For the past fifty years there has been a growing feeling among scholars and ministers of religion that the time is ripe for a new English translation of the Bible. Despite its status as an English classic, the King James Version, most commonly in use, is, it is claimed, too archaic in point of language to be readily intelligible, too antiquated in point of scholarship to be reliable, and too grandiloquent and monolithic in point of style to convey a true impression of the tone and variety of the original. The same applies also, it is added, to the Catholic Douai Version, and—though to an admittedly lesser degree—to the Revised Version of the 1880’s. All of these renderings, runs the argument, are, in fact, distorting mirrors, and the continued use of them is one of the major reasons why modern man is becoming more and more estranged from the authentic Word of God. If, therefore, the Bible is to continue to be meaningful and relevant, there is, it is contended, an urgent need for a new translation which will be at once modern in idiom and abreast of the current state of Biblical studies.
Several attempts have indeed been made to supply this need. Some—like the Moffatt, Smith-Goodspeed, and Knox versions, or like the partial translations into “colloquial speech” put out by the National Adult School Union in England—have been the work of individual scholars; others—such as the Revised Standard Version, the (Catholic) Confraternity Version, and the New World Translation sponsored by Jehovah’s Witnesses—have been cooperative ventures under denominational auspices. Now, at long last, comes a new Jewish version—or, at least, the first installment of one, a rendering of the Pentateuch.1
A translation of the Bible is, or should be, a work of literature as well as of scholarship, and I therefore propose to examine this new version more especially from that angle. To do so, however, it will be necessary first to take a closer look at the general assumptions and principles on which all of the recent renderings have been based. The more one turns these over in one’s mind, the more difficult it becomes to resist the suspicion that the new renderings may, after all, have “missed the bus”—or rather the Heavenly Chariot—by confusing literal intelligibility with meaningfulness, and that their dominant preoccupation with modernity of language and philological accuracy may in fact have bypassed, or lost sight of, two far more important considerations. The first is that what really obstructs modern man’s understanding and appreciation of the Bible is not so much an occasional strangeness of idiom as a constant strangeness of ideas. The second is that there can, in fact, be no such thing as a definitive translation of Scripture—even for any one age—for the simple reason that Scripture in fact possesses no single definitive meaning to translate. Indeed, it is its very multiplicity of meanings that gives it its universal appeal and makes it an eternal—that is, continually relevant—book.
To take the first point first: the plain truth is that the writers of the Bible—like the peoples of the ancient Near East in general—saw the world in a way very different from our own and were, by and large, innocent of those logical, philosophical, and scientific categories which are basic to our own thinking and forms of expression. They had, for instance, no idea of the world as a cosmos or organically unified system; none of nature or what we term laws of nature; and none of Time as a dimension. They had likewise no clear apprehension of organic structures or intrinsic properties, of the distinction between the inherent and the contingent; and they failed, in general, to perceive the relation of form to function—of what a thing was to what it did. They were also without metaphysics; creation, for example, was for them a matter of the shaping or forming of objects, not of the emergence of being from non-being. Natural phenomena, temporal events, and even human actions and passions were regarded as moved from without, and what to us are internal processes were to them the impacts of external influences—the activity and self-expression of an external force and mind, personified as the living God (or, in older Near Eastern thinking, many and diverse gods). It did not rain; God rained; it did not thunder: God gave forth His voice. Events did not happen through any mystique of self-determined sequence and inevitability, but by the will and fiat of a supernal God. The “inner urge” of the Israelites to free themselves from the bondage of Egypt and to trudge through the wilderness to a land of their own was articulated rather as the strong hand and outstretched arm of a God who worked upon them, not within them, and who was “redeeming” them and leading them to a promised domain. Similarly, too, a poet or visionary who stood in a state of ecstasy—that is, momentarily outside of his “normal,” diurnal experience—was deemed to be enraptured, seized by God; the hand (or spirit) of the Lord had descended upon him. Aspiration was thus represented as inspiration; emotion as, so to speak, immotion—something injected into a man rather than projected out of him. (On a more mundane level, people did not have stomach-aches; stomach-aches had them.) The human stance was necessarily passive, not active; man did not confront the world—as in the adventurous climate of Greek speculative thought—but was confronted by it; he was ever on the receiving end of God’s operations.
