Monday, August 01, 2005

Booknote - Bible Translations

I dug up from the Rabbi's collection "The Story of Bible Translations" by Max Margolis written in 1917 and published by JPS in 1943. It deals with an area I know too little about, yet is fascinating and gives a window into some important eras in Jewish and Christian history.

The primary ancient Jewish translations are the Targumim and the Septuagint. The Jewish people on their return from the Babylonian exile gradually spoke Hebrew less and less, thereby necessitating a translator - Meturgeman for the reading of the Torah. The Rabbis of the time ordered the translators not to stray too far from the original text and looked askance at written versions of the translation.

Onkelos is the foremost Meturgeman, his version is printed in the standard Chumash with the text. His work is probably a product of Rabbi Akiva's school and many fables have been written about him. Obviously no translation is free of interpretation, nor can it be, and Onkelos' work is most famous for his stance against anthropomorphism and incorporeality. The Rambam could use Onkelos and the other Targumim as a source for the view that G-d has neither form nor figure, a view not discussed in the Talmud and one that was still widely held by many Rabbis in the Middle Ages (cf the Raavad, Teshuvot HaRosh etc - Ein Kan Makom Lehaarich).

The Septuagint/Targum Shivim holds a difficult and controversial place in Jewish history and thought. Without it, Christianity might well have foundered and gone the way of all the other messianic movements of the time, into the trashcan of history. Tradition has it that 72 scholars translated the Torah into Greek in Alexandria, the great city of Egypt, at the behest of the second King Ptolemy.

As the Church became Latinized, Jerome produced an updated and revised Christian translation into Latin in the fourth century, known as the Vulgate.

The Jewish work of the Middle Ages is characterized by treatises on grammar and commentaries to the Bible. Rav Saadiah Gaon wrote on Hebrew grammar and a Hebrew dictionary, as well as translating the Torah into Arabic. Menachem ben Saruk compiled a famous dictionary. Rashi wrote his commentary which included the translation of many difficult words into French. Hebrew grammar developed rapidly in Spain with the likes of Ibn Ezra and his ilk, and Radak (David Kimchi) and his brother Moses Kimchi furthered the cause. Radak's work spread to the Christian world and influenced them heavily.

What intrigued me was the battle waged in the Christian world over translations during the late middle ages and reformation, as well as the effect the invention of the printing press had. Luther's German Bible, intended for the common people, spread through central Europe. Many of the sects and groups in Europe produced their own trnaslations of the Bible as an act of rebellion and for theological purposes. The King James version of 1611 was a response to this, it involved the collaboration of numerous bishops in England and is known as the Authorized version.

Mendelssohn's translation, the Biur, helped emancipate the Jews and bring them into contact with German literature and culture, and was banned by the Chatam Sofer. Shmuel David Luzzato (Shadal) in Italy and Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in Germany fought on behalf of traditional interpretations of the Torah. The Malbim and David Zvi Hoffman were also in that camp. The JPS committee under Marcus Jastrow and then under Solomon Shechter, together with the assistance of the author of the book, eventually produced an American version after many years of work.

The author devotes a chapter to those who funded and sponsored the preparation, publication and distribution of the various works, as well as a list of the various languages and dialects the Bible had been translated to by his time (quite impressive!).

His final chapter discusses the difficulties inherent in any translation - "Words are but sounds and symbols of things, and these things pass away with the civilization that produced them ... Translation, according to Maimonides, is a species of original composition, and the translator a companion to the author ... The Rabbis frown upon all translations. With them the multiple sense of the scriptural word is an accepted fact ... A few passages there are on which the versions of the Church and the translations of the Synagogue must differ, and modern Christian commentators are forced to acknowledge that the Jews are right."

He finished with "The ink may have faded and the parchment may have become brittle, but withal the fiery Word still speaks to us through letters and dots, and with unimpaired force the faith that was implanted in the heart of the Jew is translated to untold millions in the diverse tongues of mankind."

This little gem certainly opened my eyes, broadened my horizons and gave me a new appreciation for many works or commentaries that I may have studied or often ignored till now. It obviously needs updating, it being nearly a century old, yet many of his historical ideas and surveys are unmatched (cf section 2 here). Another fascinating subject (to me) that I hope I shed some light on for you.



At 8/02/2005 5:52 AM, Blogger Karl said...

There is alot to say about this. What about Artscroll or R' Areyeh Kaplan zt"l's translations - how do they fit in to the bigger picture of things? Do they (or any other modern day translation) base themselves on previous, or did they start from scratch?
Translating in any language has its own local dialect to deal with, but basing religions on them can be dangerous.

At 8/02/2005 6:39 PM, Blogger ClooJew said...

Looks like someone was busying himself with more than Harry Potter this weekend.

At 8/02/2005 10:03 PM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...


Good point. Anyone have any input regarding latter day translations in general? The article I linked to briefly mentions them.


I finished HP over Sunday afternoon, gotta do something else with my time as well. Not to mention the fact that I'd been told the ending already. Bah Humbug!


At 8/03/2005 5:18 PM, Blogger ClooJew said...

I find Rav Aryeh Kaplan, zt"l's, translation--The Living Torah--to be exceptionally thorough.

At 8/09/2005 8:15 AM, Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I don't have copies of either handy, but R. Aryeh Kaplan's extensive bibliography of mor than 300 sources includes earlier translations, as well as illuminations by non-Jewish scholars.

Artscroll doesn't cite anything that even schmecks fun heterodox, but a) is clearly influenced by earlier English translations, as it is patently not an entirely original English translation that never even saw the KJV, for example and b) R. Nosson Schermann has spoke warmly of the Hertz Chumash, which included the ideas of many non-Jewish and heterodox Bible scholars in the commentary.


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