Strategies for Remaining True

Translators of ancient texts, including those who render the Hebrew Bible, not uncommonly confront passages and phrases that do not seem to make sense as transmitted or that, in alternate (and also ancient) wording, fit better into the immediate context. No matter what approach these translators take — from hyper-literal to periphrastic — they must choose how much information to provide their readers, who are presumably without direct linguistic access to such difficult or disputed texts. We live in an age in which we decry secrecy and have easy access to almost everything, yet at the same time we are often on the verge of being overwhelmed by too much knowledge. Thus, we may be especially sensitive to issues of disclosure or withholding of information.

This week’s portion, Ha’azinu, consists of the Song of Moses, a poetic composition that critical scholars increasingly recognize as old. Its age, along with the compressed language and parallel structure characteristic of biblical poetry, may account for some of the difficulties we encounter in translating and interpreting some of the verses in Deuteronomy 32. Through a brief examination of three sections, I will suggest several strategies that, in my opinion, allow translators to remain true both to their source text (in this case, the Hebrew Bible) and to their target audience (here, English-speaking Jews and others).

Verse 5 forms part of what Jeffrey Tigay (in his Jewish Publication Society commentary) terms the “thesis” of the poem: “God’s justice and Israel’s disloyalty.”

The first five words of this verse, I would submit, do not make sense as transmitted by the Masoretes; Tigay agrees, noting that a literal rendering would be “He has dealt corruptly with Him not His children their blemish.” Although the general meaning is clear enough, specific Jewish versions differ considerably: JPS 1917 has “Is corruption His? No; His children’s is the blemish”; the new JPS Tanakh contains “Children unworthy of Him…. Their baseness has played Him false”; the Artscroll’s Tanach presents “Corruption is not His—the blemish is His children’s,” and Everett Fox includes in his Schocken Bible, “His children have wrought-ruin toward him — a defect in them.” As I see it, all translators owe to their readers a notation that this is a difficult passage. Because the basic meaning of the text is clear, here it is not necessary to go beyond a simple statement such as “text difficult.”

Verses 8-9 occur in Tigay’s “History of God’s benefactions to Israel.” The JPS Tanakh translation of verse 8 is a fair presentation of the text transmitted by the Masoretes: “When the Most High gave nations their homes/And set the divisions of man/He fixed the boundaries of peoples/In relation to Israel’s numbers.” The concept of “fixing the boundaries of peoples in relation to Israel’s numbers” is not an easy one, but traditional Jewish exegesis equates the number of 70 nations (in Genesis 10) with the 70 members of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt (in Exodus 1), or the 12 nations inhabiting Canaan with the 12 tribes of Israel. In the Greek of the Septuagint, we find “(in relation to the) numbers of divine beings” rather than “numbers of Israel,” reflecting a Hebrew text with “benei Elohim” instead of “benei Israel.” This same reading is found among the Dead Sea Scrolls as well. I happen to believe that this reading represents the original wording of Deuteronomy 32:8; it is theologically unsettling, but not without parallels elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, it is an authentically ancient and authentically Jewish phrase that nonetheless easily could have occasioned the “more Orthodox” wording transmitted by the Masoretes. Whether or not I am correct, I firmly believe that all readers of English-language versions of Deuteronomy deserve to know about these ancient alternatives, no matter which one is selected by a given translator.

The last example is verse 43, which Tigay calls the “Coda: Celebration of God’s Deliverance of Israel.” In the JPS 1917 translation, it reads:

Sing aloud, O ye nations, of His people;

For He doth avenge the blood of His servants,

And doth render vengeance to His adversaries,

And doth make expiation for the land of His people.

The verse, which is not difficult to translate or interpret as traditionally transmitted, does nonetheless seem incomplete on the grounds of “missing parallels” for the first and fourth lines. Longer texts, perhaps created to fill in these perceived lacunae, are found at Qumran and in the Septuagint. It is my opinion that the traditional Hebrew of verse 43 can stand as is, although many scholars (including Tigay) would disagree. The question at this point is whether or not a translator should indicate the possibility of textual difficulty to English-language readers. I do not think that this is necessary here, especially in versions addressed to general audiences.

None of the translations mentioned above follows all the strategies I have offered for these verses; this is also true for the versions by Robert Alter, Richard Friedman, Aryeh Kaplan and other Jewish translators I consulted — to say nothing of Christian “Old Testaments.” The case can be made that Jewish versions should be distinct in such matters, since for Jews a modern-language version never should be the “substitute Bible” it typically is for Christians. Be that as it may in theory, in practice the Artscroll Tanach or JPS Tanakh often functions as the Bible for Jews who are without even basic literacy in Hebrew or Aramaic. For such readers, as for all readers, translators have the deep, one might even say sacred, task of providing sufficient, but not too much, information. Only then can Moses’ words, recited more than 3,000 years ago “in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel,” become accessible to their descendants and to our contemporaries.

Leonard J. Greenspoon holds the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University and writes frequently on Bible translators and translation.

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