WHEN I FIRST Tested with Citizens Cafe Tel Aviv, they asked for my story with Hebrew and I noted that in college I had failed other languages, but passed all three semesters with an A/B average in Hebrew. The interviewer laughed and said it was usually the other way around. That said, I’m not exactly even sorta-fluent. I have some mad skills sometimes. Then I need help with getting the words out. Yet I can hear individual words now, even in native speakers on TV and Radio. It used to be that I was hearing one or two words in the middle of a sound salad. Now, even though I don’t know the words, I can identify that they are words, I can hear the breaks in there. Sometimes I can understand enough words that they convey a sense of what’s being said even if I cannot formulate a full reply.
This is probably the same for all languages but learning Hebrew is teaching me a lot about English. At NYU I learned about gerunds in English (“a form that is derived from a verb but that functions as a noun, in English ending in -ing, e.g., asking in do you mind my asking you?”) because I learned about them in Hebrew. I am only now (in the last couple of months) learning how to conjugate in the future tense, but it’s shocking how rarely we use it in normal conversation: even in English we use a lot of combinations of past and present to convey all sorts and conditions of time. We do not often speak in the future tense. Certainly there are times when we need it, but a lot of the time saying things like “I want to get up at 6 AM” is not in the future tense: it’s the present tense of want. I am going to the store later is not future. It’s about am in the present. I’m going to the store after church. Also present tense.
Another thing that keeps happening is realizing how we reuse words in English: why does “more coffee” mean “another cup of coffee” and also “fill it more-full” and also “I think I need a pound and a half more coffee this month”?
The flipside of this is how often Hebrew words (especially, but not only prepositions) get repurposed. This leads to subtleties in the language that are simply not present in English and cannot be made clear in translation. This is something that happens in other languages: going from one language to another you can usually find a 1:1 correspondence in meaning, but what do you do when a word has 5 or 10 subtly different meanings? You generally have to pick one meaning and go with it. If it were possible in English to use one word for confession (of sins) and thanksgiving (offering) would we not use that one word to describe Eucharist and Confession? It is possible to use one word for those two concepts in Hebrew! But we miss it by way of translation. We see this in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Septuagint. There are meanings in the Hebrew that are not present in the Greek. And vice versa. I love this text from the Talmud: It once happened that five elders wrote the Torah for King Ptolemy in Greek, and that day was as ominous for Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made, since the Torah could not be accurately translated. It’s literally the mirror image of the Greek Orthodox claim that the Septuagint is inspired and that the Masoretic text has been “edited” to change the meanings. Unpack that all you want. (See more commentary here.) St Jerome, translating into Latin, used both the Greek and the Hebrew, but lost a bit of both coming into Latin.
By way of example for multiple, and overlapping, meanings:
To become religious – to journey from being a secular Jew to being a religious one – is described in modern Hebrew as
– הוא חזר בתשובה
– hoo khazar b’tshuvah.
Literally translated that is “he returned in repentance” but tshuvah is also an answer to a question. Thus “He returned with an answer” is a valid understanding of the sentence. It gives rise, then, to this countersign. If someone goes from being religious to being secular you can say,
– הוא חזר בשאלה
– hoo khazar b’sheola,
literally “he returned in a question”. When my tutor explained this to me we had an interesting discussion because becoming Christian does not leave you with “all the answers”. In fact, resting in the mystery in faith, in the cloud of unknowing, is often held as a greater virtue and so is the simple faith of a child. Mary had no idea what she was saying yes to, but she said it anyway. The same is true of anyone in RCIA (or OCIA) now. “I don’t understand why xyz is a sin… but I will accept it” is the same complaint. To take the Church’s teaching at face value is virtuous. Returning in a question is a leap of faith, but this concept is missing in English – fully present in the Hebrew, even if it is missed: returning with a question is exactly repenting: he returned. At least he returned. There’s hope.
How do you convey all these meanings in any language other than Hebrew? I don’t know.
Anyway, I continue to have more fun in Hebrew than I expected.
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