On translating the Zohar’s poetic and unruly Aramaic, while staying true to the text’s original ambiguity.
In 2002, Stanford University Press embarked on the ambitious initiative of publishing a 12-volume translation of the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, The Zohar. This monumental, 20-year translation project, generously underwritten by Margot Pritzker, was undertaken by Daniel Matt with assistance on the final three volumes from Nathan Wolski and Joel Hecker. I am honored to have supervised this program at the Press from the beginning, and have had the sincere pleasure of working with both Daniel Matt and Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, who has overseen and managed the work on behalf of the Zohar Education Project, Inc (ZEPI). In two companion blog posts, Daniel Matt and Rabbi Poupko reflect on their experiences. While the translation was completed in 2016, and the final volume was published in 2017, SUP will continue to develop the work and help it to reach new audiences. The beautiful, limited run Collector's Edition was released at the end of 2017, and we plan to release ebook editions of all twelve volumes in the summer of 2018, while at the same time re-releasing native HTML editions of the Aramaic source texts. Watch out for future new works on the Zohar web page.
—Alan Harvey, Director, Stanford University Press
It has been an adventure to spend eighteen years translating the Zohar. This mystical commentary on the Torah is not only the masterpiece of Kabbalah, but also a gem of world literature that has remained mostly hidden ever since it was composed in Spain in the thirteenth century.
When the project was first proposed to me, back in 1995, I was simultaneously thrilled and frightened. How could I hope to complete such a vast undertaking, translating and explicating some 1,600 pages of dense, intentionally cryptic Aramaic? Yet, how could I turn down this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? After thinking about it for a couple of weeks, and then a couple of months, I decided to try it before committing myself to the project; but this experiment drained me so much that I decided to decline the offer, amazing though it was. Then, however, I met Margot Pritzker, who had first proposed the idea to me. She said that she understood my hesitation, and then she asked how long such a project might take. “Twelve to fifteen years,” I replied, to which she responded simply, “You’re not scaring me.” When I heard that, something inside of me flipped. Maybe it was that I heard her words as a challenge: “I’m not scared. Why are you?” In any case, in that moment I changed my mind and said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
The Zohar is not only the masterpiece of Kabbalah but also a gem of world literature.
Now I had to confront the task! All previous translations of the Zohar are based on the standard printed editions, and at first I intended to follow the same procedure. However, upon examining some of the early manuscripts of the Zohar (dating from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries), I discovered numerous superior readings, which had been rejected or revised by editors of the first printed editions. Then, I noticed something more intriguing. Within the manuscripts themselves were signs of an editorial process: revision, reformulation, and emendation. Basically, nearly every scribe who copied the Zohar had put in his own two cents: adding an explanatory phrase, correcting what seemed to be a mistake, taming a wild formulation by substituting a more familiar (though bland) term. I realized that I could no longer rely on the printed editions of the Zohar, since these obscured earlier versions. So, I took it upon myself to reconstruct a new-ancient version of the Aramaic text based on the manuscripts, one which could serve as the foundation for my translation. In effect, I was deleting hundreds of years of scribal revisions and attempting to restore a more original text. I was seeking to recover the Zohar’s primal texture and cryptic flavor.
I was able to scrape away some seven hundred years of accretion and corruption and at least approach that elusive, hypothetical original.
I do not claim to have restored “the original text of the Zohar.” There may never have been any such thing, since the text probably emerged over decades, written and distributed in piecemeal fashion. However, through painstaking analysis of the variants, I was able to scrape away some seven hundred years of accretion and corruption and at least approach that elusive, hypothetical original. This revised Aramaic text of the Zohar, the basis of my translation, is on the website of Stanford University Press.
All translation is inherently inadequate, a well-intentioned betrayal. In the words of the second-century sage Rabbi Yehudah, “One who translates a verse literally is a liar; one who adds to it is a blasphemer.” Furthermore, the Zohar is notoriously obscure—perhaps the most difficult Jewish classic to translate. It was composed in Castile (medieval Spain) mostly in Aramaic, a language no longer spoken there or hardly anywhere else in the Jewish world. The authors concocted a unique blend of Aramaic out of traditional sources, especially the Babylonian Talmud and the Aramaic translation of the Torah. This unparalleled neo-Aramaic is peppered with enigmatic expressions, puns, outlandish constructions, puzzling neologisms (invented words), and traces of medieval Hebrew and Castilian.
