- And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning
- Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
- Year: 2010
- Pages: 272
I’ve always been interested in the vagaries of translation—both the accomplishment of it and all the problems which plague it. Most recently, I read Robert Alter’s new translation of Psalms; it’s not a surprise that, not even counting the significant introduction on methodology, almost half of the book’s text is explanatory footnotes. The truth is, translating ancient Hebrew is a tricky business, and translating anew such beloved books is a delicate issue.
Thus it was that my interest in translation only slightly overwhelmed my suspicion of the book’s subtitle (“How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning”), which seemed designed to provoke. “Conceal” has connotations of intent, in the same way that frauds and hucksters want to tell you about “real herbal remedies they don’t want you to know”1. I hoped that Hoffman wouldn’t take a Freakonomics tack and oversell itself.
I’m not sure if the subtitle was Hoffman’s idea or some editor at Thomas Dunne, but I’m happy to report that And God Said is rather understated, academic, and interesting, and not at all an overinflated piece of wide-eyed conjecture. In fact, it was largely what I hoped it would be—namely, a creative and engaging book about the vagaries of translation. Though the latter portion of the Bible is written mostly in Greek, which I know for a fact has its own idiosyncrasies, Hoffman—himself a Jew, it would appear, and of that linguistic tradition—focuses on the Old Testament, written in Ancient Hebrew.
The first half of the book doesn’t even dive right into specific instances of mistranslation. Like Alter’s The Book of Psalms, there is a lengthy (100+ pages, in this case) introductory section in which he explains the vagaries of attempting to translate Ancient Hebrew into Modern English. He begins, as so much Biblical scholarship does, with the King James Version of the Bible—that venerable piece of literature which has not only set some of the direction of modern theology, but also modern language and culture as well. While writers like Alter were a little more sensitive to the great cultural debt which we owe to the KJV, regardless of its merits as a translation, Hoffman is more immediately dismissive, and not afraid to label parts of the KJV as well as the New International Version and others. He does not even broach, and I am glad, the spate of silly “good news” translations, which I will get into later.
The difference between the King James Version (from the early 17th century) and our modern efforts, Hoffman argues, is a good 400 years worth of advances in linguistics, translation, and the availability of source documents. The problem, even with later efforts such as the New International Version, is that they are all inevitably based upon the King James Version, and therefore tend to inherit some of its less-than-exemplary translations.
But as I said, the book eschews its specific discrepancies for about a hundred pages while Hoffman explains why translation of the Old Testament is such a difficult and occasionally imprecise task. He explains the usual methods for translating tough words, such as the context of its word and its other uses in the book; he even gets into the structure of Hebrew (roots and patterns and all that), which I found fascinating but which might bore those who aren’t interested in grammar. The tricky part about ancient Hebrew, he concludes is that a lot of tools which work 8 out of 10 times for indicating what a word means (its modern Hebrew counterpart, its etymology, its place in a root/pattern parallelism that Hebrew seems to have) will fail the last two times. We can’t trust these tools, in other words, since they have to potential to give us a subpar or—worse—misleading translation.
After significant preface, Hoffman launches into his examples, of which there are five, divided into chapters. As I started this section, I tensed up, once again worrying that he would revert to an “Everything you know is wrong!” approach and waste the enormous capital he built with his introduction to translation theory—which, I might add, was one of the better treatments I’ve ever read. But the instances that he cites tend to be less “conceal[ing] the Bible’s original meaning” and more qualifying corrections to translations that, while not 100% accurate, were also not terrible to begin with.
His first example, for instance, is the exhortation of Christ for us to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul” (Matthew 22:37, KJV). “Heart” and “soul”, Hoffman says, are bad translations, and spends 20 pages explaining his criticism and proposing substitutes. His recommendation? “Mind” and “body”. Perhaps you are currently having the same reaction I did, which is to think that the colloquial phrase “heart and soul” still fairly well gets across the same point that “mind and body” does. I don’t take issue with his reasoning: the Hebrew levav and nefesh probably do more closely translate as “mind” and “body”, respectively, and in fact it’s extraordinarily interesting to see Hoffman reason out why this is so—specifically deducing as much from the commonalities of that same word’s usage in other parts of the Old Testament. His ultimate conclusion is that Jesus’ commandment was to use both the physical body and the non-material/emotive essence to love God; but was there ever any doubt about that meaning based on the KJV’s translation and those translation which proceeded from it? I’m not convinced there is.
Some aren’t so trivial. Hoffman’s tackling of Psalm 23 is especially neat: the “shepherd” which we’re so used to hearing about was a different creature entirely in the culture of the Old Testament. Though our iconography of God-as-Shepherd today tends to invoke the fluffy language of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, the Ancient Hebrew conception of a “shepherd” was more or less an action movie star: the sort of guy who would beat up lions, cavort with kings, and woo all the ladies. A more revealing translation, therefore, would be “The Lord is my Hero, I shall not be in want”, according to Hoffman. I personally prefer “The Lord is my Badass, I shall not be in want”, but then nobody ever asked me.
The closest that Hoffman comes to courting controversy is the issue of Isaiah 7:14, which is hardly a new thing at all. What it boils down to is that the chapter in Isaiah which ostensibly predicts the virgin birth of Jesus is likely to simply mean “a young woman will give birth” rather than a virgin specifically. Some fundamentalists proceeded as though this sought to invalidate the entirety of their doctrine, that’s a loaded issue and a bit beyond the purview of a simple book review.
If I had one criticism of And God Said, it’s that Hoffman seems almost too eager to dismiss the patchy-but-beautiful KJV and embrace whatever translation hews closest to the original intent in the idiom of Modern English. The 400-year-old language of King James, he insists, is not the language of modern America. And while he doesn’t come out and advocate the sort of terrible teen-friendly translations that make my butthole pucker, his emphasis on modern idiom makes me a little suspicious and disappointed. There is something to be said for translations which are not too archaic to obscure meaning (as is Hoffman’s point); but there is also something to be said for preserving the ability of modern speakers to read and absorb historically important language as well: you only rarely hear about “modern” translations of Shakespeare, for instance, because we consider the language—however difficult—a treasure. For as much as Hoffman protests about the beauty and poetry of Ancient Hebrew, he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to what comprises beauty and poetry and linguistic importance of English.
I may be ascribing an intention to Hoffman that he never had, and this is a minor point as far as I’m concerned, since the book as a whole was so interesting and generally well done. It is not necessarily the sort of subject matter that will interest everyone, but if translation and language is your niche, this is your book.