Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lost in Translation

Tonight we went to a book talk at Temple Micah by Joel Hoffman, author of “And God Said.”  It must be in the genes.  He is every bit as engaging as his father, Lawrence (Larry) Hoffman, contemporary Jewish scholar and educator.  He has the same New York accent and talks even faster, easily packing an hour lecture into 45 minutes.
The subtitle of Joel Hoffman’s book is “How translations conceal the Bible’s original meaning.”  He quickly points out there is no one around today who speaks Ancient Hebrew, the language in which the Bible was written.  So there is no one to set us straight if we have questions about the intention of a word or phrase.
He goes on to mention the method by which the Bible was passed down for centuries before the advent of the printing press.  It was laboriously copied onto scrolls by hand using quills and ink.  The emergence of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the last century pointed out the fact that quite a few words had been transcribed incorrectly over the years.
It is with the introduction of translation that things really get a little fuzzy.  Going from Hebrew to Greek or German or English leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation or even error, especially in cases where maybe an exact equivalent didn’t exist.  Hoffman suggests that the Ten Commandments weren’t really commandments.  That “virgin” was a term applied erroneously to the young girl named Mary.  
If I was one of those people who believed that God inspired every word of the Bible (would that be the Ancient Hebrew Bible or my English translation?), I would have been getting a little nervous by this point.  But fortunately I am not in that group, so I could just look at this as a significant intellectual exercise and not lose any sleep (or faith) over it.
I suppose there has been a lot lost in translation, even for a literary work as important as the Bible.


Blogger Angela said...

You are absolutely right, Barbara. Even between the English, German, French version of the Bible you find significant differences, how much more so from the original Hebrew or Greek. A student of theology once pointed out to me that his studies have really opened his eyes about misunderstandings. We cannot even know if God was pronounced Jehova or Jahwe, because there are no vovals in the Jhv, and as you say, the word for virgin meant just young girl. So many things people are fighting about are just - nothing. So let`s just be friends, no matter what we believe or not believe.
Together we are building that school in Mozambique!!!

2:26 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I suspect our modern Bibles look very little like the original teachings. I'm reminded of that famous line from "Hannah and Her Sisters": "If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."

9:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think fundamentalism of any stripe (religious, political, etc.) is generally based on a house of cards, black-and-white either/or thinking, which doesn't reflect the multifarious beauty and complexity of the real world. To pin life-and-death matters on inherently suspect translations of texts from thousands of years ago seems like a tragedy to me. Hear, hear, Angela -- let's be friends and do something positive!


1:40 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Angela, Anon -- Yes, there are so many things more important in this world today than hanging onto words that have come from so long ago and arguing about whether they were the exact words God spoke or whether or not they are inspired by God at all.

Steve -- Love the quote. It is so true, isn't it? It's funny, when I was growing up a Presbyterian, I was sure Jesus never threw up or had any of the other normal bodily functions we experience every day.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

There's an incredible article in this week's New Yorker about the historical and mythical Jesus. It's not about the Hebrew Bible or Judaism, but still totally fascinating.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I've never really thought about how we've been playing telephone with scripture through translations. The more recent "cultural" updates just take the words farther and farther from the original meaning. Going to ponder that for a while... It's a good thing I find God more in works than words.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Reya -- I just read the New Yorker article: "What did Jesus do?" and found it fascinating. I'm sure there are many who see a historical and intellectual approach to religion as heresy, but it makes perfect sense to me.

Kristin -- In the long run, it's works that really count, as least I think so.

11:45 PM  

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