וְהֵם֙ לֹ֣א יָֽדְע֔וּ כִּ֥י שֹׁמֵ֖עַ יוֹסֵ֑ף כִּ֥י הַמֵּלִ֖יץ בֵּינֹתָֽם׃
And they did not know what Joseph was saying because there was an interpreter between them.
Up until now, in Bereshit (Genesis,) despite the confounding of language that was imposed upon humanity at migdal bavel (tower of Babel) the characters in the biblical narrative seemed to have no trouble speaking to one another. Clearly there were instances when characters from different cultures, nation- or city-states interacted. Perhaps there was a lingua-franca that was being used (as with the later Aramaic language) or perhaps people learned to speak languages other than their own as a routine matter of course. Of perhaps the authors/redactors of the biblical text didn’t consider it significant to mention when interpreters were being used. Or perhaps, as it may all be supposed or imagined dialogue to begin with, the authors/redactors decided to simply overlook the obvious in favor of making the narrative flow.
Here we have an interesting situation. Clearly Yoseif and his brothers are fully capable of communicating directly. Was it just to disguise his own identity that Yoseif chose to utilize an interpreter? Did he fear his voice would be recognized? (The obvious flaw in this argument is that he could still be heard speaking Egyptian to the interpreter – though perhaps it was less likely his voice would recognized by his brothers if it was speaking a different language.) Was it all just part of the trappings of diplomatic ritual? Could the grand Vizier of mighty Egypt be seen speaking (or understanding) the language of some other insignificant people?
Interesting questions, all, but not the focus of my musings this week. It’s just an interesting jumping-off point for a discussion about interpreters.
First, let us put the word meilitz in perspective. HALOT defines it as go-between, interpreter and also lists a second usage meaning subordinate, heavenly being, or intervening angel. The BDB lexicon also gives the definition of interpreter, but lists it as a second meaning. BDB defines the primary root of the word lamed-yod-tzadee as meaning scorn! (That adds an interesting dimension to Yoseif’s use of a “meilitz” but I’ll leave for you to ponder that.)
I will have to say, up front, that scorn is what I generally have for interpreters and interpretation. Not for the interpreters themselves, for they are all probably worthy people performing a worthy service. Our planet has so many languages that there is a clear need for people to interpret between them.
That being said, there’s a reason we often call them interpreters, and not just translators. While we may use the terms interchangeably, there’s a difference, and one that is not so subtle. A translation assumes a direct correlation between words in differing languages. This may be wishful thinking at best, As I have told many a student over the years, all translation is ultimately interpretation. I’m not sure that anyone can actually be just a translator.
The cycle of good communication usually goes something like this. A person says (or writes) something. Another person hears (or reads) it. (Some suggest that hearing is not enough, it needs to be listening, and I would tend to agree with that.) The hearing/listening/reading person attempts to understand the words of the original speaker/writer, utilizing whatever clues they can – context, body language, inflection, etc. Then, experts tell us, comes the crucial last steps, often omitted. The hearer/listener/reader gives feedback to the speaker/writer to demonstrate their understanding of what was communicated. The process is cyclical. If the speaker/writer is satisfied with the understanding of the listener/reader, they can move on from there. Otherwise, attempts can be made to clarify.
The simple truth is that we all speak/write and hear through our own lenses.That is what often makes communication between human beings so difficult. We tend to assume people understand our lenses and how they shape our perceptions.
In spoken conversation, there are many more clues to meaning that in written communication. Despite things like emoticons, it’s hard to discern things like body language, tone, inflection, etc. in written communication. (In many ways, the system of Torah cantillation/trope that we utilize to chant our sacred texts is a partial attempt to work around this limitation. Unfortunately, it still represents the Masoretes’ particular understandings of the text.)
Now, I will admit at this point that these thought are somewhat in contradiction to opinions I have expressed elsewhere regarding the nature of electronic communications, in which I have stated that they carry more content that we sometimes realize. I still believe this is the case, but in this musing I am striking a more cautionary and less enthusiastic tone.
So how do we know what the Torah and our other sacred texts are really saying to us? If we leave the job of translating these texts to others, then we are simply accepting their interpretations.
That is the rationale that I employ when trying to convince students (and adults) of the value of learning Hebrew – so that they can read the text in its original language and decide for themselves how to translate/interpret it. True, the individual doing this will encounter the same vagaries that an interpreter will, but they get to make the choice, rather than simply accepting the interpreter’s choice. At the very least, I tell students, they should look at several different translations of the original Hebrew so they can decide which interpretation speaks to them.
Yoseif chose to put an interpreter between himself and his brothers. He may have had his reasons, but we do not have to emulate him. We need not abrogate our responsibility to encounter our sacred text directly. We can strive to be our own translators and interpreters.
We will read, much further along in the Torah, its own self-proclamation that it is not to difficult to understand, that it is not up to others to go and fetch it for us. It is ours to read , ours with which to wrestle. If we want to do this well, we should endeavor to not place a single meilitz between ourselves and our sacred texts. Ideally, we should be our own meilitz, however, until we have that capability, we can and certainly should rely on multiple meilitzim to assist us in making sense of them.
If, like Yoseif, we place a meilitz between ourselves and our sacred texts, it is as if we are hiding ourselves from it, just as Yoseif may have been hiding from his brothers. Eventually, as we will read next week, Yoseif reveals himself to his brothers – no need for a meilitz between them. Yoseif delayed until he could stand it no longer? Why should we needlessly distance ourselves from our sacred texts? In this season of light, let us illuminate our Torah and sacred texts for ourselves. Let’s beat Yoseif to the punch, and begin this Shabbat to converse directly, without a meilitz between us, with our sacred texts.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameiakh,
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Miketz 5772 – A Piece of That Kit Kat Bar
Miketz 5771-What’s Bothering…Me?
Miketz/Hanukkah 5769 – Redux 5763 – Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz/Hanukah 5768 Learning From Joseph and His Brothers (revised from 5757)
Miketz 5767-Clothes Make the Man?
Miketz 5766-Eizeh Hu Khakham?
Miketz 5757& 5761-Would You Buy A Used Car From This Guy?
Miketz 5763/5764/5765-Assimilating Assimilation