This wonderful website for Hebrew vocabulary and grammar flashcards contains the following quotation:
“Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your new bride through a veil.” –Haim Nachman Bialik (Jewish Poet, 1873-1934)
It is maddening how much translations leave out. The NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) of the Bible, a well-accepted standard study Bible, notes in Ruth 4:11 that the people of the city said to Ruth, “May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem” instead of “May you make chayil (strength, power, wealth, might) in Ephrathah (Fruitful) and proclaim Bethlehem (House of Bread).”
The NRSV translation implies that all that the people of the city wish for Ruth is for Ruth to make babies and continue a lineage.
It fails to capture the forcefulness of a blessing that hopes for Ruth to be a source of strength, resilience, power, wealth, and might, forgetting that children symbolize economic value in a subsistence agricultural society and that fertility not only allows for survival, but the chance at creating a people devoted to following a shared standard of morality. And it fails to describe how Bethlehem, which was formerly a place of famine in the book of Ruth, will finally be unironically called the House of Bread.
When I was explaining that I was taking Hebrew to get a better sense of the nuances in the language used in the Hebrew Bible, a coworker replied, “Great! The Bible should really say what was originally written.”
Well… it’s debatable what the “original” meaning of text in the Bible says. First of all, even in its original languages, there are differences in meaning for many words and among those words, there are various connotations and euphemisms that go along with them. For instance, the nose is synonymous with anger (flaring of nostrils), the throat is synonymous with life, and the feet are euphemism for genitals (read Ruth again and see how uncomfortable you get). Also, were ancient Jews foreshadowing neuroscientific development that would find that the locations in the brain that activate when genitals are stimulated are close to locations in the brain that activate when feet move? If you didn’t know this about the brain, now you know the reasoning behind the phrase “toe-curling sex.” …I love science.
Tangent aside, second, there are words and phrases that have no parallel to English and other languages to which the Bible might be translated. The situation gets worse when you translate from Hebrew to Latin to English, which is why the King James Version is beautiful, but also not the best study Bible. This is also why back translation exists, where people translate forwards (e.g. Hebrew to English) and then backwards (English to Hebrew) to make sure that they are getting it as close to accurate as possible.
And finally, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there are an infinite number of interpretive choices that can be made when translating. Interpretive choices can take into account cultural nuance, historical context, euphemistic meaning, connotations, intertextual connections (connections between texts), cultural comparisons (e.g. comparing Hebrew words with other ancient Near Eastern words), translator’s perspective (e.g. feminist, womanist, queer), translator’s biases (women are supposed to bear children and be kind, not create wealth and be powerful)… and so on.
In these few English translations of Ruth 4:11, look at the differences (with my notes in [brackets]):
New Living Translation:
Then the elders and all the people standing in the gate replied, “We are witnesses! May the Lord make this woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, from whom all the nation of Israel descended! May you prosper [the wealth piece is captured here] in Ephrathah and be famous [famous is not used in the Hebrew, but proclaim a name might be interpreted as famous] in Bethlehem.
New International Version:
Then the elders and all the people at the gate said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up [the Hebrew verb is accurate here] the family of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem.
Common English Bible
Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord grant that the woman who is coming into your household be like Rachel and like Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel. May you be fertile in Ephrathah and may you preserve a name in Bethlehem. [Pretty safe translation]
Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition
Then all the people that were in the gate, and the ancients [they are elders, which implies that they are older and can make political decisions. it’s not like there is this pantheon of really super oooooooooooooold people there] answered: We are witnesses: The Lord make this woman who cometh into thy house, like Rachel, and Lia, who built up the house of Israel: that she may be an example of virtue [chayil is certainly a virtue, but this translation fails to explain what kind of virtue it is] in Ephrata, and may have a famous name in Bethlehem:
All the people in the town square that day, backing up the elders, said, “Yes, we are witnesses. May God make this woman who is coming into your household like Rachel and Leah, the two women who built the family of Israel. May God make you a pillar [no Hebrew pillar, but this would capture influential/powerful aspect of chayil, a very modern American equivalent] in Ephrathah and famous in Bethlehem!
Complete Jewish Bible
All the people at the gate and the leaders said, “We are witnesses. May Adonai make the woman who has come into your house like Rachel and like Le’ah, who between them built up the house of Isra’el. Do worthy deeds in Efrat; become renowned in Beit-Lechem. [I’m a pretty big fan of this translation of this passage. The names of the cities are closer to the Hebrew pronunciation, reminding the reader of the meaning of the names.]
Orthodox Jewish Bible
And kol HaAm that were in the sha’ar, and the zekenim, said, We are edim. Hashem make the isha haba’ah (the woman coming, see Gn 3:15; Isa 7:14) into thine bais [i.e. Bais Dovid] like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the Bais Yisroel; and do thou worthily in Ephrat, and be famous in Beit-Lechem; [Okay, this makes me giggle. It’s really obscure to people who don’t know Hebrew. But I love that this exists because an American who only speaks American will probably have a harder time pounding this Bible and yelling at people for Not! Following! The! True! Word! Of! God!]
Given what I have said, here are my challenges for you.
For those who want to understand the world better, to understand anything better that was originally written in a different language, to understand other people better: Learn a new language.
Yes, it’s daunting. So start small. Buy a dictionary. Download add-ons on Firefox that allow you to scroll over words in foreign languages and have their meanings pop up. Borrow a book from the library that has English on one side and another language on another. Talk to a neighbor, friend, or family member about setting times to learn three words of their language, or one sentence at a time. Send your children to a bilingual school.
For those who are so sure about what the Bible really says: Redefine faith.
You don’t have to have faith that you know all the right answers. You don’t have to have faith that you are right and others are wrong. You don’t have to have faith in the letters in your version of the Bible.
You can have faith in your ability to search.
Search far and wide, in conversations, in books, in contemplation, on the Internet, in journals, in many different leaders. To search for what tugs at your heart the most, and what tugs at others’ hearts the most.
Think about why you are feeling those tugs, and whether you should be feeling those tugs.
Honor the tugs of others. Honor what makes someone else point to some words and say, “THAT’S IT!” Honor what makes someone else live their lives a certain way.
I know, we have images of people building houses on sand, and how foolish they are, because the waves will crash and break and they will no longer have house or home, and they will be swept away by the tide. Isn’t it dangerous to consider other options?
But what if we don’t have to build houses to live in forever and ever? What if we can keep running, and learning with others? Sand can hold you up just enough for you to take the next step, and the next step, and the next.
What if we acknowledge that we are human, and limited in what we can know for certain, and find it okay just to live in temporary beach homes, or just to take a breath and stretch our legs before running again? If we retreated to safety and comfort every once in a while, rather than as a default?
What if we ran with excitement and courage over blazing hot sands where our feet (not genitals) feel uncomfortable and hot at every step? What if we ran with resolve over wet sand, stained and packed down with our tears?
What if we ran on different sands,
made of different colors,
shell and stone,
with equal amounts of curiosity and joy,
stopping every once in a while to examine their grains closely and gently in our hands,
How can you see the ocean when you’re hiding in a house?
Oooh I’m showing you my genitals.