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Let’s look at an example. I asked the Ram publishing house for a copy of its Bible and was sent its second volume, the part of Scripture known in Hebrew as nevi’im rishonim, “First Prophets,” and containing the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Opening it at random, I found myself looking at Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving in the second chapter of Samuel I, after she has been granted a longed-for child. Here, respectively, are the first verse of the chapter in Biblical Hebrew, then the Ram Bible translation, the extremely literal King James Version and my literal English translation of the Ram Bible’s Hebrew.
Vatitpalel Hannah vatomar:
V’Hannah hitpalelah v’kakh amra:
And Hannah prayed and said:
And Hannah prayed and said thusly:
Even if you don’t know any Hebrew, you can easily see that the component parts of this verse — the conjunction v’, “and”; the verb hitpalel, “to pray,” and the verb amar, “say” — are the same in both ancient and modern versions and have simply changed their grammatical forms. (The kakh, or “thusly,” inserted in the Ram version could have been left out.) There’s really no problem here. But take the next verse:
Alatz libi b’adonay, rama karni b’adonay.
Libi samaḥ biglal adonay, koḥi ala b’ezrat adonay.
My heart rejoiceth in the Lord; mine horn is exalted in the Lord.
My heart was happy because of God; my strength increased with God’s help.
Here the translator made several decisions. He preferred the everyday verb samaḥ, “was happy,” to alatz, “exulted,” even though alatz is still found in modern literary Hebrew; he turned the splendid but archaic idiom rama karni, “My horn was raised” (the allusion is to the proudly raised horn of a male gazelle or mountain goat), into the modern but much flatter “My strength increased,” despite the fact that the words ram, “high,” and keren, “horn,” are known to any modern Hebrew speaker, and he changed b’Adonai, “in God,” to “because of God” or “with God’s help,” presumably because being happy “in God” was judged too enigmatic a concept for contemporary readers. These choices are all debatable, although certainly not unreasonable.
There’s no doubt that the Bible is a more stirring and evocative book in ancient Hebrew than in this kind of modern rendition. But this doesn’t mean that modern Hebrew can’t be used as a bridge to biblical Hebrew, over which contemporary students can cross to one from the other. What matters is getting to the other side, not the vehicle by which one gets there.
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