Interpreting the interpreted

Joel Hoffman’s book raises our expectations of how we read the Bible.

qumran 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
qumran 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Traduttore, traditore; translator, traitor, goes the old saw. And if there is any book that has especially suffered the treachery of translators over the years, it is the Hebrew Bible.
From the Greek Septuagint to the Latin Vulgate, from King James Version to The Message, translators of the Bible have obscured, distorted and fundamentally altered the meaning of the Hebrew text. A virgin birth, a horned Moses, a vocal turtle – these are just some of the changes that translators have made as they converted the Hebrew into their own languages.
Joel M. Hoffman’s new book, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, may interest readers concerned with the difficulties involved in the translation of Scripture.
Hoffman begins with a brief consideration of the most influential translation (arguably the most influential book) in English, the King James Version. Hoffman briskly details some of the KJV’s more egregious errors, suggesting that the committee commissioned to render the Bible into English misunderstood “some of the Hebrew” and did not have a sophisticated understanding of the task of the translator and method of translation.
While modern English translations have improved upon some of the KJV’s shortcomings, they, too, Hoffman suggests, shaped by theological or ideological prejudices, all too often fail to capture the nuances of the original Hebrew text. (And God Said includes a handy appendix detailing the advantages and drawbacks of a number of popular English translations of the Bible.)
Despite the shortcomings of such translations, Hoffman believes it is possible to “recover the original meaning of the Bible,” and strives to demonstrate “how linguistics and translation theory combine to make the Bible clearer than it has been since the days it was first penned.” Such a recovery is, of course, no easy task. To undertake an accurate translation, one must first figure out what the original Hebrew text means, which requires not only a thorough knowledge of biblical Hebrew, but also an ability to get behind the Bible that we think we know through previous translations. It also means bracketing out one’s religious presuppositions of what the Bible says, removing the lens of a tradition through which the text has been encountered.
Hoffman, a linguist by training who has previously written In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, provides a sensitive, sometimes fairly technical, discussion of the structure of languages in general and of biblical Hebrew in particular, and the difficulties of translating concepts and ideas from one language into another. He argues that attention to internal word structure, commentary, etymology and cognates often lead translators astray. In his view, context-based analysis provides the key to deciphering the meaning of the ancient words, and thereby the passage at hand. (This approach is almost purely linguistic; Hoffman does not discuss what historians, archeologists and scholars of religion can bring to bear to this process.)
He correctly explains that the art of translation is not simply a matter of figuring out the meaning of the source text but of finding a way of rendering it into the target tongue. This task is much more difficult and complex than it at first seems, and Hoffman is adept in explaining its mechanics and exposing the many paradoxes and compromises inherent in the project of translation. “[I]n addition to being accurate,” he writes, “the ideal translation will work at every level – from sounds, through words, and up to concepts and affect.”
Hoffman, of course, realizes that such an ideal is most likely impossible to achieve, and that sometimes a literal translation will fail to convey the meaning of the original. Throughout this discussion he is a clear and affable guide, though his prose is sometimes tarnished by a condescending tone (a recurring joke about learning technical linguistic terms to use at cocktail parties grows stale quickly).
In the second part, Hoffman utilizes his method to develop his readings of some of the most well-known (and poorly translated) biblical texts (Deuteronomy 6:5, the Ten Commandments, Psalm 23, Song of Songs and Isaiah 7:14). He takes a micro-view, focusing in on how the translation of a particular word or phrase can distort the reading. For example, does the word “shepherd” express in English what the psalmist was getting at? Or, does the use of “my sister” in Song of Songs mean that it is a celebration of incest? Do the Ten Commandments forbid “coveting”?
In a sense, Hoffman is an “originalist” in his approach, to borrow a term from American constitutional debates, optimistic that the original meaning of the biblical text, that is, what was intended by the author, can be accessed and excavated and, if not perfectly translated into another language, at least adequately explained.
Yet, the idea of accessing the “original meaning” was problematic enough even in antiquity, leading to the emergence of a vast literature of commentary (what Hoffman calls “the derived” or “interpretative, religious meaning”). Sometimes even the medieval commentators – who knew Hebrew quite well – were perplexed as to what the plain sense of the text was. One wonders if anyone ever read the texts of the Bible the way Hoffman wants to read them.
The very act of reading is already interpretative; there is no recovery of meaning that is innocent of an act of interpretation. It is not surprising, then, that Hoffman’s analyses of these biblical texts result in a kind of modern midrash; the original meaning he uncovers is sometimes surprisingly, perhaps comfortingly, contemporary (the Song of Songs is about the equality of lovers in a romantic relationship), or oddly banal (Isaiah 7:14 is not prophesying a virgin birth but proposing that “life itself can be miraculous,” an analysis divorced completely from the historical and political context of that chapter, the Near East during the eighth century BCE). Such readings tend to be more homiletic than scientific, and would appear to be proffering the very kind of “derived, religious meaning” the author had previously argued preclude us from understanding the original.
Despite his book’s title, Hoffman does not make clear what he thinks the Bible is. He seems to assume that the Bible has an intrinsic semantic consistency, and that the educated reader has absolute access to the meaning of the text, the pshat, if you will. While Hoffman tells us how the Hebrew language works, he is silent on what kind of book (or better, collection of books) the Bible is, sidestepping such issues as the authorship of biblical texts, their authority and their redaction and transmission. This is unfortunate, as one’s conception of the “original meaning” of the text will be quite different if it is understood as the “revealed word of God,” a divinely inspired book or a work of purely human imagination.
Further, most contemporary biblical scholars agree that the text that we have is derived from many ancient manuscripts. Indeed, the fragments that have been discovered at Qumran often enrich and complicate our understanding of the Bible and its origins. Compounding the question of the original meaning of the text is the question of determining what was the “original” text!
In the end, the virtue of Hoffman’s book is that it raises ourexpectations of what we read and how we read. Maybe the reader has tocommit to come closer to the Bible, in all of its strangeness andforeignness, than to demand that it come closer to him. Hoffmandocuments the complex decisions that go into the work of translatingand demonstrates that even a careful translation can achieve only somuch. (There is wisdom in the Islamic claim that the Koran cannot betranslated from Arabic, but only interpreted into a different tongue.)
To engage a work like the Bible with seriousness and commitment, notonly translation, but also commentary, the accumulated wisdom ofgenerations of readers, is called for. As a great sage once said, “Goand study.”
The writer is assistant professor and director of Judaic studies at Goucher College.