Translating the Bible

The challenges in creating a sensitive, idiomatic, and accurate translation of a classical Jewish text.

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.

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.

3. Possessive case: English translators have tended to avoid the possessive case. They would rather say “the house of Moses” than “Moses’ house”–even though the latter is the way people express this type of phrase 99 out of a 100 times in English. The translators do this with a good intention: they are trying to capture the Hebrew, which uses a construct form to express such things. But this requires adding a word (“of”), which does not appear in the Hebrew, and it often makes an unnatural English. I freely use the possessive case. This is not an absolute rule. I still use the “of” form if it makes better sense, as, for example, in the case of a well-known phrase like “the children of Israel.”

4. Starting verses with the word “and”: The Hebrew conjunction begins almost every verse. It usually means “and,” but it has a wider range of meanings as well, so translators make it “but,” “since,” “while,” “then,” and more. I usually leave it as “and” in English, but I do use the other terms in cases in which the context directs us to take it differently. Further, some recent translators simply leave it out altogether so, unlike the King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, and the Jewish Publication Society translation, each sentence in these translations does not begin with the word “and.” On this point, too, I prefer to preserve the feel of the original. I retain the word “and” where it occurs in the Hebrew.

5. Hebrew idioms: Sometimes I keep an idiom rather than translate it away–so long as its meaning is clear–because then my translation makes known to the reader of the translation how the Hebrew works. For example, in Genesis 16:2, I translate the Hebrew quite literally as: “And Abraham listened to Sarah‘s voice,” which is unusual and even a bit redundant in English, but I would rather have the reader of the translation see how this is expressed in the Bible than modify it to something like “listened to Sarah.” Similarly in Genesis 19:8 and many other places, I translate the expression “good in your eyes” literally because it is understandable in English even if it is not the common idiom.

6. Paragraphs: Separating a text into paragraphs is a basic part of writing and reading in English. It is now impossible to know for certain where the paragraphs began in the original text of the Torah. Some translations do not separate paragraphs at all. I have made decisions on where to begin new paragraphs based on the content, logic, and emphases of the stories. My divisions between sections likewise are based on these factors. They do not necessarily correspond to the points at which chapter breaks come in the text.

7. The name of God: I write it the same as it appears in the original, with the four consonants showing, thus: YHWH. This is known as the Tetragrammaton. In biblical times people would have read the name aloud. In the period following the completion of the Hebrew Bible, Jews began the practice of not saying the divine name out loud. Christians followed this practice as well. The practice for centuries was to say “the LORD” (Hebrew adonay) whenever one came to this word rather than to say what the four Hebrew letters actually spelled. Currently, some people have returned to the practice of saying the name out loud. Readers should follow the same practice in reading this translation that they would follow when reading the original. If they do not pronounce the divine name aloud, then they should say “the LORD” whenever they see the four letters.

8. The gender of God: Even though, like most people, I do not conceive of a deity who is male or female, there is no way around the fact that the Torah does in fact present God in consistently masculine terms. Even the name of God is masculine. (The feminine would be THWH.) I have therefore conveyed the masculine Hebrew conception in the translation as well. My point is that in each case I am translating an original work that someone else wrote, and I do not seek to impose my theological conceptions on that person’s work, nor do I want to hide that person’s views by means of a translator’s power.

9. The infinitive of emphasis: Hebrew sometimes has the infinitive of a verb placed before the verb itself in order to convey emphasis. Thus the Hebrew mot yumat would mean literally: “dying he shall be put to death.” Most English translators use some formulation such as “he shall surely be put to death” or “he shall be put to death, yes, death” to convey it. Since the function of this infinitival formulation in Hebrew is to emphasize, I think that it is best translated by the usual mechanisms of emphasis in English. The usual ways to convey emphasis in English are the use of either italics or exclamation points. I therefore generally use italics to convey Hebrew infinitival emphatics. Occasionally I use an exclamation point to convey this emphasis. In a few cases in which neither of these English conventions properly conveys the Hebrew meaning, I leave the infinitive untranslated.

10. Cognate accusatives: Cognate accusatives (for example, “I dreamed a dream,” “I did a deed”) are fairly common and a hallmark of literary style in biblical Hebrew. Cognate accusatives are not incorrect grammatically in English, but are sufficiently rare as to be felt by English readers to be uncomfortable. And so, like nearly all translators, I convey cognate accusatives without repeating the cognate forms. Thus, for example, I translate halom halamti as “I had a dream” rather than the literal “I dreamed a dream.”

11. Words with multiple translations: Hebrew terms sometimes have a wider range of meaning than any single English counterpart. Hebrew ‘abadim, for example, can be “slave” or “servant” and therefore must be translated by different English words in different contexts. Hebrew ‘ayef can be “tired,” “exhausted,” “faint,” or “famished.” Hebrew gadol can be “big,” “great,” “high,” or “old.” Hebrew terms for groups of animals–flock, herd, sheep, oxen, cows, animals, domestic animals, wild animals–do not correspond exactly to English terms, and it is virtually impossible to translate each term consistently through the Tanakh. Translators must make decisions in translating such terms individually in their contexts.

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