It follows, then, that if the Biblical writers’ views about the world and the human situation—their divinely inspired insights, if you will—are to be meaningful and relevant to modern man, and not mere antiquarian relics, this different climate of being and frame of mind have first to be recaptured, and the imagery and idiom in which they are expressed then to be translated or transmuted, so far as possible, into the patterns of modern man’s own mentality and the terms of his own experience. (This does not mean, of course, that the Bible has to be “de-theologized,” but simply that one has to recognize what, in terms of event and experience, its picture of God and God’s activity really stand for.) The trouble is, however, that not all of the Bible’s ideas and concepts lend themselves readily to such reformation, while the average layman today is in any case rarely equal to the task.
And the task is made even more difficult by the fact that ancient Hebrew thinking differed from ours in manner as well as matter. Many things which the modern Western mind absorbs or digests by means of empirical observation and logical synthesis were envisaged and expressed by the writers of the Bible through poetry and impressionistic imagery; and the latter in turn was often drawn from traditional mythology. Accordingly, the modern reader has not only to identify the underlying myths—a matter of straight literary and archaeological exegesis—but also, and more importantly, to “decode” the mythological metaphors and to extract the universal significance from the particular form of its articulation. In Biblical thought, for example, the world begins with the breath of God sweeping or coasting over the primordial waters, and its present phase will end with the Lord’s subduing Leviathan, “the evasive serpent” (Isaiah 27.1). Both are mythological images.
On the level of purely literal interpretation, the one can be elucidated by pointing out that the breath of God is simply the wind and that this is therefore nothing but a linguistic survival of a widespread ancient and primitive myth which portrays the wind as a bird in flight; while the other may be readily recognized as an adaptation of an older Canaanite myth (now known from the texts discovered at Ras Shamra, in Syria) in which Baal is said to conquer the dragon Leviathan in order to assert his dominion over the earth. Neither concept, however, can become really meaningful or relevant to modern man unless and until it is “de-mythologized” and reformulated in his mind in terms of what it symbolizes and ultimately implies. (Such “de-mythologization” does not mean, of course—as is often supposed—that the Bible has to be shorn of its mythological elements before it can be acceptable, but simply that these have to be translated in the mind from the explicit into the implicit, from particular image to general import, and that one has to recognize poetry and myth, and not only rational and logical statements, as valid media of predication.) It is obvious, however, that this entails far more than mere modernization of language or philological precision; what is involved is mental as well as verbal translation.
Scarcely less formidable than the difficulty of understanding the Bible is that of translating it. The main problem here is that of meaning. The meaning of any work of literature is, in the final analysis, simply a junction between the intent of the writer and the experience of the reader, and is therefore necessarily variable—a product, as it were, of reading into the text as well as out of it. A translator, however, cannot possibly exhaust all the potential meanings capable of being achieved by all potential readers; the most that he can do, in practice, is to reproduce those facets of meaning which happen to present themselves to his own particular mentality. Hence, every translation is necessarily restrictive, and none can be definitive. Indeed, the adequacy (in the etymological sense) of any rendering will be proportionate to the extent to which it manages to preserve the plasticity of the original—that is, to use words as spectra rather than strait jackets.