The Zohar’s prose is poetic, overflowing with multiple connotations, composed in such a way that you often cannot pin down the precise meaning of a phrase. The language befits the subject matter, which is mysterious, elusive, and ineffable; words merely suggest and hint. An unfathomable process may be stated, then immediately denied: Describing the initial stages of divine emanation, we read: “It split and did not split its aura.” Occasionally we encounter oxymorons, such as “new-ancient words,” alluding to the dual nature of the Zohar’s secrets, recently composed yet ascribed to ancient sources. The first impulse of emanation is described as botsina de-qardinuta, “a spark of impenetrable darkness,” so intensely bright that it cannot be seen.
The Zohar’s prose is poetic, overflowing with multiple connotations, composed in such a way that you often cannot pin down the precise meaning of a phrase.
I realized how challenging and risky it was to translate the Zohar’s unruly Aramaic. Though gradually, I discovered that a literal rendering of that Aramaic was not only the most accurate but also the most colorful and zestful—the best way to transmit the lyrical energy of the original. I also felt that while I wanted to make the Zohar accessible, I needed to convey its strangeness, potency, and rich ambiguity. When the first volume appeared, I was gratified when one book reviewer commented that this translation of the Zohar “is still in Aramaic.”
Because of the text’s difficulty, my accompanying commentary was essential. If my translation could not adequately express a multifaceted phrase, I tried to unfold the range of its meaning in the commentary. For although the Zohar’s basic vocabulary is limited, its roots generate a rich variety of meanings. For example, the root תקן (tqn) spans the following range: “establish, institute, mend, restore, correct, perfect, prepare, arrange, array, adorn.” The root סלק (slq) can mean: “rise, raise, culminate, attain, surpass, depart, disappear, die, remove, postpone, reserve, emit (fragrance).” In normal Aramaic and Hebrew, a verb’s specific conjugation determines which meaning of the root applies, but the Zohar ignores or flouts rules of grammar—confusing the conjugations, playing with multiple meanings, often leaving the reader stumped and wondering.
Mysticism strives to attain a realm beyond distinctions, but this mystical masterpiece demands constant decision making.
Moreover, if the translation was nearly as cryptic as the original Aramaic, the added commentary could rescue the stranded reader. For instance, especially puzzling—and charming—are the neologisms strewn throughout the Zohar, intended to bewilder and astound the reader. Some derive from rare Talmudic terms, which the author refashions by intentionally misspelling or by inverting letters; some derive from Greek, Latin, or Castilian; some appear to be pure inventions. One newly coined noun, טיקלא (tiqla), is particularly versatile. In various contexts, it can mean “scale, hollow of the hand, fist, potter’s wheel, and water clock.” This last sense refers to a device described in ancient and medieval scientific literature, which in the Zohar functions as an alarm clock, calibrated to wake kabbalists precisely at midnight for the ritual study of Torah. A similar device was employed in Christian monasteries to rouse monks for their vigils. How appropriate to invent a word for an invention!
Mysticism strives to attain a realm beyond distinctions, but this mystical masterpiece demands constant decision making, challenging the reader or translator to navigate between conflicting meanings and determine the appropriate one—or sometimes to discover how differing meanings pertain simultaneously. To figure out what the Zohar meant, I couldn’t simply search through dictionaries, lexicons, and digital resources; I had to look within myself and question my superficial understanding, broaden my mind, and open myself to the spiritual power of the words. I came to realize that in exploring the Zohar, linguistic search and spiritual search go hand in hand. You discover what the Zohar means only if you allow it to penetrate your mind and soul.
What a blessing it has been to immerse myself in this vast ocean of mystical creativity for so many years! I often felt that I was in touch with Moses de León, the Zohar’s principal author, conveying at least a taste of his wisdom. A few years into the project, I remember telling a friend that I felt I was inside De León’s mind. He responded, “No, he’s inside your mind.”