Translatable but Debatable — Remaining Silent

Once when I was a kid watching a TV courtroom drama, a plot twist put one of the lawyers on the witness stand.  When he didn’t want to answer a question, he glanced at the court reporter and said “I remain silent.”  I was impressed on the one hand that with this professional convention he obliged everyone (even the humble, unsung court reporter) by not requiring them to wait through and interpret an actual silence.  On the other hand, I was impressed by the paradox whereby the words “I remain silent” are acceptable at face value while obviously false.

It does indeed happen that people say “I remain silent” in English-speaking courtrooms, but in Israel a finer logic prevailed when criminal Yaron Sanker several years ago, disappointed at the terms he wound up with as a state’s witness, held up a sign with the two words אני שותק — “I remain silent” —and thus avoided the paradox.  Of course not everyone has time to prepare a sign.  Maybe each courtroom should make one available.

Technically I suppose that if the English “I remain silent” were to be transferred faithfully into a Hebrew courtroom, it would be אני שומר שתיקה, three words like the English.  But English couldn’t be as succinct as Hebrew even if it wanted to. 

When Archie Bunker told Edith to “stifle” on their TV series, it was funny partly (if only partly) because not only did he resort to unusual use of a verb, but the audience senses that his idiosyncratic word usage is a doughty response to an imperfection in the English language.  Suddenly the audience notices that English has no one-word verb for remaining silent. 

The teacher can call out “quiet,” the magician can call out “silence,” the Shakespearean character can call out “peace,” but those aren’t verbs, and sometimes we want to convey that remaining silent counts as an action in itself.  It can be as primal and impactful an action as anything that any verb describes.  The most famous silence in Hebrew is Aaron’s in Leviticus 10:3.  His sons died for performing an unwelcome ritual and as King James has it, “Aaron held his peace.”  Other translations say he “was silent” or “kept silent.” 

The verb used in the Biblical passage is not vayishtok (וישתוק) but vayidom (וידום), so where English has no single-word verb, Hebrew even has alternatives.  I went to the Internet and found that as usual the rabbis have noticed and commented.

According to Rabbi Eli Meyer Smith, the choice of verb emphasizes Aaron’s admirable acceptance of the divine will.  Rabbi Smith writes:

Seemingly, the term וישתוק [vayishtok], And he was quiet, should have been used. This would indicate that he was quiet and didn’t say anything. The word “Vayidom” is used to refer to a “domem”, an inanimate, silent object. This indicates that Aharon not only was silent, he also didn’t even show any type of emotion. He didn’t show any mourning… 

Rabbi Steven Kushner writes:

It is, for me, among the most powerful and compelling words in all of Torah. Four letters. Painfully short. Dramatically onomatopoeic. Vayidom. Three syllables ending with a slamming shut of your lips. Almost as if an action suggestive of the forcing of silence upon oneself. Vayidom.

We do have a slamming-shut-of-your-lips word or two in English too.  We could describe Aaron as “mum,” or “dumb.”  But “mum” tends to imply withholding information; and “dumb” might imply that Aaron was wordless, or speechless, in the sense of not being able to talk if he wanted to.

Four hundred years after King James, I’m afraid we can’t improve greatly on the translation of that sentence.  In our own writing, or in an English version with poetic license, we have many more options.  Aaron could stare silently or hide his eyes, he could hang his head or rend his garment; by reporting any such action, we would imply that he did not do what we aren’t reporting.  Or we could make the negative explicit and the language less dramatic:  — Aaron didn’t react, didn’t respond, didn’t speak. 

If you have an opinion, please don’t hold your peace.  Comments on how to describe a person’s deliberate act of silence are welcome below.  If there’s any other issue you’d like to see discussed in this column, please do refrain from digressing below and instead write to me at .

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.