Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Bible Translations

Isn’t it interesting that there’s no adequate one out there, among all the countless versions, commentaries, etc.? I have, among ancient authors, entirely pleasing translations of Tacitus, Herodotus, Josephus, and so on, so that I don’t feel any particular need to consult the original.

I mention it because an Eastern Orthodox Christian correspondent writes to me that he recently purchased an Orthodox Study Bible of some kind and he likes it very much apart from his missing having a fair representation of Hebrew names (i.e., Moses instead of Moshe). That stuff doesn’t bother me. In his excellent book on the prophets, Norman Podhoretz writes that he likes the King James best, despite its many errors, because the flavor of the language most closely approximates the Hebrew original. I kind of go along with him on that. The English in all the Orthodox Jewish translations I’ve seen is invariably clunky, stiff, or tasteless. But non-Jewish Bibles of course leave out and otherwise take no heed of traditional commentaries, those that convey the Oral Tradition, without which the plain text is itself misleading.


I’m speaking here specifically of the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament, or anyway the Gospels, have their distinct difficulty, namely that Jesus’ own words in their original language are all lost, with the rare exceptional phrase preserved intact (e.g., “Talitha cumi“).
Now the question would be why does the Bible, unique among books in this as in so many ways, defy translation? The more time you spend with the original, the more you realize that every attempt to translate Scripture results in a whitewash, which can be more or less of a literary embarrassment. But that seems to be true only of the Hebrew Bible. Or if you disagree, is there an adequate version?
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posted January 4, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Dennis Prager, on his radio show, likes the Everett Fox version. Not having seen it, I can’t judge.
For some FUN translations, see:

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posted January 4, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Its also quite logical to assume that all ancient literature is just as difficult to translate, the only difference being that billions of people on earth today look to this one ancient text, the Bible, as representing the literal ‘word of God’. If someone believes that a text is given by God and contains the ultimate guidance for their lives, then finding the correct meaning and translation of that text is going to seem of the upmost importance and always be subject to extensive debate. The works of Homer, for instance, may be just as difficult to render in modern English and still capture all its nuance, but because few people, if any, are living their life by Homer’s works people will be more satisfied with imperfect translations.

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posted January 4, 2010 at 7:50 pm

But non-Jewish Bibles of course leave out and otherwise take no heed of traditional commentaries, those that convey the Oral Tradition, without which the plain text is itself misleading.
But non-Jews of course do not accept the Oral Tradition as normative, so of course it is not used in that respect in the translation process, any more than a non-Christian translating the New Testament would necessarily cleave to Papal encyclicals or the Augsburg Confession, or a non-Muslim translating the Koran would follow the sunnah or the ahadith. However, I think that most scholarly and responsible translators, regardless of religious affiliation, use such traditions as resources in the case of difficult passages. They may not be guided by them in the way that a member of the religion might, but they take them into account, to some extent.
As to original words in original languages, it’s really a matter of faith to assert that we have the ipsissima verba of Abraham, Moses, David, or any of the OT worthies. In many cases there was centuries of oral transmission and language change before the final written form; moreover, some scholars would argue that the dialogue in many scenes derives not from remembered tradition, but from later authors seeking the type of thing an individual would say. The point is that the assertion that we have the exact words in the original languages of any Scriptural figure can be neither proved nor disproved by historical methods–one takes it (or not) on faith.
Muslims say that the Koran cannot be translated at all, but merely interpreted to a greater or lesser degree in another language. I wouldn’t go so far as that, but I do think there is a certain point there, as there is also in the Italian motto, “Traduttore, traditore,” “[the] translator is a traitor,” which itself proves the point, since the pun is lost in the translation. I think that for relatively straight prose works such as histories (like the works of Tacitus, Herodotus, and Josephus), science, etc., translation is not too big an issue. When one deals with religious works or poetry (or even more so, religious works that are poetic, such as much of the Old Testament and most Hindu and Buddhist texts in Sanskrit and Pali), the best I think one can hope for is not a success, but a reasonably decent failure. Thus, in my opinion, there is not only no completely satisfactory translation of the OT, the same is true for the NT, the Koran, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and many other great works.
To give some examples where I have first-hand knowledge, I have played around on and off over the last several years trying to translate some of the Carmina Burana, and even for such raucously secular poems as those, verse translations that get the meaning and which sound good are often fiendishly difficult. Religiously, I know enough Koine Greek to know that no translation of John 1:1 has ever gotten it quite right (if that’s even possible, since scholars have long debated the meaning). Likewise, I’m good enoug at Latin to hate the standard translation of Stabat Mater–in forcing the translation to follow the meter of the original, it is given a ghastly, sickly-sweetness completely absent from the original Latin version. Finally, of course, all religions have terms that are tightly bound to a religious, historical, cultural, and social context and thus extremely difficult to translate–after all, how does one truly and accurately translate mitzvah, agape, dharma, or bodhi, to give examples from Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism?
As to OT translations, I know very, very little Hebrew and thus have no frame for comparison to the original. However, for beauty of language and felicity of expression, I like the King James best, for all its faults. Of modern translations, there’s no one that prefer over others. The Revised Standard and New Revised Standard are probably the most scholarly and careful, but they both come out somewhat flat. For good, smooth, readable English prose, I tend to like the New English Bible and its successor the Revised English Bible; but they both take relatively great liberties with the original in the service of readability. Many people have spoken well of Robert Alter’s translations, but I haven’t had the chance to read them, so I can’t say. My general rule for texts where I can’t read the original language is to have several translations available, along with a good commentary or two and a dictionary of the language in question so that I can get some handle on hard words, even if I don’t know the whole language. In this world, though, there is no solution short of learning the original languages, which most of us lack the time to do. Perhaps in the world to come that will be remedied–but in the world to come, it would probably be less necessary, too!

