Translating the Hebrew Bible Can Rob It of Its Ambiguity—and Readers of the Sacred Duty of Interpretation

June 2, 2022 | Francis Nataf
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Reviewing the newly published Koren Tanakh (discussed here and here by Mosaic’s Philologos), Francis Nataf addresses one of the most difficult problems posed by any translation of the Hebrew Bible to the Jewish reader. This problem comes down to the very essence of Torah study, which, Nataf writes:

is predicated on the notion that the original is somewhat indeterminate [and thus] allows for various possible meanings. . . .

An example of the price paid for the sake of readability can be found in [Abraham’s maidservant] Hagar’s encounter with an angel or angels when she first runs away from Sarai (Genesis 16:7-12). A famous midrash (Breishit Rabbah 45:7) takes note of the triple verbatim repetition of, “And an angel of the Lord said to her” (verses 9, 10, and 11)—after already introducing the angel in verse 7—and concludes that there were actually four angels. Of course, it is not the only way to read this repetition, but it is one that works well with the Hebrew text. Yet because such repetition also reads clumsily, the Koren translation changes the phrasing the second and third time, thereby undermining the midrashic reading. It undermines it further still by using the wording, “the angel . . . added.”

The creative license taken with the original text [by the Koren translation] sometimes goes in the opposite direction as well, trying too hard to follow rabbinic readings—which can paradoxically backfire.

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