Why is it so hard to translate Hebrew into English?

A lot of factors go into this problem. I’ll cover just a few.

  • While English has a huuuuuuge vocabulary, ancient Hebrew had a very small vocabulary. For example, I talk elsewhere about the word ‘aman (pronounced “Chaman” or just Haman). It means wet nurse, or foster parent, or protector, or caretaker, or faithful servant, or pillar. Those are just a few of the ways it can be translated. So not only is it hard to know which one is meant, but we miss wordplay (puns) that arising from multiple senses of the same word. When we are forced to pick just one meaning, we erase nuances and subtexts. For more, see my entry here: https://biblefaq390.com/#hfaq-post-193
  • Many believe that ancient Hebrew was a literary language, not a spoken language. So ancient Jewish people might have reserved certain words just for the bible (for example, the literary word for sun “Shemesh” was linked to the Babylonian and Canaanite sun deities, but even in biblical times, Aramaic speakers used a different word). Therefore, even those writing it might have been uncertain what some words meant; moreover, modern people who do not speak this language but study it are often at a disadvantage.
  • Our main knowledge of Hebrew before the Dead Sea Scrolls came from the Masoretes, a group of monks who painstakingly copied and recopied bible texts. They preserved the tendency to leave out vowels in ancient Hebrew, forcing us to guess about pronunciations like Yahweh vs. Jehovah, and sometimes making it hard for translators to select between similar-sounding words. These days, we guess that Yahweh is correct, in part because we’ve seen fragments of it in names (like Elijah or Eli-Yah) and in other communities (like the Elephantine use of Yah-hu).
  • Many modern translators are Christian. Therefore, they have a tendency to impose Christian meanings on the text, even in translation. For example, Christians tend to translate the first word of Ecclesiastes as Vanity, not “breath,” which is what it means. They do this because others have done it before them. Vanity is not only “emptiness” or “futility.” Over the centuries it’s come to mean that a preoccupation with this world, the body, and bodily pleasures distracts us from the next, spiritual world. So Christians impose a meaning about the afterlife on Ecclesiastes that the Hebrews did not intend.
  • Very few modern people not only understand biblical Hebrew well but are also familiar with its poetry. So most translators ignore the poetry and wordplay in the Hebrew bible. For a more poetic and interesting translation, check out Robert Alter’s recently completed translation of the entire Hebrew bible. It has wonderful footnotes.

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