Moreover, the translator is confronted not only with the problem of the variability of meaning but also with that of its different levels. The Bible has a wider as well as a narrower meaning, an implicit as well as an explicit sense, a connotation as well as a denotation, an ultimate significance as well an an “immediate” purport. Accordingly, to couch a translation in terms which express only the former but convey no intimation of the latter is to spill at least half of the content. Take, for instance, such a verse as Psalms 68:6. To render this slavishly, as does the King James Version, God setteth the solitary in families [literally, a house]: he bringeth out those which are bound . . . but the rebellious dwell in a dry land, is to remain imprisoned within a metaphor, for what the passage, in its wider meaning, is really saying is that the apprehension of what is meant by “God,” the existential recognition of His being and omnipresence—almost the mystic’s “unitive state”—automatically puts an end to man’s rootlessness and bursts the fetters of his human condition. God is Himself a home, not a supernal housing administrator; a spirit of release, not a parole officer. Those, however, who reject this experience are doomed, just as automatically, to a barren, unfructified existence (Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain) .2
The ancient rabbis saw all this clearly enough. “The Torah,” they declared, “has seventy faces.” “The Word of God is a hammer on rock, sending forth countless sparks.” “The Law was written by God in black flame on white flame.” “He who translates a verse of Scripture literally is a liar.”3
With contemporary Bible scholars, however, it is far different. The spate of archaeological discoveries on the one hand, and the increase of philological resources on the other have shifted both their training and their interest into other channels, and with this there has developed a less than casual attitude toward basic problems of hermeneutics—that is, the theory and philosophy of interpretation. Indeed, if one ventures today to raise these issues among Bible scholars, one is usually met, amid embarrassed shuffles of incomprehension and gestures of supercilious disdain, with the objection that one is talking “metasemasiology,” or trying vainly to find “meaning behind meaning”—an objection which is itself meaningless unless the limits of semasiology proper are first defined and unless clear distinctions are preserved between meaning and tenor, sense and significance, denotation and connotation, import and implication.
In such a climate, it is not surprising that the art and task of translation should likewise be misprized and come to be confused with mere lexical equivaluation—that is, the matching of words in one language with those in another. Words, however—as everyone knows—are mere approximate symbols for convenience of communication, so that to pair words in two different languages is not really to determine or reproduce their meaning in either. It is, for instance, quite erroneous to suppose that the meaning of the first verse of the Bible is faithfully reproduced by the rendering, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth (or even, When God began to create heaven and earth). This is simply a lexical equivaluation, for the fact is that its essential words—God and create—are charged in current English speech with associations appreciably different from those possessed by the original Hebrew terms. (A shofar is a shofar, and a rose is a rose is a rose.)
Nor is it only in the matter of semantics that the new translations of the Bible appear to fall short. Equally open to challenge are their premises concerning language and style.
No one, of course, will quarrel with the contention that the English version should be brought abreast of current Biblical scholarship and that the Scriptures demand to be retranslated periodically in order to render them intelligible to successive generations. But the question—raised in the Preface of the new Jewish translation and in advance releases put out by the editor-in-chief—of the desirability of removing the archaic flavor of the King James Version is not one so easily disposed of. To the point that, after all, the Hebrew authors did not write Elizabethan English, there is the obvious retort that neither did they write 20th-century English. The real question here is not simply one of archaism or modernism, but of which form of English is best suited to convey the spirit of the Hebrew in any particular case; and one may suggest that at times the simpler, more naïve, less sophisticated language of the King James Version provides a better literary vehicle in this respect. There is also the further point to be considered that, as Rudolf Otto pointed out, archaic diction, like archaic architecture, is often charged with an inherent “numinosity” by no means foreign to any product of the religious spirit.
It seems, then, impossible to escape the conclusion that, however scholarly and verbally felicitous the new translations of the Bible may be—and undoubtedly are—their basic premises and assumptions are nevertheless open to serious question, and the frame of mind in which they have been executed is deficient in philosophical perception and in certain qualities of sensitivity.
So, by way of general introduction, we come specifically to the new translation of the Pentateuch recently issued by the Jewish Publication Society. This new rendering is the combined work of three eminent Jewish Biblical scholars, professors Harry M. Orlinsky of the Hebrew Union College (editor-in-chief), H. L. Ginsberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Ephraim A. Speiser of the University of Pennsylvania. They have been assisted in their task by “three learned rabbis familiar with the use of the Bible in the synagogue and home” and “belonging to the three sections of organized Jewish religious life”—that is, the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—and by the experienced general editor of the Society. The translation does not lay claim to any “official” authorization or sanction—being simply a venture of JPS—nor can it even claim to represent the consensus of Jewish Biblical scholarship in this country; the majority of Jewish scholars were neither consulted nor invited to cooperate.
