/ articles for review

Bible translation as commentary

The Bible is the most translated book in the history of the world, and it is important to remember that the vast majority of human beings who have encountered the Bible have done so through the medium of a specific translation
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program


Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from educational programs developed by the authors. At the end of their essay is a guide on presenting this material to students, so that they develop their own hands-on method of translating and interpreting the Torah.
By Steve Israel
and Noam Zion
One of the major issues that needs to be dealt with in any study of the Bible is the issue of translation. Over the centuries, hundreds of translations of the Bible have been made into almost all the different languages in the world. The Bible is the most translated book in the history of the world, and it is important to remember that the vast majority of human beings who have encountered the Bible have done so through the medium of a specific translation.
It might be thought, superficially that translating is principally a technical job and that the task of the translator is to get the general message across to the reader. A brief thought will be sufficient to realize that this is insufficient.
The Tanakh is far more than a series of messages that a translator might wish to convey to the best of his or her understanding. The Tanakh is written in a particular style and it is to a large extent the style itself in the original Hebrew that contained a great deal of the power of the text.
This has been recognized by countless translators themselves, and most translators have made some kind of an attempt to get beyond the mere transmission of the general sense of the text and to use the translation in order to try and convey some of the majesty of the text.
Sephardic Torah ScrollHowever, it has been recognized by many that a great translation must go beyond both the transmission of the message of the text and the capturing of the dramatic power. There have been those who have realized that much of the message and the content of the text is actually contained in the form of the text.
By its use of techniques such as alliteration, repetitive leading words, puns and verbal association, the Biblical narrator or narrators attempt to deepen whatever ideas they are tying to convey. Thus especially (although not exclusively) in recent years translators have placed emphasis on the attempt to convey some of these meanings through a subtle wordplay that in their mind conveys some of the intentions of the original narrators of the texts that have come to us through time.
One of the greatest and most conscious of these attempts is found in the great and important German language translation made in the 1920s by the two great German Jewish thinkers and scholars, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig .
Not only did they spend years on their translation, but both of them, and more particularly Buber, reflected on the process and on their aims in many essays and speeches that were published in those years:
The "Old Testament" has never before been translated by writers seeking to return to the concrete fundamental meaning of each individual word; previous translators have been contented to put down something "appropriate," something "corresponding."… [Biblical] scholarship [which sees the text as being the product of many human hands] may dissolve a sentence into genuinely or supposedly independent components; we however may consider and imitate the forged work of the totality – meaning by "imitate" not the stupefying attempt to repeat an established form in different matter, but the striving to create for that form, in the differently ordered language into which we translate, a correspondence or a series of correspondences.
Paradoxically the best translations may be the worst enemies of close text study inspired by student questions. The mid-1980s Jewish Publication Society translation, for example, seeks smooth, contemporary flowing English prose style. Its historical scholarship is impressive but it sometimes makes our lives as commentators too easy.
Everett Fox’s translation, based on the Buber-Rosenzweig German translation, seeks to preserve poetic style (repeating roots, midrash on Hebrew names, bizarre words, ambiguous syntax, oral reading breath pauses) so that the “bumps” in the textual flow, the texture and form evoke curiosity.
Fox never lets us forget that this is translation from a different language and culture and that its translation is the beginning of a Buberian dialogue with God who gives this text its authority and its claim on us. After reading a translation we have not yet understood the text but we are just ready to begin to identify its difficulties and to interpret it.
One solution to this problem is to compare various translations. If Hebrew is the language of study, then some teachers ask the students to translate the text in their own words and then compare their efforts with alternative translations. A seminal text like hashomer achi anochi can be learned by heart in Hebrew and then comparative translation applied. In fact comparative translation can raise the student’s awareness of the importance of learning Biblical Hebrew.
Activity: Translating
Ask the students to define the job of a translator. Now ask them to define the job of a Biblical translator. Discuss the two questions and point out the enormous responsibility of any would-be Biblical translator who takes on her or himself the task of mediating for the reader what many perceive as the direct word of God and all see as a text of immeasurable importance for human culture in general and for people’s lives within that culture.
Present to the students the following scenario. They are experts in the issue of Biblical translation and that they have been invited for the forthcoming world conference "On Biblical Translation" to prepare a paper on Buber and Rosenzweig’s approach to the text in their great translation of the 1920s. Tell them that their working materials are eight fragments of Buber’s writings that have recently come to light from his personal archive and give them pieces from Buber on Biblical translation. They should work singly or in pairs, going through the fragments and trying to reconstruct the method and the approach of Buber and Rosenzweig to the task of translation. As they prepare their paper they must not content themselves with explaining the approach but must add their own comments regarding the enterprise. How do they relate to the ideas expressed by Buber? Do they make sense? Do they seem logical? Illogical?
Explain to the students that over the years many have supported the general ideas (such as they have been understood), while others have opposed them. As great experts on the subject, the students are being asked to give the ‘last word’ to the conference that they are going to address. As such, their responsibility is very great, both to explain the system and to assess it.
Let a couple of students give their papers (to the assembled conference of experts) and let the whole group discuss them.
Finally, remember that emphasis is important. An English professor wrote the words: "A woman without her man is nothing" on the chalkboard and asked his students to punctuate it correctly.
All of the males in the class wrote: "A woman, without her man, is nothing."
All the females in the class wrote: "A woman: without her, man is nothing." 

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Add a comment
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics