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And God Said: How Translations Conceal the…

And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning

by Joel M. Hoffman

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Joel Hoffman, Biblical linguist, has a bone to pick with English translations of the Bible. Simply put, they lack an adequate understanding of linguistic theory, and veer far too much to the side of word-for-word translations. Hoffman argues that literal, word-by-word translations often miss some of the most important aspects of a text.

Hoffman begins with the KJV. Few serious scholars argue that the KJV rivals the accuracy of modern translations such as the NAB, NIV, or NRSV. Yet despite the KJV's now-defunct (and confusing!) English, its poor knowledge of Hebrew, and its even poorer knowledge of translation theory, all these modern versions work from it.

From here Hoffman begins to explain how translation works. It seems obvious: first, you find out what the original Hebrew means. Then, you find a suitable English idiom in which to express it. Seems simple, but Hoffman accuses many translators of not even being able to do the first. He lists three bad ways to find the meaning of a word:
1. Internal word structure. Deriving the meaning of "translator" from "translate" works. But what about "patently"? Is "hostile" similar to "host"?
2. Etymology: "Philosophy" is an easy example where etymology gives you a reasonable idea of what the word means. But what about "understand"?
3. Cognate languages: Always tempting, but as every Spanish learner embarrassingly discovers, "embarazada" in Spanish is not the same as "embarrassed" in English.
The proper way to find a word's meaning, Hoffman argues, is by context. While we can run into such dangerous things as homynyms and metonymy, this is the most foolproof method.

Moving from the Hebrew to English is similarly complicated. Of the five levels of meaning of any Hebrew utterance, the translator can't accurately recreate them all. These levels - sounds, words, phrases, concepts, and affect - interplay and change importance based on context. For example, sounds are not important for most prose translation, but what if the phrase has a pun or an alliteration that adds to the meaning? An extreme example: Hebrew poetry works mostly on parallelism, while English poetry traditionally runs on meter and rhyme. Should Hebrew poetry be put into rhyming meter to make it sound poetic to English ears?

Phrases that make sense in Hebrew similarly don't always translate well. The phrase "X of Xs" in Hebrew means "the ultimate" or "the best," as in Handel's famous "King of Kings" and "Lord of Lords." But "Song of Songs" in English sounds a little strange - perhaps a song about other songs, or a song made up of strung-together smaller songs. As for concepts, if 5 PM in one language's culture is dinnertime, should that be translated as "8 PM" in a more night-owly culture? The French word for horse is "cheval," but while a French reader may think "French horse" when she reads "cheval," an American reader might think "English horse" when he reads "horse." Affect, the fifth level of meaning, is even harder to translate. 10 km in a metric culture is a nice round number, like a stranger on the street directing you, "The gas station is in 10 km." But a literal translation of this into an American system sounds technical: "The gas station is in 6.2137 miles." Language does more than convey information, as it is enmeshed in and conveys underlying affects and concepts of culture. In the Hebrew Bible, it conveys poetry through chiasmus and parallelism. It conveys different registers of formality and linguistic usage, despite the fact that translations tend to make the entire text one register (KJV formal, NRSV colloquial, NIV chatty). Hoffman leads the reader to the conclusion that even the most scholarly, respected, modern translations focus far too much on the second level (words), even when the other levels are more important.

The rest of Hoffman's book applies this analysis to oft-quoted passages in the Bible. "Love the Lord with all your heart (levav), soul (nephesh), and might" becomes "Love the Lord with your mind and body and power to change the world," as "levav" and "nephesh" refer respectively to the invisible and visible aspects of the human person. "The Lord is my shepherd (ro'eh)" doesn't have any English equivalent, as the meek shepherd of the modern imagination was a fierce, highly respected, physically powerful, and romantic protector of the week. What career has all those connotations in America? (The same goes for Biblical epithets of God as King.)

