Doing Justice to the Bible
The Hebrew Bible is not the first known work in history to have been translated; that honor goes to one of several Sumerian narrative poems, like the Gilgamesh epic or “Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld,” that were put into Akkadian at the start of the first millennium B.C.E. The earliest Bible translation, produced by Jews in Alexandria, was the third-century B.C.E. Greek version known as the Septuagint. However, the Bible is the first book to have been translated into more than one language (the next was Aramaic in the second century C.E., followed in the fourth by the Latin of the Christian church father Jerome), and it is certainly the book that has been translated into the most languages. English alone has dozens of Bible translations, it being often difficult to determine what constitutes a new translation and what a mere revision of an old one. And yet there is something contradictory about the large number of English Bibles.
This begins with the fact that the same linguistic features of the Hebrew Bible that have facilitated its repeated translation have also made most translations of it redundant. In conventional terms, the Bible is not, apart from its prophetic and a few other books, a difficult work to translate. Its vocabulary is small, its syntax is simple, its verbal embellishments are few, and its occasional obscurities are rarely a hindrance to understanding the passages they occur in. Compared with other classics of the Western tradition, the possibilities for significant variation in Bible translation are small. Why keep re-translating a book when most translations of it end up reading like most others? The obvious answer is that the Bible is not just a book. It is, for many readers, the word of God, every new translation of which, no matter how minor its differences, may bring one closer to what God has said. One can tire of looking for fresh nuances or greater readability in translations of The Iliad or The Divine Comedy, but not in divine revelation
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.