Let it be said at once, however, that the translation is a notable and important achievement. Its editors themselves, in the eminence of their scholarship, provide us with a sufficient guarantee of the actual “accuracy” of their rendering. And on page after page one comes upon ingenious and probable solutions of notorious difficulties. Moreover, the version is distinguished by many felicities. True, one must give up certain cherished images: Joseph no longer possesses a “coat of many colors” (rather, an “ornamented tunic”), the Red Sea becomes the Sea of Reeds, and so on. But these changes are trivial, and against them stands the readability of many passages hitherto somewhat obscure.
Nevertheless, with all its excellences and clarifications, one misses in this version the magic of the Bible. By that I do not mean sonorousness or mellifluence, for these have to do only with sound, and I am talking about style. I mean the verbal tact, the economy of statement, the pregnancy of phrase, the ability to catch a scene in a sentence and a situation in a word, the tints and shades. It is these things to which, for all its scholarship, the new version seems somehow insensitive. The translators appear, in fact, to have plumped for accuracy at the expense of fidelity. By accuracy I mean the reproduction of verbal symbols in one language by their most commonly accepted approximates in another; by fidelity I mean the process of catching the experiences which those symbols articulate, of reproducing the style and artistry with which they are manipulated, and of transmitting the “thrill” of the original creation.
Esau, “a man of the field,” comes home and asks Jacob for a swallow of food, “for I am weary” (Genesis 25:30). In the new translation he is “famished”—and instantly the vivid contrast dissolves between the strenuous, sweating hunter, dog-tired and exhausted, and the quiet stay-at-home calmly cooking his stew. Jacob talks in terms of a deal over birthright. Esau is too tired to discuss it. “What have I to do with birthrights when I am half dead.” And again the perfect economy of statement: “So he ate and drank,” says the Scripture, “and got up and went. Esau made light of the birthright.” He held it cheap, disregarded it, had no time for it. In the new translation, he spurned it; once again the point and effect are ruined.
The Israelites are standing before Sinai. They hear the thunder and see the lightning, and now the writer wants a word to describe the sudden reaction of the crowd. Once again, his choice is perfect. “Wa-yanu’u,” he writes, “they were shaken” (Exodus 20:15), which is the word used in Hebrew not only of men staggering in bewilderment (and even in drunkenness) but also of trees swept by a sudden wind (cf. Isaiah 7:2). They fell back, says the new version, and the pictorial power is lost.
Coming nearer and nearer to the Promised Land which he knows he himself will never enter, Moses seeks in a last desperate effort to bring his plebeian horde of ex-slaves to a sense of historic mission, to infuse into them an apprehension—perhaps only a glimmer—of his own vision of what the Going Forth from Egypt really means. “Behold,” he says, in the simplest and most homely of words, “the Lord our God made us see His glory and His greatness” (Deuteronomy 5:21 ). What might have been a mere theoretical concept has been made manifest in event and experience; men have not been left to speculate about God; they have seen Him in their own lives, in what has happened to them, in the adventure of the great trek. The new translation, however, says in effect that here is simply the figure of speech known as hendiadys, whereby two words are used for one thing. God’s glory is simply His radiant presence, and the reference is simply to the grandiose visual effects at Sinai: “He has just shown us His majestic Presence”—and the glory is gone.
Moses pronounces his final blessing over the tribes of Israel. But before describing their several fates and fortunes, he reminds them of the supreme experience which has been common to them all and which unites them in a single destiny: God has revealed Himself to them. Bald statement, however, is not enough: the Lord burst upon Israel like a morning sun. The imagery is exquisite: “The Lord emerged from the top of Sinai, he dawned from Seir, he climbed beaming from Mount Paran” (Deuteronomy 33:2)—the last verb being that normally used of the rising orb. He “appeared,” says the new translation in an inexplicable flattening.
