Saturday, September 6, 2008

Speaking of Translation Issues...

The top story of the day among bibliobloggers appears to be the Israeli Education Ministry's ban on translating the Bible into "simple Hebrew."

From Ha'aretz:
The Education Ministry is to ban Bible aid booklets
that help elementary and junior high school students by "translating"
the text into simple Hebrew. Private publishers defend the booklets by
arguing that biblical Hebrew is a foreign tongue to young Israelis.

Teaching experts lambast the booklets, warning that children will
skip reading the Bible and opt for the simplified version. This will
not only deteriorate Bible studies but also impact the Hebrew language,
which is based on the Bible, they say.

The idea of translating the Bible into simple
contemporary language is "scandalous," Drora Halevy, the ministry's
National Supervisor for Bible Studies, told Haaretz. The booklets
present the text in "skimpy slang" that cheapens the Bible, she added.
"It's a purely marketing initiative intended for the below-average; it's a
disaster," says Professor Yaira Amit, a Bible instruction expert.

Booklet publishers Rafi Moses and Reches Publications say the Bible
is a foreign language to Israeli children, who need to read it in
simple language to understand it.

Halevy and other Bible and Hebrew language experts fear that
children will simply not bother to read the Bible, but use the simple
language version instead.

"The Bible is the Hebrew language's dictionary. It's the foundation
of everything," says linguist Zvia Valdan. "If you read it without the
original expressions and rhythms, it will lose its impact and power."

I tend to agree with Jim West that "the Israelis are onto something here." The same scenario could easily be applied to the situation with English Bible translation today. A dumbing down of all literature is under way as noted by Iyov, and the argument over dynamic equivalent translations could lead to a similar banning of translations as envisioned in a wickedly humorous spoof by John Hobbins. Peter Kirk has also posted some thoughtful comments on the story, following on issues raised by John and Iyov.

It's a difficult issue because on the one hand, Peter's right that the difference between Modern and Biblical Hebrew is roughly equivalent to the difference between King James English and modern English (the time separation with Modern and Biblical Hebrew is actually much much greater - but the analogy holds as comparing a classical form of the language with a contemporary form). On the other hand, the expectations for students in America have been getting lower and lower. Challenging students is what drives real learning, not making things easier on them.


  1. "Challenging students is what drives real learning, not making things easier on them."

    I agree completely. But then, I think any English translation is doomed to failure in some area. I say we just teach Greek and Hebrew in Sunday School and be done with it.

  2. Teaching the biblical languages in Sunday School definitely qualifies as "challenging students." But even a little training in that area goes a long way in showing people how hard translation really is and in helping them evaluate a translation.

  3. I can understand the hesitation to produce the Bible in "dumbed-down" forms, though I don't see any problem with children's translations that make the text accessible in their idiom. It seems like the real question here is whether Modern Hebrew has evolved enough such that Biblical Hebrew is now a foreign language to a modern Israeli. If that is the case, then translating the Hebrew Bible into Modern Hebrew is a perfectly valid thing to do. Nobody would insist, for instance, that non-specialists should try to read Chaucer in Middle English, even though with extensive glosses it's possible for an educated English speaker to do so. Middle English is a foreign language to a modern English speaker.

    The entire rhetoric behind this is absurd: the Israelis are treating Modern Hebrew as a dumbed-down degeneration from the Classical form of Hebrew. That runs counter to every worthwhile insight into the actual development of languages. You cannot preserve the spoken form of a classical language over time, and it is foolish to try. Modern Hebrew WILL continue to grow apart from Classical Hebrew, no matter what, and I see no reason that modern Israelis shouldn't have access to the Hebrew Scriptures in a language that they can actually read.

  4. Chris,

    You should check out Iyov's post. He's "uncomfortable even putting Chaucer in modern English."

    I agree with you though. We looked at some Old English and Middle English examples in my historical linguistics class this summer, looking at language change over time. Definitely a foreign language to me.