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posted January 5, 2010 at 9:26 am

I was just thinking about that last night as I was reading the story of Lot in Genesis. I was reading a bible (I can’t recall the name offhand and it’s at home) that I had picked up on campus that a professor was giving away. Now, in the story the men of Sodom come to lot’s house and demand that he turn over his guests to them so that they may “know” them. In the bible I am currently reading it clearly says “have intercourse with them”. Now this is not politically correct and I’m pretty sure that if this new translation came out today there would be a great outcry from certain groups. So it has become more apparent to me why there are so many translations out there.

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posted January 5, 2010 at 12:41 pm

My favorite translation of mythology, culled from other stories of ancient mythology, is the one that took 100s of years to write/compile over competing manuscripts and multiple authors, from the Eubianites and the Marcionites and such, but was finally voted into existence by folks responding to social pressures at the Council of Trent.
Then, despite the glaring inconsistencies, obvious physical impossibilities, and drastically different tone and ideas, I choose to accept this once oral mythology as fact – in place of evidence based facts derived by the modern scientific method. As a result, I think the world is flat, the earth is the center of the solar system and is 6000 years old, natural selection is not a theory, global warming is a hoax, my guardian angel protects me at the pool and in the car, vaccines are agents from demons to control us, blood transfusions are evil, and HIV doesn’t cause AIDS – as Jonathan Wells and Phillip Johnson believe.
But Santa Claus – now that’s just ridiculous.

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posted January 5, 2010 at 7:52 pm

The Rabbi’s say “Shivim Ponim Latorah” which is understood to mena that every passage has seventy interperetations, all of them correct. So the various translation may all be partially correct.

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posted January 5, 2010 at 9:29 pm

I don’t find the english in the Art Scroll translations to be clunky or stiff. It’s a matter of taste, but I find their translations to be clear and to flow easily. Obviously, the translation is from a “right wing” Jewish approach, but the language itself is a joy to read.

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posted January 16, 2010 at 6:00 am

All great literature becomes somewhat
commonplace in translation. Shakespeare’s
wordplays are tiring to read in Spanish. Antonio
Machado is nobody in English. Even Cela’s early
prose, highly idiomatic, would be awful to
translate. The Quixote and Kafka are a little
drab and depressing to read in English. Proust
sounds like an old solemn bore in English; I
read him in French and compare him to vanilla
A translation renders mainly the content of a
text, not its style which is its soul.

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