Biblical Names, Lost in Translation

December 9, 2015 | Aviya Kushner
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Even the best translations can’t accurately capture all the layers of meaning in a text, particularly a great one. Aviya Kushner explains how renderings of the Hebrew Bible—beginning with the oldest, the Septuagint—obscure the significance found in personal names:

[Historically], many Jews weren’t keen on translating their holy book. One ancient source calls for a fast on the anniversary of the Septuagint’s publication, saying that when it appeared, “darkness descended on the world for three days.”

They had ample justification for worrying over distortions and omissions. Hebrew names, one of the richest parts of the Bible, were often transliterated instead of being translated into Greek. Meaning-laden names thus lost their meaning.

What we call ourselves matters. A name in the Bible is supposed to capture its bearer’s essence. God names the first person in the Bible Adam for adamah, or earth. In Hebrew, adam is also the word for human. But an English reader would never know that, in Hebrew, Adam is immediately understood as rooted in the very earth he walks on, labors in, and returns to.

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