Translations And Transliterations

Leviticus 1:1-5:26

By Leonard J. Greenspoon

Published March 18, 2005, issue of March 18, 2005.
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Each of the first three chapters of Leviticus, and therefore of this week’s portion, Va-Yikra, is taken up with a detailed description of a different offering or sacrifice. Although many modern readers of the Hebrew Bible devote little more than a glance to this material, it was obviously important to the ritual life, and therefore to the well-being, of ancient Israel. It is for that reason that the procedures for preparing and offering these sacrifices are prescribed in great detail.

It is, therefore, all the more surprising that translators have come up with such diverse terms to render each of these offerings. For the first, found in chapter one of Leviticus, the majority of English-language versions, including most Jewish versions, have “burnt offering,” which closely approximates the earlier “burnt sacrifice” of the King James Version. The Revised English Bible, a British publication, and the New American Bible, an authorized translation of the Roman Catholic Church, reflect the same idea — namely, that the sacrifice is totally consumed by fire — with their “whole offering” and “holocaust offering,” respectively. The Hebrew term being translated, however, has nothing to do with “burning,” but rather, as Everett Fox correctly reflects with his Schocken Bible’s “offering-up,” it is related to the Hebrew root “to go up” or “ascend.”

The second chapter of Leviticus speaks of something prepared with nonmeat products: “meal” (so the New Jewish Version, the ArtScroll, and Aryeh Kaplan), “grain” (as in the New Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, the Revised English Bible, and Fox [with his “grain-gift”]), or “cereal” (found in the two prominent Roman Catholic versions, the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible). Although all these terms are related and in some sense overlap, they nonetheless connote very different things to modern readers, especially younger ones, who might well be tempted to wonder why Cheerios or Corn Flakes were ever appropriate to offer to the Lord!

The third offering, which in Hebrew encompasses a form of the root shalom, presents the widest variety of renderings: well-being, peace or fellowship (see also the closely related “shared” and “communion”). In his learned commentary on Leviticus, Baruch Levine argues in favor of “a sacred gift of greeting,” marshaling ancient Near Eastern evidence to support this view. Each of these is a possible translation of the Hebrew, but they reflect quite different conceptions of the purpose of this important ritual.

In my opinion, all readers, and especially Jewish readers — for whom these chapters should retain a lively relevance as they did for talmudic rabbis (most of whom, like us, lived after the fall of the Jerusalem Temple, and the end of its sacrificial system) — are best served by transliterating these terms rather than translating them: Thus, we would have in chapter one, “olah”; in chapter two, “a minchah offering/gift”, and in chapter three, “an offering of shelamim” (Fox anticipates this with his “slaughter-offering of shalom”). To my mind, this is the best way to alert readers to the fact that, at this point, they need to take some extra time to consider both the nature and purpose of these rituals.

Now it is true that many English-language versions, especially Jewish ones, include a footnote for these chapters, but it is also true that even careful readers don’t always take such an opportunity to follow through on the discussion thus proffered. A transliteration in the text is a far more effective mechanism to achieve this goal.

It is also true that, from antiquity on, there has been a protracted discussion on the relative value of transliterating certain terms or phrases. I suspect that the majority of translators have avoided this procedure, since it could be seen as a “copping out” on their responsibility as a bridge builder between the ancient text and its society, and between the translators and theirs.

In this instance, however, I am willing to take my chances with such a charge because I truly believe that the approach I am advocating (and not just for these chapters in Leviticus) provides the best opportunity to lead contemporary readers into the world of the Hebrew Bible, which in my opinion is the goal of any non-Hebrew version of the Bible for Jews. We should never lose track of the fact that, for Jews, modern versions cannot supplant, but only supplement, the original. Sometimes, as in these instances, transliteration is the ideal way to construct a bridge that will link antiquity to the modern world.

Leonard J. Greenspoon, who holds the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., writes frequently on issues related to biblical translation.

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