Closely connected with the translators’ insensitivity to poetic imagery is a certain lack of finesse in appreciating the stylistic effect or significance of particular words in particular contexts. There are some telling examples of this in the rendering of the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15). The Song begins in the Hebrew with a vivid contrast between the loftiness of the Lord, Who, so to speak, has been riding high, and the abasement of the Egyptians, plunged into the depths. The words are pointed: “I would sing unto the Lord for He rode, oh so high, whereas horse and driver He flung into the sea.” The new version, following the old, retains “For He has triumphed gloriously” in place of “for He rode, oh so high.”
In verse 13 of the same Song, the whole artistry of the Hebrew is destroyed by a similar lack of perception. The Hebrew says that God led the people whom He had redeemed and guided them to his naweh. Now, the point here is that the two verbs refer especially to leading a flock, while the word naweh means “pasture” as well as “abode.” The idea is, therefore, that of God’s leading His people like a shepherd, bringing them finally to settle on his own hillside. To render it as “In your love You lead the people You redeemed, in Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode,” thus loses the metaphor, and with it, the power of the religious imagination.
A related tendency is that toward what I may call narrowing the ambit of certain words. Thus, in the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6:7), we are told to preoccupy ourselves with the words of God and to “talk of them when we sit in the house, when we walk by the way, when we lie down, and when we rise up.” But the translators insist that we are to “recite” them, not just talk of them—thus turning a preoccupation into a ritual.
Sometimes, too, the poetry of a phrase is constricted in the same way. The magnificent hyperbole of “the heavens and the heavens of the heavens” (Deuteronomy 10:14) becomes simply “the heavens to their uttermost reaches.” The “bewilderment [RV “astonishment”] of heart” which, along with raving and blindness, is the lot of those who heed not the word of the Lord (Deuteronomy 28:28), is diluted to “dismay”—with the whole agony of wavering uncertainty, the whole, if you will, nightmare of secularism, drained out of it.
Again the treatment as hendiadys of pairs of words each of which really possesses distinctive significance occasionally robs certain passages of their full import. Moses tells the Israelites, for example, that if they hearken to God’s commandments and perform them, He will in each individual case (the pronouns change wonderfully from plural to singular) “observe the covenant and the hesed which He has shown to their forebears” (Deuteronomy 7:12). The new translation renders it “the gracious covenant,” but this is short change; hesed is not a quality of pacts themselves but of those who keep them; it is loyalty and devotion to a friend or ally, and it is this constancy of obligation, and not only the fulfillment of the pledge, that God offers.
What I am objecting to, then, is the translators’ insensitivity not only to the imagination and imagery of the Biblical writers, but also to their artistry and style. Not infrequently, the nuances of their phrasing—that is, the special effect of particular words—is unnecessarily curtailed, as when the enemy, which will “march out against you by one road and flee by seven roads” (Deuteronomy 28:7,25) is now said to beat its retreat simply by “many roads.” Again, Jacob is described in this version as a “mild man who stays in camp” (Genesis 25:27) in contrast to Esau, who is “a man of the outdoors.” But the Scriptural writer calls him simply “a plain” man: the contrast not meant to be that between gentleness and ferocity but between adventurousness and domestic tastes. A good writer uses words as an artist uses colors, and a translation which fails to reproduce their timbre and nuance is like a black-and-white reproduction of a Turner sunset.
Sometimes, too, this insensitivity robs a passage of its wider meaning and suggestion. Here is a particularly arresting example. The Israelites are facing the revelation at Sinai. They sense that behind the thunder and lightning a living God is speaking to them. This, and not only the convulsion of nature, fills them with alarm. Their leaders and elders approach Moses. “What flesh,” they ask, “has ever heard the voice of a living God speaking out of the midst of fire, as we have this day?” (Deuteronomy 5:23 ). Now the contrast here is certainly intended as one between mortal man and immortal God, but to use the word “mortal” instead of “flesh” (as the new translation does) is to sacrifice the wider for the narrower phrase: in the ultimate, as distinguished from the proximate sense, what is being said is that the carnal impedes apprehension of the spiritual.
