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Lost in translation


One of the things which made me reconsider my Christian faith, and eventually convert to Judaism, was the inherent different understanding I got of the Scriptures, when I finally got access to the Hebrew language and insights of the Jewish commentaries, who – more than any Christian commentary – understood the depths of the Hebrew language.

Unfortunately many Western readers and layman students of the Bible, don’t speak or understand Hebrew, even less Biblical Hebrew, something they shouldn’t be blamed for, no one can be expected to throw themselves out in intense studies of an ancient language, just to get an idea of what some Scriptures may really mean, though I would encourage it.

But the problem arising when trusting (blindly) in various translations, especially into Western languages, is the lack of the words covering aspects of words used in Hebrew. This is not only something that goes for the Jewish Scriptures, but also when talking about translations of the Qur’ân, of which I have seen many different translations, sometimes even ridiculous translations, more being an attempt to present a certain view than an honest attempt on letting the translation following the original text itself. And so also with the Hebrew Scriptures, where most English translations more are collections of interpretations than translations[1].

I don’t intend to make this post an attack on Christian translations though, but more ponder a little about the many details, which unfortunately are lost in a translation.

We can take my earlier posts on Bereshit as an example, where the word “r’du” is translated as “rule” or “govern,” which are not totally wrong translations, but the word carries a sense of “oppression” in it, not just “ruling.”

Another example is the word “yom,” which – and not incorrectly – are translated as “day.” But given the whole context of the Creation, the “days” at stake here cannot be “days” as we understand them. And indeed, “yom” can be translated to “period,” in the sense of having a beginning and an end. There is no, to say it straight, reason to read the Creation as being six days of 24 hours, as some people would prefer to read it.

And so it goes all the way through the Scriptures.

But learning the language isn’t the key to the “right” or “perfect” understanding of the Scriptures. Surely, it is helping to get a much deeper sense of what is being told, and an appreciation of it, but it actually also opens up for much more ways of interpretations, especially because one is left to one’s own reading and understanding, and doesn’t follow another person’s interpretation. We have the case of the “Ish Tzaddiq Tamim b’Dorotaw” of Noah[2], where some understand it to mean one thing, and others to mean another thing. But this just make the study of the Scriptures so much more interesting.

Another thing which I find interesting in this light, though it is only related to the subject, is the attempt to trace down the original meaning of words, by comparing them to other similar languages. I followed a course in comparative religion, where I focused on Law in Islam and Judaism, and attempted to find the true meaning of the word “Dîn,” which normally today in Arabic means religion, while in Hebrew it means judgment. The Hebrew meaning goes a long way back, but the Arabic meaning isn’t so clear, being used both in the understanding of religion[3], or as in judgment[4]. Another example, in Hebrew and Aramaic, is “Dat,” having in Aramaic the meaning of “ruling,” while not existing in Biblical Hebrew, but today is used as “religion” in Hebrew.

Also the word “lehem/lahem,” which means “bread” in Hebrew and “meat” in Arabic, seems to have changes its original meaning form “food” in general, into being more specific in Hebrew and Arabic.

That said I can only encourage all of you to spend just a little time to learn one of the amazing Semitic languages, and experience the opening of a new world of understandings.

All the best.

[1] Basically a translation is always an interpretation, but some put more emphasis on the interpretation than the translation. Even some Jewish translations are used as commentaries, take for example Onkelos’ Aramaic translation.

[2] See my post on Parashat Noah.

[3] Al-Qur’ân, al-Baqara, 256.

[4] Ibid, al-Fatiha, 4.

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