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…
Dan Wallace on the demise of pastoral understanding of the biblical languages:
Now, half a millennium after Luther nailed his theses to the door of the great Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, theological seminaries are on a rapid decline. Greek and Hebrew continue to be casualties. Genuine study of the biblical languages is being replaced by “Greek/Hebrew appreciation” courses—a euphemism for anything but deep appreciation, or nothing at all. Bible software, which can be an absolutely amazing tool for profound study of the original languages, has too often become a crutch. Rely on it enough and it becomes a wheelchair. One really needs to get immersed in Greek for a couple of years before being able to profit fully from Bible software that deals with the Greek…
Evangelical churches are frequently seeking pastors who have amazing speaking abilities, but who can’t exegete their way out of a paper bag. This is hardly what the Reformers had in mind. Listen to Luther:
“In proportion as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others.”
“And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages.”
The Reformers argued, correctly, that if the church were to truly hold to scripture as its authority, then it needed pastors capable of reading and understanding scripture in its original languages. The common practice of pastors relying on Bible translation software and interlinear translations is a surrender of the pastoral prerogative to exegete and expound scripture to the church. Instead, the tools have become “wheelchairs” that do the work of exegesis on our behalf.
The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is a great example of the pastoral implications of Greek translation. It demonstrates the intersection of translation philosophy and how translation affects interpretation.
Talents (Greek τάλαντον/talanton, often the plural τάλαντα/talanta throughout this passage) were a monetary denomination worth roughly 20 years of wages. Matthew 18:24 is the only other location in the New Testament that this monetary unit is used. Translating τάλαντον as ‘talent’ in English is phonetically correct, though meaningless as a unit. Without additional comments, usually reserved for a footnote in English Bibles, using the word ‘talent’ does not communicate monetary value to an average reader…
I am not a Greek scholar, nor am I a son of a Greek scholar. So, with great caution, but with confidence nonetheless, I disagree with BDAG on its definition of εὐαγγελίζω (yooangghelizo) in Luke 8:1. εὐαγγελίζω semantically possesses the basic idea that a person is announcing or bringing good news.
Luke 8:1 says that Jesus was κηρύσσων καὶ εὐαγγελιζόμενος: “he [Jesus] was proclaiming and announcing/bringing the good news.” BDAG notes that εὐαγγελίζω can either be used in a general sense to mean “bring good news” or in a narrower, specific way to mean “proclaim the gospel.” While slight, the differences are important enough to impact the meaning of passage. Bringing the good news conveys a different idea from, though related to, announcing the good news. BDAG uses Luke 8:1 as an example of this latter meaning, though without explanation for why this meaning and not the former. I believe it errs in placing Luke 8:1’s use of εὐαγγελίζω in what it calls the specific range of meaning…