Joel Hoffman is coming to town
Another mother poem: messages

Joel Hoffman on the perils of Bible translation

I went to Congregation Beth Israel last night to hear Dr. Joel Hoffman speak. His lecture was excellent. Joel is author most recently of And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning, which I haven't yet read but am really looking forward to (especially now that I've heard him speak!) As a quick side note, the event was co-sponsored by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires -- thanks, Federation.

The sanctuary was packed, which made me happy. Rabbi Goldwasser had done outreach to the Christian community as well, and I know there was at least one pagan in the audience (hi, Rev Allyson!) in addition to the crowd of CBI regulars.

In his introduction, Rabbi Goldwasser told us that Dr. Hoffman's "History of the Hebrew Language" course was one of his favorite classes in rabbinic school. He cited the old Italian saying that the translator is a traitor, and noted that translation is even more challenging when the text is one about which we care as deeply as we care about the Bible.

Dr. Hoffman began by saying, "We're going to look at Bible translation, at what happens when you read the Bible in English" -- the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Aramaic parts of the Bible -- "and we'll look at what went wrong and why."

Take for instance, the Song of Songs / Song of Solomon: it's about romantic love, which is why it's often sung at weddings. We think of verses like "you have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride." But Hoffman quipped, "Here's the thing, though: not only is 'my sister, my bride' not romantic -- in America, it's illegal! So right off the bat we want to ask how is it that translations turn courtship into a felony."

He opened with a charming joke about Holmes and Watson and a stolen tent. "What something means depends upon what you are trying to do... There are lots of ways for something to mean something." He's interested in the original meaning of the text, what it meant when the stuff was written down. There are, of course, other ways to read these texts: devotionally, recited for comfort, in lifecycle events, and so on, and each of those gives different meaning to the text. "But people want to know when they are looking at the Bible what the words originally meant when they were written down, and what they have come to mean in the context of a religious community."

The words in the Bible were written down some 2500 years ago, and when they were written, people were trying to convey something. How do we figure that out, and how do we render it in English -- and what went so wrong, such that today we have so many wrong notions of what these words say?

The King James Version of the Bible will be 400 years old next year. It was not translated by King James, of course, but was commissioned by him. It's an important text in English and has widely shaped the English language. Anything beginning "Thou shalt," e.g. -- that kind of language comes from the KJV, and most English-language Bibles are written in response to it.

The KJV writers wrote their translation in what was, for them, modern English. But English has changed, so some translations which were correct then are not correct now. In those days, "thee" and "thou" were used for informality, and "You" was what they called the King. But today, for us, "thee" and "thou" do not connote informality at all.

Another example: 400 years ago, "let" meant prevent. We still use that terminology in tennis -- a "let ball" -- so "who shall let it" used to mean who shall prevent it. Doesn't mean that now. By the same token, "The God of mercy will prevent me" meant "The God of mercy will walk before me." Doesn't mean that now.

Or take John 3:16  in the Christian Scriptures -- "And God so loved the world." We hear that and think it means that God loved the world so much. But that's not what it meant 400 years ago! It meant, God loved the world in this way. "So" meant "thus" in common English at that time. The translators knew that the Greek meant "God loved the world in this way," but to us today the English phrase that they used connotes something entirely different. The point here is: English has changed.

Bear in mind that the KJV translators also lived before modern linguistic theory, so they didn't know what we know now about how to decode ancient languages or how to render them in modern words. Linguistics explains how language works, how translation works, and they didn't have access to that. So they applied three wrong ways to figure out what the ancient Hebrew and Greek meant. And modern translations still use these three long ways, because Bible translation tends to be such a traditional enterprise.

"The only people who know for sure what ancient Hebrew means have inconveniently died. Fortunately, languages are in essence all the same." When we find a method of translation that works with modern languages, we can assume it works also with ancient languages.

There are three big mistakes that Bible translators make. The first Biblical translation mistake is working from etymology. This does not, unfortunately, tell you what a word means. "It turns out that [the words] grammar and glamour come from the same source. Looking back to the 8th grade: how many of you remember grammar being especially glamourous?" (My own editorial note: this is, I suspect, the place where Dr. Hoffman is the complete opposite of someone like Everett Fox, whose translation of the Torah plays a lot with word-roots and etymology. About which I may have more to say once I've read Hoffman's book, so stay tuned.)

The second Biblical translation mistake is working from words' internal structure. Hebrew has three-letter roots which are shaped into different patterns to make different words. "People tend to assume that it gives you more insight into what the word means." But the internal structure does not tell you what a word means. As an example in English, he offers that if an infant is infantile, then a host should be hostile -- but that's not how those words work.

(To me as a poet, the word roots do say something meaningful because they offer a place for wordplay and poetic resonance. I think of a book like Rabbi Marcia Prager's The Path of Blessing -- reviewed here -- and of how much I've learned from her teachings about how word-roots can allow connotations to echo. But Prager's techniques are poetic and devotional ones, and I understand why that's not what Hoffman is interested in. She's also talking about liturgy, not Torah, which makes a difference.)

