characters are unique, flawed human beings who learn and grow through their lives, and that G-d loves them all.

How is it possible that after so many centuries, we are still finding new ways to interpret old texts? One reason is because The Torah, what you may know as the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, was written in Hebrew, translated to Greek, then Latin, and over the centuries into many other languages. People who read and/or speak more than one language know that it can be difficult to translate words directly from one language into another. Instead, the translator needs to make choices about how to express the ideas contained in the original text. Throughout his book, Rabbi Sacks shares many of the translators’ choices and how they have led to religiously inspired violence.

It was Rabbi Sacks’s discussion of Genesis 32:21 that caught my attention and prompted this article. In the original Hebrew, the word panav (his face) appears twice, and the word panai (my face) appears twice. According to Rabbi Sacks, in many English translations, the word face never appears. When I heard this, I checked the six different versions of the Chumash (Torah in book form) I have in my home for how they translated Genesis 32:21. Only one version includes the word face four times in the English translation. In all the other books, the word face appears only once, in different places in the translation, with different meanings, yet the Hebrew is exactly the same in all six versions.

There are only 19 words in the Hebrew text of Genesis 32:21, so almost 20% of the original message is missing in the translation. If that much is missing from one verse, imagine what must be missing from the whole. What does this mean for those of us who read and believe in the scriptures? For that answer, I will circle back to the overall message in Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence--G-d loves us all.

If someone encourages you to harm a person or group that has a different perspective than yours, or they say that the way to peace is through doing harm to others, they have misread the texts. Keep yourself safe. Seek out, learn from, and spend time with people who show compassion, listen to different perspectives, see beauty in the world and show kindness to others.

Fiona Prince, MA is a coach and teacher who provides fundamental communication and writing skills through her own company and through Royal Roads Professional & Continuing Studies. Fiona acknowledges that her home and office are located on the traditional territories of the W̱SÁNEĆ and Lekwungen-speaking peoples, on whose traditional territories, she is thankful to live, learn, play, and do her work.  She worships at Chabad Family Shul and volunteers as the Jewish Spiritual Care Provider for the University of Victoria Multifaith Centre.

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* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday March 20th 2024