The funniest mistranslation he encounters is the incestuous "my sister (kalah), my spouse (achot)" in the Song of Solomon. Rather than being a literal sister, familial terms were used in the ancient world to convey status, as a king would refer to an equally powerful king as "brother" and a more powerful king as "father." Also, kalah refers to a lover of some sort, but not necessarily a spouse. "My sister, my spouse" becomes "my equal, my lover." "Thou shalt not kill (r'tasch)" actually refers to illegal killing, not the accepted blood redemption (revenge) or the prescribed killing of idol worshippers. "Thou shalt not covet (chamad)" doesn't refer to just wanting something, but more specifically to taking it temporarily and fostering thoughts of keeping it permanently, bringing in both intention and action. And most famously, "a virgin (alma) shall conceive" refers to a "young woman," which in ancient Hebrew society would have usually implied "virgin" (in the same way "teenager" implies "high schooler" in the modern USA). But that is only an implication, not watertight, and one that would not hold nowadays.

Overall, Hoffman's book was a great read, a big help in my ongoing study of Biblical languages. His appendix evaluating different translations and recommending more books was also useful (hint: he favors the NRSV and Robert Alter's translations). But his point is often too strongly stated. While it is true that many of the key words he expertly traces different uses of are often impossible to translate on all five levels of meaning, he seems to forget that any serious study Bible has footnotes explaining these things. My NRSV can explain that shepherds had to fight off wild animals attacking their herd, so were not men to pick a fight with. Footnotes can explain what the idiom "Song of Songs" means in Hebrew. So while he criticized other translations for sticking to literal word-for-word meaning too much, he could also have made the less daring assertion that translations should have better footnotes explaining difficult-to-translate words. And at the end of the day, I would still much rather have a literal translation with good footnotes. Departing from that risks sinking into the morass of paraphrase "translations" such as the Living Bible or The Message - works that he rightly criticizes. Even so, I recommend Hoffman, only with the caveat that he is not the only voice in translation theory applied to the Bible. ( )
5 vote JDHomrighausen | Jul 17, 2012 |
This book is a big disappointment. Not only did I learn next to nothing about "what God said", most of the text can be gleaned from the author's first book on the origin of Hebrew alphabet. He could have done better with this one.

The only substantive fact that I gleaned from the book is the statement that the Hebrew word "emor", following the introductory phrase, "And God said to Moses,..." is not a redundant word to mean "saying" as it is usually translated, but a signifier for a quotation that follows. That was interesting. I looked in vain for another matter of interest.
  niksarm | Jun 3, 2011 |
Hoffman begins by explaining, patiently and thoroughly, a whole plethora of reasons that it is difficult to translate faithfully from one language to another, and specifically, why it is difficult to translate the Bible - written thousands of years ago in a now dead language - into modern English. Following these chapters, he has a series of chapters devoted to a few of the well known verses that he sees as mistranslated, or as he frequently puts it, "wrong." Among the passages addressed, "You shall not kill," "You shall not covet," "The Lord is my shepherd," and "Behold, a virgin shall conceive." His arguments are all very convincing, however, he occasionally belabors his point until he's beating a dead horse. All in all, this should be a fascinating book for Jews or Christians with an interest in knowing something about the Bible's original meaning, or for anyone interested n translation in general. ( )
1 vote fingerpost | Oct 9, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312565585, Hardcover)

For centuries, translations of the Bible have obscured our understanding and appreciation of the original text. Now And God Said provides readers with an authoritative account of significant mistranslations and shows how new translation methods can give readers their first glimpse into what the Bible really means.

And God Said uncovers the often inaccurate or misleading English translations of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that quotes from it. Sometimes the familiar English is just misleading. Other times the mistakes are more substantial. But the errors are widespread. This book tackles such issues as what’s wrong with the Ten Commandments (starting with the word “commandments”), the correct description of the “virgin” birth, and the surprisingly modern message in the Song of Solomon, as well as many other unexpected but thought-provoking revelations.

Acclaimed translator Dr. Joel M. Hoffman sheds light on the original intention of the text and the newly developed means that readers can use to get closer to it. In And God Said his fresh approach has united the topics of religion, language, and linguistics to offer the first modern understanding since the Bible was written.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:35 -0400)

Shares revelations about mistranslations in the Bible, offering insight into such examples as the actual intentions of the Ten Commandments, the mistaken description of a virgin birth, and the message of the Song of Solomon.

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