Back in the third century BCE, the Jewish diaspora in Alexandria had a problem: they didn’t speak or read Hebrew. They knew only Greek, the language of the region. However, they were still faithful Jews and they needed scriptures they could understand.
That led to the first known translation of the Tanakh, called the Septuagint because according to legend, it was produced by 72 Jewish scholars in 70 days.
Today, the Jewish diaspora in English-speaking countries has a similar problem: Little or no Hebrew. The Tanakh remains the foundational text of our identity as Jews. We need scriptures we can understand. That means translating from Hebrew into English.
But translation by itself isn’t enough. Ancient peoples had a worldview completely different from ours.
For example, the Torah doesn’t say much about the nature of the sky, but most people of that era believed the sky was solid. It was a “pavement of sapphire” (Exodus 24:10) to hold back the waters above it. The Torah didn’t need to explain the idea because everyone already knew it -- everyone then, but almost no one now. Even Biblical scholars miss thousands of references to things that were common knowledge in ancient Israel.
A good translation won’t solve those problems completely, but it can help by providing context with explanatory notes and alternative phrasing.
Historical change didn’t stop with Biblical times. A lot has changed even since 1917, when the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) issued its first English translation of the Torah. In the same year, the British government’s Balfour Declaration supported “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” That would not become a reality until three decades later, but the establishment of modern Israel has changed how we view the world.
Change continued after 1962, when JPS published its second translation of the Torah. Five years later, the Six-Day War pitted Israel against the combined might of Arab attackers, and Israel emerged victorious. That, too, changed our view of the world.
Historical events aren’t the only things that have changed. Before the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest Torah manuscripts dated from the Middle Ages. Dating from a thousand years earlier, the scrolls often confirmed and sometimes challenged our existing text.
Similarly, changed social and religious attitudes make us ask new questions about the text. When the text says “man,” does it mean males specifically, or people in general? How should we translate passages that we find morally unsettling?
Worldview is important because translation doesn’t only match words in different languages. It reflects our culture and assumptions. We shape each translation for our own era, and in turn, we are shaped by it. For the Bible, we need to know how the translation affects the message.
That was one focus of the symposium, “The Future of American Jewish Bible Translation,” held April 30 at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It commemorated the 1917 JPS translation, whose goal was “to combine the Jewish tradition with the results of biblical scholarship, ancient, medieval, and modern.”
One approach to morally troubling passages is “converse translation,” which changes or even reverses the meaning of the original text. It was used as long ago as the Septuagint and ancient Targums (interpretive retellings of the Biblical text). In spite of its historical pedigree, converse translation had few fans at the JPS conference.
“The classical rabbis often read against the text to offer an ethical ideal unsupported by a ‘plain reading’ of the Bible,” said Leonard Greenspoon, one of the conference speakers. However, he added, “Bible translators have a responsibility to call attention to morally difficult passages. Notes can be effective for that.”(Audio and photos from the symposium are available on the Jewish Publication Society’s YouTube channel.)