A history of Jaffa
Language lessons

At home with the Bible

Some months ago, my friend Betsy mentioned to me that she has cousins in Jerusalem who run a Bible translation school here. "Maybe you'll get to meet them," she said. I shrugged and said sure, maybe, who knows? To my pleasant surprise, her cousins reached out to me, and we managed to make a date to meet one another. I spent Tuesday late afternoon and early evening at the Home for Bible Translators, the program run by Betsy's cousins Mirja and Halvor.

Mirja in the library at the Home for Bible Translators.

The Home is an actual house in the suburbs of Jerusalem, where scholars come (usually from the developing world) to study Biblical Hebrew and translation. The program is run in partnership with Hebrew University. Over the course of six months the students study the history, geography, archaeology, and culture of the Hebrew Scriptures; engage in close analysis of Biblical Hebrew, and study Hebrew as a modern language; and participate in workshops on exegesis and translation, with an eye toward going home and translating the Bible into their native tongues.

Mirja and Halvor started the program in 1995. Since then, they've trained 80+ Bible translators and scholars from 29 countries, who between them speak 53 languages. (To learn more: Found in translation, an article by Mordechai Beck in The Guardian.)

We sat in the living room / social space, sipped strong Finnish coffee and ate amazing enormous grapes, and talked about Judaism and Christianity, the Jewish traditions of the historical Jesus, and Bible translations ranging from Everett Fox's poetic Torah to the Finnish translation of Genesis which Mirja did some years ago.

The social space and dinner table.

We talked some about life and family and so forth. Halvor is Norwegian-American, and Mirja is Finnish; they met at Hebrew University, and have lived in/around Jerusalem since 1967. (Mirja's been here since 1949.) They kvelled about their son the veterinarian, their daughter in Boston, and their daughter the nurse who's involved with a pediatric AIDS program in Ethiopia. (You can see her on that webpage -- the young woman with her hair in cornrows, who appears in two photos there.) In turn, I told them about the ALEPH rabbinic program and about Ethan's work, including Global Voices.

But mostly we talked about their work. Why training Bible translators matters to them. Their love of Tanakh and of Hebrew. The importance of reading the Hebrew Scriptures in context: understanding the resonances of each word, catching references, and reading the text in the context of this place. So many "translations" are in fact versions, renderings that aren't faithful to the original. And there's something empowering (and anti-colonialist) about teaching people to craft their own thoughtful translations of Torah instead of depending on versions generated by people who may not have a nuanced understanding either of the Torah or of the varied cultures in which the Torah is read.

The program is small: seven to ten students at a time, who live together, dine together, and learn from one another. (It sounds like an amazing cultural exchange experience.) On Friday nights, the group celebrates Shabbat together. When they're here during Pesach, the program tries to find host families for them so they can experience the festival in a Jewish context. Students come from Cameroon, Nigeria, India, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia (and many other places too). One recently completed the first translation of the Bible into Wolof. Another of their students, from Burkina Faso, is working on a new translation into Dagara, the tribal language of our friend Bernard.

They drove me back to Jerusalem in the waning pink light of evening, and we wished each other shalom and l'hitraot. What fascinating people there are in (and around) Jerusalem! How nice it was to meet two more of them during my last days here.

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