Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

What are the advantages of reading the Bible in Hebrew instead of a translation?

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Broadly speaking, the advantages are three: accuracy, brevity, and poetry.

Accuracy

As with all translations, the risk in translation (particularly of a long text) is that the original meaning is distorted or, at times, downright wrong. The most infamous example is the commandment lo tirtzaḥ, which has often been misconstrued as Thou shalt not kill, when in fact it is Thou shalt not murder (big difference). But there are many other, lesser known examples, such as:

ותחסרהו מעט מאלהיםvateḥaserhu me’at me-elohim (Ps. 8:5)

which is rendered (King James version):

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels

when in fact it says “For thou hast made him a little lower than God”.

or:

עת ללדת, עת למות – et laledet, et lamut (Ecclesiastes 3:2)

which in King James is

A time to be born, a time to die

—when in fact it means “A time to give birth, a time to die”

(a significant difference: the former is beyond a person’s control, while the latter is not)


Brevity

Due to its use of prefixes or suffixes to denote prepositions, possessive forms, etc., Hebrew tends to be much more concise than English and many other languages. On another occasion, I gave the example of the well-known example (I Kings 20:21):

אל יתהלל חוגר כמפתח

—which in English is no less than sixteen words:

Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off

but it is true, almost to the same extent, of most of the Hebrew Bible, e.g., Ecclesiastes 3:1:

לכל זמן, ועת לכל חפץ

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose


Poetry

This is perhaps the least appreciated deficiency, but is apparent during linguistic analysis of the text. For example, the alliteration in a verse such as

טוב שם משמן טוב (tov shem mishemen tov) (Eccles. 7:1)*

is entirely lost in translation:

A good name is better than precious ointment

Similarly, the rhetorical emphasis from repeated use of a certain root—e.g. נכ”נ (n-k-n) in II Samuel 7—

וַהֲכִינֹתִי … וְכֹנַנְתִּי …וַתְּכוֹנֵן

(vehakhinoti… vekonanti… vatekonen)

which is also lost in translation:

I will set up […] and I will stablish […] For thou hast confirmed

*

(See this and other answers to this question at Quora.com)

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Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

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