Hebrew

I’m in second semester Hebrew and we are already translating some narrative text.  This is quite mind-boggling.  Only 4 months ago I wouldn’t have known a lick of Hebrew, other than YHWH and “shalom”.  Now I’m creating a wooden, rudimentary but readable translation!  I’m no translator, mind you, and I’ve been told that Hebrew poetry is something else altogether (i.e. I’m not ready to try and translate the Psalms), but still…

We are working through Exodus 32 at the moment–the Golden Calf sequence. For each class we have to translate approximately 3 verses and we spend part of the class going through our translations, discussing reasons for translating a certain way, making corrections, etc.

Here is my translation of verses 15-17, which we will correct in class tomorrow:

15 And Moses turned and descended from the mountain with two of the tablets of the reminders (urgings?) in his hand, tablets which were covered with writing on both sides, and on either side they were written.

16 And the tablets were the work of God and the writing [was] the writing of God, he who engraved upon the tablets.

17 And Joshua heard the sound of the wickedness of the people and he said to Moses, “(I hear/there is?) the sound of war in the camp.”

Here is the NASB translation (probably the most wooden/literal English translation):

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets which were written on both sides; they were written on one side and the other.

16 The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing engraved on the tablets.

17 Now when Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a sound of war in the camp.” (NASB)

Not bad, eh?  Mind you, I do rely quite heavily on the lexicon and these three verses were relatively easy (I’ve botched portions of other verses), but still…

Translation is turning into one of my favourite seminary pastimes.  I look forward to doing it.  Sometimes when I’m working on a paper or reading a dense book, I’ll think to myself, “I’d rather be translating.”

* * *

Learning an original language, I’m beginning to see some of the nuance that is lost in translation.  Take, for instance, the way the Israelites refer to the golden calf.  Depending on your translation, v. 1 will have them ask Aaron to make them “a god” or “gods”, and v. 4 will have them say, “This is your god” or “these are your gods”.  Some of those translations will then mark the alternate singular or plural rendering of “god” in the footnote.  The problem is that the Hebrew term translated god/gods is plural, but the calf is a single thing, so there is some question about the correct translation of the term for “god”.

But what is even more interesting is the fact that the term for “god/gods” is Elohim, which is also the term used for God (that is, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).  Elohim can be translated “god”, “gods” or “God” (for God it’s kind of like the royal “we”).  Most of the class noticed this issue and our professor noted that there is some question among Hebrew scholars about whether the Israelites were turning to other gods, which is how we normally take the golden calf story, or if the golden calf was meant to be a representation for Yahweh, the God of Israel.  In both cases, the Israelites have broken a commandment–either worshiping other gods or making an idol–so it doesn’t change anything, but it’s still an interesting nuance missed in the English translations.

* * *

The president of the college and seminary sight-reads both Hebrew and Greek, translating on the spot when he lectures and preaches.  It’s quite impressive. Check out his CV in the link above–he translated Job for the New Living Translation and lists translating Akkadian and Ugaritic (other ancient near eastern languages) texts as one of his hobbies.  Awesome! (He also lists reading P.G. Wodehouse–huzzah!).

I asked him about becoming so familiar with the languages.  He told me that when he became a pastor, which was when he was in seminary, he made it standard practice to translate every passage of scripture he preached on.  He suggested translating just a little bit every day as a good practice.

I’m excited about the possibilities.  We received free copies of the Hebrew Bible from the Canadian Bible Society, but sometimes it is difficult to read.  So I’ve order the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, the critical edition of the Hebrew text,with the intention of disciplining myself to translate just a little bit every day.

4 thoughts on “Hebrew

  1. Toni

    Is there irony in having a Hebrew version of the bible with a Latin name?

    Regarding the calf theory, one might draw conclusions from what the people were doing when they arrived in the camp as to the nature of the calf and what it represented.

    I have admiration for those who have gifting in languages. It’s also kind of fun to translate stuff if you have enough info to get you going.

  2. Marc

    Toni: Ha! Is it Latin? Or is it German? Stuttgart is apparently a city which has a special role in Bible translations (along with the German Bible Society), but I’m not exactly sure what that is. It appears, somehow, that they’re the “official” city, anyway. I notice that an old copy of the Greek New Testament I has connections there as well.

    We were discussing in Hermeneutics class just the other day about translations of translations–the official inspired text of the Catholic Church is (or at least was) the Latin Vulgate and similarly for the Orthodox it is the Greek Septuagint (LXX). The LXX would have been the “current” translation of the Hebrew Bible in the time of Jesus and the early church and so it had enormous influence on the writing of the New Testament.

    Fascinating stuff.

    Yes, there are also some sexual implications/connotations in the passage which I think might not be present in the English.

    (Incidentally, I got your email about the visit. I’m emailing you back right now)

  3. Linea

    I think that what I am missing out on the most by doing Greek in a distance format is that interaction over the translation. That would make it a lot more fun.

  4. Marc

    I hadn’t thought of that, Linea, but you’re probably right. Our professor brings up quite a bit of interesting stuff from the translation.

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