For several years I’ve maintained that Bible translations conceal as much — if not more — as they reveal.
Obviously, translators do what they do to make the Bible clearer but sometimes there are more things working against them than they can overcome. Let me give you some examples of places where translations of the Hebrew Scripture fail to really help the average reader understand what the Biblical author was attempting to communicate. Since I like the ESV translation, I will use it as the exemplar for this article.
In Exodus chapters 32-34, we have the famous narratives of the “golden calf.” In Exodus 32:6, the translation says, “and the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”
When I read this, many questions come to mind, but the most obvious is what does the word “play” really mean? Does “play” refer to games like chess or checkers? Whatever the “play” that’s going on, it must be serious as both Moses and G-d are angry with the people. In my estimation, the word “play” is a very poor translation of the Hebrew word behind the English. For English readers, “play” is something that children do at recess on playgrounds or what athletes do on a diamond or field. In order to get behind this word “play,” we must look at other places in the Hebrew Scripture where it is used. Once we look at this word we find that it’s used in several different ways within the Hebrew Scripture.
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In Genesis 26:8-9, we find that king Abimelek sees Isaac “playing” (ESV has “laughing”) with his wife Rivkah. The word “playing” is the same root word we have in the Exodus 32 text.
Just like his father Abraham, Isaac tried to pass off his wife as his sister to save his life. When the king saw the couple “playing,” he figured out they were not brother and sister. This “playing” was intimate and perhaps sexual — indicating Isaac and Rivkah were husband and wife. The second place where this same root word is used come in II Samuel 2:14. In this narrative two military generals, Abner and Joab, along with their armies meet at a watering hole. Abner makes the proposal that the young men should “play” (ESV has “compete”) with each other. A look at Verse 16 reveals that this competition was bloody and deadly. Going back to Exodus 32, our word “play” most likely means that when Moses came down the mountain he saw a combination of sexual debauchery and blood sport, and this would legitimize both his and G-d’s anger.
Another major way that translations conceal what the Hebrew text says is the issue of assonance.
Assonance is word play based on similar sounding words that are meant to catch the ear of the listener. I realize that we are not reading the text out loud in Biblical Hebrew but I do think there are ways the translators could alert us to poetic sounds the author wanted us to hear. Let me give you some examples of places in Hebrew Scripture where the words intentionally sound alike.
In Genesis 1:2 the earth was “without form and void.” The Hebrew words for “form” and “void” have a similar sound that a native reader would not have missed. In the opening to Psalm One, the first three words all have the “sh” sound, forcing the reader to hear a repetitive sound. In Isaiah 5:7 there is an extended use of assonance where the combination of “justice and bloodshed” and “righteousness and outcry” have very similar sounds. This kind of wordplay could be a lengthy book all by itself but those who are not listening to the text cannot pick up on the intended wordplay.
We’ve only scratched the surface of ways that translations conceal as much as they reveal. In order to combat losing out on what the text is trying to reveal, let me offer four suggestions for those who really want to dig in.
First, take the time to learn Biblical Hebrew. Today there are many online helps along with a plethora of self-help materials for those interested. Recent Biblical Hebrew courses have instructional DVDs that allow one to learn over time and at your own pace for a reasonable price. If you are interested in learning Biblical Hebrew, don’t hesitate to email me as I’m willing to help anyone who is willing to begin this most profitable journey.
Second, obtain a good study Bible that will alert you to translation issues that are necessary for really grasping the depth of the text. Again, there are some good study Bibles out there, but look for ones that have copious notes. With that in mind, I would recommend the NET Bible as there are thousands of notes to help the reader see what other translations miss or ignore.
Third, take the time to search out good commentaries where the scholar interacts with the original language of the text. I recommend using commentaries where the scholar has spent years in a particular book familiarizing themselves with the text over time and who interacts with other scholars. Finally, make sure to use an English translation that is both essentially literal (not a paraphrase or dynamic equivalent) and that was written by an editorial team (as opposed to one-man translations).
Brent Emery can be reached at email@example.com.