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?

Leave a comment

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:

Square Hebrew SimHebrew* Translation (KJV) Actual meaning
ותחסרהו מעט מאלהים

[Psalms 8:6]

vtksrhu my’t malhim* For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels For thou hast made him a little lower than God
עת ללדת, עת למות

[Eccles. 3:2]

yt lldt, yt lmut* A time to be born, a time to die A time to give birth, a time to die

These are significant differences: in the the latter case, being born is beyond a person’s control, while giving birth is not, and in the Psalms example, the mistranslation smacks of editorial censorship by translators who thought the literal meaning of the Hebrew may be sacrilegious.


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. Here are two examples (the first of which I’ve cited on another occasion):

Square Hebrew SimHebrew* Translation (KJV)
אל יתהלל חוגר כמפתח

[I Kings 20:21]

al ithll kogr cmptk* Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off
לכל זמן, ועת לכל חפץ

[Eccles. 3:1]

lcl zmn, vyt lcl kpx* To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose

Sixteen words in English versus four in Hebrew in the first example; twelve versus five in the second. And the same is true, almost to the same extent, of most of the Hebrew Bible.


Poetry

This is perhaps the least appreciated deficiency, but is apparent during linguistic analysis of the text. Two examples by way of illustration:

Square Hebrew SimHebrew* Phonetic rendition Translation (KJV)
טוב שם משמן טוב

[Eccles. 7:1]

‘tob wm mwmn ‘tob* Tov shem mishemen tov A good name is better than precious ointment
וַהֲכִינֹתִי … וְכֹנַנְתִּי …וַתְּכוֹנֵן

[II Samuel 7]

vhcinti… vcnnti… vtconn* vehakhinoti… vekonanti… vatekhonen I will set up […] and I will stablish […] For thou hast confirmed

In the first example, the alliteration of the original Hebrew is lost; in the second, it is the rhetorical power of repetition of the three-letter root (n-c-n)—both of which are entirely lost in translation.


*To illustrate the linguistic patterns of the Hebrew for the benefit of non-Hebrew readers, all asterisked texts are in SimHebrew (simulated Hebrew).

Advertisements

Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s