Have I mentioned that if you are interested in the Bible, you have to learn Hebrew? (Greek, too, if you are interested in the Christian Bible.) There’s a bit of Aramaic in the Bible as well, but we’ll leave that aside for now.
There are many reasons for this; here are a few of the most obvious ones:
1) Many words, including the simplest and most common, cannot be exactly replicated in other languages. If I need to translate “refrigerator” into another language, I can be pretty sure that the other word conveys precisely what the original meant—though even here, the ideas associated with a refrigerator will be slightly different in some languages. But words like “man’ or “big” or “go,” although they exist in every language, will cover very different areas of meaning. A refrigerator is a refrigerator is a refrigerator … but חסד is (to choose just the definitions I found in a Biblical Hebrew dictionary entry) “joint obligation, faithfulness, goodness, graciousness,” not to mention the commonly used “love” and “lovingkindness” and the English word I myself would use to explain this term: “loyalty.”
2) There are at least two basic translation strategies: translation by word and translation by sense. These have the potential to create two quite different texts out of the same original. If someone tells me that he is “happy as a clam,” I have the choice of translating the words literally or using the equivalent expression in the new language. (Something tells me that in most languages, clams will not be involved.) That is why my Commentators’ Bible series provides two English translations along with the Hebrew text. One, the 1917 JPS translation, tends toward translation by word; the other, the “new” JPS translation (which is moving rapidly into middle age), more often translates by sense.
3) Translation inevitably “smudges” the original. When you read Lev 15:2, “When any man has a discharge issuing from his member,” in an English translation, the last thing on your mind is the famous phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey,” which occurs 15 times in the Bible. (Puzzler: Only 3 of these are foiund outside the Torah—can you guess where?) Yet both phrases use exactly the same Hebrew verb, זוב, which means something like “ooze.”
So if you are interested in the Bible, sooner or later you must learn Biblical Hebrew. You don’t necessarily need to use Seow‘s book. I chose to list it because that’s the book I use in my courses at the University of Pennsylvania and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. It’s technically very good, and was specifically written to replace a book by Thomas Lambdin, Seow’s teacher at Harvard, that (strangely) created its own examples rather than using actual verses from the Bible.
One good source for books if you are learning Hebrew on your own is EKS publishing. My students in Boston used to supplement Lambdin with “The Desert Book” from EKS. That’s not its real name—but you will recognize it when you see the cover. (Alas, I get no kickback if you buy anything from them.) There is also a free PDF download of a textbook by John Cook and Robert Holmstedt—and there are many, many other books to choose from.
I hope to come back to translation issues often in future posts. Meanwhile, in the words of Hillel … זיל גמור! (“Go and learn!”)