Sunday, February 28, 2010

Translating the Indecipherable

Most of the book of Esther is in fairly easy Hebrew. Some words, however, are quite difficult to understand. In particular, the phrase "ha-achashtranim benei ha-ramakhim" is difficult to translate. It is in Esther 8:10, which appears in the King James Version as follows: "And he wrote in the king Ahasuerus' name, and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback, and riders on mules, camels..." I omitted the difficult phrase at the end.

The Gemara (Megillah 18a) states that people who do not understand Hebrew can surely fulfill his obligation by hearing the megillah in Hebrew, since, after all, who among us understands the phrase "ha-achashtranim benei ha-ramakhim"? The plain meaning of the Gemara is that we do not understand that phrase, although Rabbenu Chananel explains it to mean that only the unlearned do not understand it (the Manos Ha-Levi, quoted in Torah Shelemah on Esther ch. 8 n. 25, quotes a similar explanation).

Click here to read moreRashi (Esther 8:1) says the phrase means a species of camels that runs quickly. Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) tries to translate it with the help of Arabic, rendering it as "mules bred of mares", which evidently are very fast. This is also the view of R. Sa'adia Gaon in his Arabic translation of the Bible. The King James Version, from above, concludes: "and young dromedaries", which seems to follow Rashi's approach. The Artscroll Tanach, translates it as "swift mules bred of mares", which follows Ibn Ezra.

R. Yaakov Emden, in his glosses to Megillah 18a, says that he saw in Persian history books that this is a unique breed of camels with two humps and eight legs, that run very quickly. I'm not sure what books he was reading.

Da'as Mikra (ad loc.) quotes studies that these are Persian words. Achashtranim means something that belongs to the king and ramakhim means stable or herd. Therefore, the phrase should be translated as "from the king's stable". The Living Nach translates the verse as: "He wrote it in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed it with the king's signet ring. Then he dispatched the letters by mounted couriers, riding thoroughbreds from the king's own stables." Similarly, the NRSV has the latter portion of the verse: "and sent them by mounted couriers riding on fast steeds bred from the royal herd."

After writing this, I came across a better article from JBQ (R. Zvi Ron, "Ha'achashtranim Bnei Ha'ramachim: Translating Esther 8:10" in Jewish Bible Quarterly 36:1, Jan-Mar 2008), available in full here: link.

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