But perhaps more serious than the shortcomings of poetic sensitivity in the new version is the way it occasionally indulges in curious modernizations of ancient religious ideas. The Two Tablets, for instance, are described in the original Hebrew of Exodus 32:16 as being “God’s work” inscribed with “God’s writing,” where the meaning is simply that they were not of human manufacture nor engraved with human script; they were something “out of this world”—this expression being in fact a linguistic relic from pagan speech. But this is softened down to “God’s work” and “God’s writing.” (If that had been the meaning, one would have expected the writer to have used the Tetragrammaton, as elsewhere throughout this chapter.) Again, the prohibition in Deuteronomy 18:10, against the heathen practice of “passing one’s son or daughter through fire” is distorted into a veto on “consigning” them to fire. But regardless of whether the custom of burning children alive was or was not a contemporary pagan usage (and there does seem to be evidence that first-born sons were sometimes burned in honor of the god, Hadad), the reference here may well be to the widespread custom of passing newborn babes or infants through flame as a means of “saining” them or protecting them from evil spirits. The classic example is the Greek Triptolemus in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, but, as Frazer and others have shown, the usage is world-wide and survives even today in European folklore.
Another instance of the same thing occurs at the end of the Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:27) where the Hebrew words, which mean literally, “And they shall place my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them,” are rendered, “Thus they shall link my name with the people of Israel,” etc. This, I think, actually distorts the sense. The phrase, it seems to me, is based on the ancient concept that the name is not merely the verbal appellation of a person, but represents his outward as distinct from his inner personality. When, by the mystique of the priestly benediction, the divine aura is diffused over the people, it may be truly said that the Lord is transmitting berakah—that is (properly), a special providential influence—to them. This, rather than the idea of linking names (in our sense) is, I suggest, what is really meant, and that is the real point of the priests’ mediation.
In a few instances, too, the translation seems to be doctrinally squeamish. Thus, in Numbers 23:19, Balaam is made to declare, “God is not a man to be capricious [n]or mortal to change his mind,” where the Hebrew says more bluntly, “God is not man that he should lie, nor mortal that He should relent.” Again, in the story of the Golden Calf, where the Hebrew says clearly (Exodus 32:1) that the people asked Aaron to “make us gods who shall go before us,” this is toned down to “Make us a god,” although in the succeeding verses Aaron exclaims, “These are your gods.” (A footnote, however, smuggles in the alternative, “This is your god.”)
There is an old rabbinic maxim that whenever the prophets found cause to castigate their people they invariably appended words of cheer. “I am no prophet, neither the son of a prophet,” and what I have here attempted to say has been said in a spirit of critical discussion, not of arrogant castigation—a distinction which, in these unredeemed times, is all too often overlooked. Nevertheless, I should like to follow the old tradition and to say in conclusion that, however much one may dissent in point both of principle and of detail, this new translation must indeed claim the admiration and gratitude of us all. Its three editors are singly and collectively a glory of contemporary American Jewish learning, and, from the point of view of sheer scholarship, so is the present work. One can only hope that the religious and intellectual “translation” of the Bible will one day soon be attacked with the same devotion that has characterized the making of this new version.
1 The Torah: The Five Books of Moses. A new translation of the Holy Scriptures according to the Masoretic text, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 393 pp., $5.00.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, translations are my own.
3 To be sure, in matters of law and commandment, the rabbis did admit of a single, authoritative interpretation reached by consensus, and even inveighed against individualistic exegesis; but the very purpose of this was to establish a practical norm just because they recognized that meaning per se was variable. Indeed, if they admonished us, for purely legal (halachic) purposes to “make a fence around the Torah,” they did so precisely because they realized that of itself the Torah has none.