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The Politics of Biblical Translation

As the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt, the Hebrew text of Exodus 3:22 records one of the divine commands in words that the King James Version understood in this way: “But every woman shall borrow of her neighbor… jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.” Through their actions, the Israelites “spoil” the Egyptians. The same or similar wording occurs twice in this week’s Portion, at Exodus 11:2 and 12:35-6. Almost all English translations of the mid- and late 20th century have changed the wording in these passages, from “borrow” to “ask of” (or something similar). Among newer Jewish versions, in which “borrow” is sometimes retained, the alternate rendering is occasionally noted, but not discussed.

How different it was for earlier Jewish translators, especially those in England! The traditional King James rendering was perceived not only as erroneous, but as pernicious, dangerous, anti-Jewish. We see this in representative statements from editors and translators. For example, Selig Newman, a Jewish translator from the 1830s, comments:

[There are many passages in which the KJV] translators were decidedly wrong. [Such cases] may prove dangerous to the infidel, by strengthening him in his unbelief, as well as to the believer, by raising doubts in his mind of the authenticity of a book which apparently contains so many incongruities. For example: “One shall borrow of his, or her neighbour,” but the meaning in the original is not borrow, but ask: i.e., “One shall ask or demand.” This is perfectly in accord with justice… whilst the permission or order to borrow without intending to restore, being a licence to defraud, could not have emanated from the fountain of justice.

The remarks of J.H. Hertz (1913-1946), chief rabbi of the British Empire, echo those of Newman:

[KJV] translates, “every woman shall borrow of her neighbour.” This translation is thoroughly mischievous and misleading. If there was any borrowing, it was on the part of the Egyptians, who had been taking the labour of the Israelites without recompense…. In modern times, enemies of the Bible vie with one another in finding terms strong enough in which to condemn the “deceit” practised on the Egyptians.

There is a tendency on the part of many modern scholars to dismiss a worry such as this as irrelevant or, worse, silly. After all, if we have little concern with the implications of the older translation, why should it have been the cause for so much alarm among earlier generations of translators and commentators? But we should take the time to notice this seemingly isolated historical “oddity.” Although 19th-century England is not nearly so distant from 20th-century America as the latter is from ancient Israel, nonetheless all sorts of presuppositions separate us from individuals of that century. Only when we have understood the contexts in which the older translators operated can we appreciate their reactions.

When looked at in this way, such renderings serve as invaluable representations of their communities, their fears, their values and ambitions, their self-perception and their evaluation of the “outside world.” During much of the 19th century, British Jews were seeking social and civic equality; the Jewish community also was engaged in internal and institutional developments of its own.

Within this context, we can understand what motivated these Jewish translators: They were especially concerned to remove from their English versions (since they could not change the Hebrew text!) any possible inconsistencies, to say nothing of outright contradictions. With equal or even greater vehemence, they sought to extirpate any expression that would suggest character flaws on the part of biblical personages — especially when their actions had divine sanction behind them.

What was at stake, in the view of these translators, was the sanctity of the text and the safety, perhaps even the survival, of their fellow Jews in a society where they still labored under many social and legal impediments. In the hands of their enemies, a shifty Jacob of the Bible could easily foreshadow a shiftless Jacob from London’s East End, and Israelites who pretended to borrow from the Egyptians with no intention of repaying could become blood-sucking moneylenders.

We therefore may conclude that a fairly obscure biblical reference loomed larger than we might have expected for British Jews a hundred or more years ago. Beyond its value as a historical and cultural footnote, is this truly relevant to us today? Alas, it is. As reported by the media worldwide in 2003 — see the December 2003 edition of Bible Review, for example — an Egyptian jurist, relying on just these passages, was preparing a lawsuit against “all the Jews of the world,” who, in his opinion, were responsible for absconding with the equivalent of more than 1,000 trillion tons of gold during the Exodus. This jurist apparently is willing to amortize this debt over a millennium, so long as cumulative interest is calculated and paid.

For those seeking to discredit the Book, or the People of the Book, there is no concept of a statute of limitations. Mistranslations continue to haunt us.

Leonard Greenspoon holds the Phillip M. and Ethel Klutznick chair in Jewish civilization at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

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