A friend passed along this insightful review by Hillel Halkin of Robert Alter’s one-man literary translation of the Old Testament. A great portion of the review uses Alter’s translation of the Jephthah account in Judges 11 as an example of the difficulty in translating ancient Hebrew well. Jephthah’s exclamation when his daughter comes through his front door can have a range of emphases depending on the way Hebrew worked colloquially:
In the Hebrew, Jephthah’s exclamation is, “Aha, biti! Hakhre’a hikhra’tini, v’at hayit b’okhrai.” This is difficult. If one were to try to translate it literally, one would arrive at something like, “Ah, my daughter! To bring to knee have you brought me to my knees, and you have been one of my troublers”…
How should this be translated?
As Alter does [“Alas, my daughter, you have indeed laid me low and you have joined ranks with my troublers”]?
As: “Ah, my daughter, you surely have undone me. You have done what no enemy could do”?
As: “Damn it all, child! You’ve tripped me up, you have, and trouble is all you are”?
Without knowing whether this is formal or casual Hebrew it is impossible to say for certain how Jephthah’s statement should be translated. Halkin states, “Much of the Bible is like this. Its translators work in a closed circle. To understand the nuance of a line, they must understand the passage in which it occurs, but they often cannot understand the passage without understanding each line’s nuance. Before objecting that ‘Damn it all, child!’ can’t possibly be the tone in which Jephthah is speaking, we need to consider the monstrously self-centered person he can be viewed as being…