The third Biblical translation mistake is making use of cognate languages. The example he offered there was a story about a French prime minister supposedly "demanding" that the American president visit France -- but demander in French means to ask, not to demand.

Unfortunately, almost every English translation of the Bible is based on these three major mistakes. So any English Bible you pick up is going to be riddled with mistakes, because they're all based on these three wrong ways of translating the ancient languages. So if those methods of translation are wrong, then what's right? Fortunately, Hoffman had some thoughts for us on that score too.

The reliable way to translate an ancient word is in context. "Words get their meaning by how they're used." Take, for instance, the English word "sincerely." In a business letter -- like, say, a letter to the IRS -- the existence of that word doesn't necessarily imply sincerity; it just means "my name comes next." We need to look at how words are used in their context in order to figure out what they mean.

Returning to the Song of Songs, take the phrase אֲחֹתִי כַלָּה / "my sister, my bride." We have other texts from this period of time, written by kings to other kings, which say things like, "To my son, the King: how dare you address me as 'my brother, the King'?" The words "son" and "brother" aren't there to tell us about literal familial relationship: they mean power structure. "Brother" in this context means a fellow king who is equipotent; "father" means one who is more potent; "son" means one who is less potent. This tells us how to understand it when our text says "my sister, my bride" -- it doesn't mean "sister" as we use the word now, but rather means "my equal." In antiquity, it was possible to buy a wife -- "unfortunately," he hastens to add -- and a man's wife could be a concubine or a slave. It is in this context that the Hebrew Bible uses the term "my sister," in order to argue that men and women should be equals in relationships.

For another example, Hoffman cited Psalm 23: "Adonai is my shepherd; I shall not want..." What does a shepherd look like? "Dirty guy in a sheepskin," someone offered. In our minds, he's a loner with a crook, wearing shmattes -- "not a people person!" But in antiquity, shepherds were brave, mighty, and regal. The opposite of what we think of when we think of shepherds now. "Back then, it would have been John Wayne!" Shepherds were like the Marines are in our consciousness today. So while ro'eh literally means shepherd, the English word has all of the wrong connotations. "When we read that line as 'the Lord is my shepherd,' we're missing the point." Shepherds weren't meek. They had extraordinary power. Picture a six-foot-six musclebound guy cradling a tiny lamb.

Connotations matter. Hoffman offered the English sentence, "I still remember the first time I landed behind the Iron Curtain." We all know what that means, we know its connotations, we remember the Iron Curtain and its sociopolitical implications. But if someone from antiquity heard the sentence, they would think the sentence was about a human being who could fly and about an actual curtain made of iron. We know the sentence isn't about that at all. That's the kind of thing that happens in bad Biblical translation.

During Q and A, someone asked whether there's an English translation which Hoffman does recommend. He praised the NRSV -- in his opinion, although it's not perfect and it has a lot wrong with it, it's unsurpassed. The NAB likewise. The Christian translations, he said, tend to be freer to adopt modern scholarship than do the Jewish translations. In Judaism there's a tradition of working from precedent; Rashi (who lived a thousand years ago) gets veto power over someone coming later. For this reason, he said, it's difficult for Jewish translations to incorporate modern scholarship in the way that Christian translations can do.

As an example of that difference, Hoffman offered a story about a word in parashat vayelech. It's pretty clear from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint that there's a scribal error in the word from which the parsha takes its name. The Jewish answer to that is, who cares? It's our tradition! We wouldn't dream of changing that word in our Torah! And the Christian answer is, of course we change our translations if better evidence of what the word should have been has come to light.

An audience member pushed back on the psalm 23 citation, pointing out that "the Lord is my shepherd" connotes that God is looking after us just as a sheep-herder looks after sheep, so the old familiar translation works fine for her. What matters, Hoffman said in response, are the associations of words, not the literal meanings of words. Take, for instance, the symbolism of colors. In English, someone who is "blue" is sad. In German, there's a word blaumachen, to make someone blue, but it means "to skip school. In translating blaumachen, we would want to use the word "truancy," not the phrase "making someone sad." By the same token, we need to ask: what did the original authors of the text want to convey when they used the word "shepherd?"

For another example, he cites the book and movie Like Water for Chocolate (Como Agua Para Chocolate). The English title is a translation of the Spanish title, but it misses the point entirely. The phrase in Spanish connotes "water which is almost boiling" -- which the English sentence doesn't convey at all. A more faithful translation of that book title might be "At the Boiling Point."

Most of the time we're operating with a misunderstanding of a misinterpretation of a text -- and, amazingly enough, "it still makes for pretty good religion."

Hoffman closed by talking about the prophet Hosea. (Whose daughters' names he quippily translated as Disaster, Unloved, and Unwanted.) Hosea thought a lot about animal sacrifice and what it meant to serve God. He lived right in the middle of the era of animal sacrifice, but he still wrote, "Take words with you to return to God." Hosea rejected animal sacrifice and said, take words. Hoffman's last line was, "My message for you this evening is that more than at any other time since the words were penned, they are ours for the taking."