11 April 2010

Book review: "And God Said" by Joel M. Hoffman

I recently finished And God Said by Joel M. Hoffman. In this book, Hoffman explores some of the terrible translation errors that have worked their way into translations of Biblical Hebrew. Some of these mistranslations have theological significance. Others make the text harder to comprehend. Others give up the beauty of the original for translations that are textually reasonably but poetically junk.

Despite the fascinating premise, I noticed some serious flaws right off the bat. As a friend of mine put it,
So, yeah Hoffman, tends to be a bit... uneven. It's like he knows what he's talking about and yet is simultaneously full of shit. It's kind of strange. I think he's probably the sort of person who just never questions himself.
I think that assessment is right on.

What Hoffman does well is explore the meaning of a word or phrase. For each word or phrase that he chooses to examine, he looks at it in all the different contexts it appears. Based on those contexts, he explains why the common translation conveys the wrong meaning. He then tries to find a better translation; these discussions tend to flop. He acknowledges that there is no perfect translation for many of these phrases, so he sets out a number of alternatives and chooses between them. The problem is that this choice often displays his own bias as to what aspect of the original is most important.

I will discuss one of the phrases in detail to give you a taste for what the discussions are like. The first topic Hoffman explores is the phrase commonly translated as "heart and soul". He has this to say about it:
The combination "heart and soul" or some variation of it, appears nearly forty times in the Bible, further emphasizing how important these two ideas were in antiquity. But here's the problem. The Hebrew words for "heart" and "soul," the words in Deuteronomy 6:5 that Jesus quotes, are levav and nefesh, respectively. And they are severly mistranslated. In fact, the translations miss the point entirely.
Looking at these words in the contexts they are used, both individually and together, Hoffman concludes that levav seems to represent the seat of both emotions and reasons in people. "Heart" is a bad translation because it excludes the rational element. "Brain" or "mind" fail because they tend to emphasize the rational over the emotional.

In a similar treatment, nefesh fares even worse. It is often translated as "soul". However, looking at the word in context shows that while nefesh is related to the essence of that which gives life, it is generally connected with the physical essence such as blood, breath, and flesh. Looking at levav and nefesh together, Hoffman concludes,
While nefesh was everything about life that could be touched, levav was its counterpart, representing everything about life that could not be touched.
Given this meaning, it is clear that "heart and soul" completely fails to convey the essence of those two terms.

As I said, the book tends to flop in its attempts to provide a better translation. What he comes up with in this case is "mind-body," as in "the mind-body connection". This translation is certainly better than "heart and soul", but it has connotations of its own that Hoffman does not really explore.

Hoffman follows this same pattern with other terms and phrases: look at it in context, determine what ideas the word conveys, compare it against the standard English translation and find it lacking, and try to find a better translation.

The other topics he covers are
  • The words used for various rulers and leaders, including those commonly translated as "king" and "shepherd". "Shepherds" in antiquity were way more awesome than the modern conception of shepherds.
  • The words that give rise to the disturbing translation "My sister, my bride" in Song of Solomon: The word translated as sister was probably meant as an indicator of equality.
  • The word that is commonly translated as "covet" in the 10 commandments: It certainly meant more than just covet. It probably meant a particular type of taking.
  • Words used to refer to women: The word translated as "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 most certainly did not mean "a woman who has never had sex".
What lessons can someone reading the Bible take from this? First, that even the best modern translations have lots of errors. Some of these are minor, some major. Some are cruft left over from the King James Version, some are due to the inherently difficult nature of translation.

Second, we should not take small fragments such as words or phrases too literally without taking the time to look into the text in the original language. Since most of us do not have the background or time to do this, we should, instead, just be very careful when we analyze particular words. For example, when I was analyzing the word "hate" in Luke 14:26 in today's reading, I was very careful to say
I think that Jesus really does mean to convey some of the negative connotations of the word hate
Rather than saying that Jesus really meant for his followers to literally hate their friends and family, I wanted to convey that there was likely a negative aspect to the feeling he wanted his followers to hold even though I do not know that the original Greek had any negative connotation at all (well, actually I do, but I looked that up after the fact).

Finally, we should realize that translations never capture all levels of the text. No translation can capture all of the levels of meaning (word, phrase, passage, aesthetic, poetic, idiomatic). Thus, we are always missing out on something when we read the translation.