By Gregory K. Taylor
Translations of text material invariably suffer from the translator’s perspective. The translator’s biases, subconscious influences, beliefs—factor into the understanding of what is being read. With time sensitive material, such as the Bible, the difference in translation between the document being interpreted and the interpreted document is even greater. Therefore, to search for the original meaning of a document as complex as the Hebrew Bible (Torah) involves, among other things, the understanding of language syntax, cultural idioms, classical and contemporary terms and editorial errors.
Word order involving subjects, verbs, objects, and articles can be written in sequences which often confuse a foreign reader as to its meaning. Some languages, such as Chinese, do not use articles or conjugated verbs and the word order is usually the reverse of English. For example, “He will be a college student this fall” is the typical English subject/verb/object order. The Chinese would likely translate the English version as, “He this year autumn then be university student.” The Chinese translation clearly violates a few English rules, but like a right-handed person being forced to write with his left hand—although awkward, the meaning is decipherable.
To “Kick the bucket” is literally an act of swinging one’s foot to strike a container. As an idiom, its meaning is “to die.” Idioms are often nonsensical expressions to convey a terse meaning unique to one’s culture. Sometimes idioms do jump cultural borders, but when they don’t they are virtually impossible to translate from one language to another. Again, using a Chinese example, “Stupid hands, Stupid feet” translates into English as a clumsy person. To the uninitiated, the Chinese idiom would be interpreted as the hands and feet being stupid instead of the person.
Shakespearean English, to a native English speaker, can be as difficult as any foreign language to interpret. Elizabethan literature represents the time in which it is written; hence, juxtaposing contemporary and classical English reveals the difficulty in decoding/reconciling the two styles. One must mentally travel to the period being written about to see the syntactic and idiomatic expressions of the day. For example, thee, thou, yee, and thine represent archaic articles that must be given a contemporary equivalent in order to maintain historical integrity. Editing such documents over a period of time from one language to another, or in the same language for that matter, risk the editor’s input. There is a familiar story about a missive being passed from one person to another person, bit by bit individually embellished as it goes along, until it bears no resemblance to its original form. This is the danger inherent in all translated documents.
A collection of books as arcane as the Hebrew Bible presents all the challenges of interpretive integrity. The very nature of reproducing such a document requires the utmost diligence and concentration so as not to omit or introduce text that was not in the original form. Trying to ascertain who wrote the Torah, the location where it was written, and what the motives and/or influences were affecting the writers are prerequisites for scholarly interpretive research.