Monday, February 11, 2008

Lost in Translation: The Benefits of Reading the “Original”

Blogs and message boards are great places to find material. There’s always misinformation to correct or a question that needs answering. This one has a little bit of both. I wasn’t a member of the site, so I couldn’t respond directly. The issue has to do with the perceived benefit of reading the original Hebrew of the Bible. Basically, the writer feared he was missing something by not reading the original. The following questions are raised by the message board post:

1. Today’s English versions are missing writings and lack the wording and depth of the original.

Apart from the issue of canonicity (see #3 below), I wouldn’t say any of today’s English translations are “missing writings.” Some English versions are based on different manuscript traditions which might preserve slightly different wordings in some cases. The most important example of this is the King James version (KJV) which comes from a different manuscript tradition than virtually all of the more recent English versions.

As for the issue that the English lacks the wording and depth of the original, it is not possible for a translation to keep the wording of the original language and still be good English. However, most English versions do a decent job of accurately representing the wording and depth of the Hebrew. The problems they have dealing with this will be discussed in #2.

2. Some Hebrew words don’t have an exact match in English. Later Bible versions might alter the words to today’s wordings which might be similar but not exactly the same.

Again, this is a by-product of all translations. No language is able to fully match the range of meaning of individual words in another language. However, the range of meanings of many related words overlaps in Hebrew and English. The correct sense of a Hebrew word can be accurately expressed by different English words depending on the context. All English versions are “altering” the words to today’s wording in some way. It’s called “translation.” It’s not like the original was written in King James English and we’re updating it to current idiom. The goal of English translation is to represent as closely as possible the wording of the original source language (Hebrew) in contemporary English.

3. Some writings have been taken out because a religious leader at the time did not agree with it.

This is an interesting one. Who do you think decided in the first place what was part of the Bible and what wasn’t? The religious leaders at the time. So if a writing was taken out, was it Scripture to begin with? This questions raises the issue of canonicity. As far as the Hebrew Bible goes, the Jewish canon was pretty well set by the second century BCE. It consisted of the Law (the Pentateuch), the Prophets (Joshua through Kings and Isaiah through Malachi except Lamentations), and the Writings (everything else). The third section includes the latest books to be added to the Hebrew Bible, like Esther. The final books of the Hebrew Bible were probably added to the canon around 400 BCE. The “Old Testament” canon of the Catholic and Orthodox churches includes additional books that aren’t part of the Jewish or Protestant canons. (I use “Old Testament” because Hebrew Bible refers specifically to the Jewish/Protestant canon.) These are the Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical books. They were for the most part written during the period from 400 BCE to 100 BCE. Some were originally Hebrew or Aramaic but most were written in Greek and their inclusion in the canon came from the early Christian use of the Septuagint as their Old Testament. Most were never considered Scripture by the Jewish religious leaders. Even some early church fathers, such as Jerome, were uncomfortable with the Scriptural status of books they knew were in the Greek Bible but not in the Hebrew. After the Reformation, Protestant denominations moved to reject the Deuterocanonical books of the Catholic canon and limit their Old Testament canon to the books found in the Hebrew Bible.

The bottom line is that which books are part of “Scripture” depends on your tradition. A copy of the New American Bible (Catholic) will include books that aren’t in a New International Version (Protestant). Various Eastern Orthodox groups include even more books that are rejected by both Protestants and Catholics. This issue is not one that will be aided by an ability to read the Hebrew Bible since most of these additional writings were not written in Hebrew.

4. “Much earlier transcripts list dates of certain events.”

I have no idea what the person is asking about here. Questions based on hearsay are difficult to answer because they come from imagined or misunderstood information. It is possible that this person heard that earlier copies of the Bible give more precise dates for things. This is not true. In fact, the reverse is more likely. Copies that have precise dates are likely to be later (or at least the insertion of the date is often done later).

5. Heard from a friend who heard from a pastor who says that reading from the Hebrew is much more detailed and gives a greater understanding.

Yes, you’re all missing something if you don’t spend years studying Hebrew so that you can get that greater understanding. I’m impressed that there’s a pastor out there somewhere reading from the Hebrew Bible. Most seminaries don’t require learning Hebrew beyond the basic ability to read the simplest texts and use the dictionary to do word studies. This pastor may have been exaggerating his access to the original text. It requires years of study to develop a sense of the Hebrew language enough to pick up on the nuances of the language that get lost in translation. While the benefits are great for those of us who have put in that time, the great majority of people who can only read in translation are not missing out on a lot of details. The translations are mostly done by people with years of experience who are skilled at accurately representing the details and helping readers get the right understanding from the text. The greater understanding we might get from the text comes as a result of our work of interpretation. Knowledge of the language is a tool to aid that interpretation. Anyone can work toward a greater understanding of the text by using tools to aid interpretation. If you lack access to the original language, find a commentary that will explain the additional nuances of interpretation for you. Not being able to read Hebrew does not prevent you from seeking a greater understanding of the text.

Not all translations give you the same access to the text. In the future, I’ll comment on the major differences between translations and which ones are best to get you closer to the “original.”

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you learned Hebrew, so I don't have to! Now I can just ask you. ;)
    I think your blog is actually pretty informative and interesting, especially because I like to find out about those little enlightening things you only get from knowing what a word means in Hebrew.