Author Archives: Richard Elliott Friedman

About Richard Elliott Friedman

Richard Elliot Friedman is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature and holds the Katzin Chair of Jewish Civilization at the University of California, San Diego.

Translating the Bible

Excerpted from “Studying Torah: Commentary, Interpretation, Translation,” which appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life & Thought, published by the American Jewish Congress.

Translation is an art, not a science. It is the art, the skill, and the sensitivity of the individual translator that make the difference. He or she must make the individual decision on each and every passage: how to capture it, how to convey what it means to someone who cannot read it in the original. Translation of the Bible is a string of decisions. The translator is always searching for the balance between literal and idiomatic. To get that balance exactly right is impossible. The closest any translation has come to it in English is the King James Version. All English translations since then have been steps in refining that balance, with varying degrees of success. The translation here is my attempt at finding it.
translating the bible
The following are some notes on a few basic points of this translation.

1. Mixing old and new English: Many translators eliminate old English terms–the whithers and thithers, whences and thences and hences, thees and thys and thous–to produce a contemporary translation, yet they still retain some archaic terms that do not have ready counterparts in contemporary English, such as “lest” and “in the midst.” The result is unfortunately an English that no English speaker ever wrote or spoke. And so it just does not feel right. I have tried to produce a translation that is consistent in the English it employs. Sometimes there is simply no way to convey a Hebrew phrase’s meaning in contemporary English, but I have tried for this consistency to the extent that it is possible while being true to the original.

2. Contractions: English translators rarely use contractions, even when translating discussions in common speech. But in normal spoken English, one almost never speaks for as much as five minutes without using a contraction. The result is that practically every conversation in the Bible sounds artificial in translation. I do not use contractions when translating narration, but when translating conversations, I have used contractions where they would normally be used in English conversation.