What difference does a translation make?
If we take the Torah seriously, a lot. Whether we believe it was given by God to Moses, or only that it’s the foundational text of our identity as Jews, we want to get it right.
Most of us today can’t read Hebrew very well. It’s a defect we share with the ancient Jewish community in Alexandria, where scholars translated the Torah into Greek because many Jews knew little or no Hebrew. That produced the Septuagint, the first known Torah translation.
And linguistic translation is only half the battle. Even if we can read Hebrew, we often lack the knowledge required to interpret Biblical passages. We don’t know the historical context, so we miss references to ideas, people, and events that were obvious to people in Biblical times.
Robert Alter gives an excellent analogy in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative. Imagine, he says, that archaeologists a thousand years in the future find a dozen 20th-century movies that are Westerns. They notice a pattern: in 11 of the films, the heroic sheriff can draw his six-gun faster than anyone else in the movie. In the 12th film, however, the sheriff has a crippled arm. Instead of a six-gun, he uses a rifle he keeps slung over his shoulder.
As 21st-century viewers, we easily recognize the conventional storyline of the first 11 films. We see that the 12th film intentionally departed from it. However, the future archaeologists don’t know about the conventions. Therefore, they posit the existence of an undiscovered source film, Q, from which the first 11 films (Q1 to Q11) were derived. They believe that the 12th film comes from a different cinematic tradition, and perhaps from a different region of Los Angeles.
Like the archaeologists, we often must guess at the conventions in the Biblical text that were obvious to people of that era. Note that in this case, it makes no difference whether God gave the Torah to Moses or it was assembled by human editors. To communicate the message adequately, either source would have used conventions and references familiar to the people of the time.
A good translation won’t solve those problems completely, but it can help by providing notes and alternative phrasings.
Historical change didn’t stop with Biblical times. If anything, it has accelerated. A lot has changed since 1917, when the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) issued its first English translation of the Torah.
- In 1915 (before 1917, but close enough), U.S. President Woodrow Wilson held a White House screening of the film “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and was a nationwide box-office hit.
- In 1920, American women got the right to vote.
Change continued after 1962, when JPS published its second translation of the Torah:
- In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination.
- In 1969, Yale admitted its first female students; Harvard followed in 1977.
- In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws against homosexuality; in 2015, it struck down state restrictions on gay marriage.
Translation doesn’t simply 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.”
In the hundred years since then, the goal hasn’t changed but many other things have. New discoveries have confirmed our challenged our copies of the text. 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?
One approach to 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.)