On Jephthah and Biblical Translation

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.” Halkin’s first point is very much correct about the chicken-egg situation in which translators find themselves. But, in an effort to defend the more flippant response from Jephthah, Halkin then assumes a significant amount about the context of Judges 11.

“And this [not visiting his daughter in her time of mourning] isn’t the worst of it. The worst is that it never occurs to Jephthah that he needn’t keep his vow—that he can swallow his pride or sense of honor, admit he’s made a foolish mistake, and spare his daughter’s life. He wouldn’t have been the first Israelite to have broken a vow, or the last.” Halkin argues that the translation of Jephthah’s vow depends on whether he is anguished (he made a great error and the Hebrew is formal) or self-centered (his daughter’s death is inconvenient and the Hebrew is casual). But Halkin never considers, at least in this essay, that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter, but rather wholly consecrated her to God (a decent summary of this view can be found in Let the Reader Understand by Dan McCartney). The consecration interpretation may be incorrect, but what Halkin is demonstrating, even if inadvertently, is the truth of the closed circle of biblical translation. Halkin cannot provide a solid translation of the Hebrew without understanding the context of Judges 11, settles on an interpretation of that context, and then allows that interpretation to inform his translation. That translation will then guide future readers and future translators into a particular interpretation of the passage, a point Halkin makes often in his essay.

Biblical translation requires, and is itself, biblical interpretation. To determine what the Bible says sometimes first requires determining what it means. Translation is treason, as one of my seminary professors would say. This is why it is critical that ministers know the biblical languages; being familiar with Hebrew and Greek, and not just the translation software, helps protect ministers from unintentionally relying on interpretations masquerading as pure translations.