Translating the Bible Into Hebrew

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Israeli Life: Translating the Bible Into Hebrew
May 2012 by Shoshana London Sappir, Hadassah Magazine

In the beginning, it seemed like a good idea. When Hebrew speakers read the Bible in the original Hebrew, they can find it difficult to comprehend without the help of commentaries; many give up on the ancient texts. Enter Tanakh RAM, a translation of the Bible into Modern Hebrew.

Yet, this new edition has been called scandalous, pernicious and fraudulent by critics; the Ministry of Education has threatened to ban its use in schools; pundits warn of the demise of Modern Hebrew culture; a university held a seminar about the pros and cons of the new publication; and the Op-Ed pages and Internet are atwitter.

Meanwhile, according to publisher Rafi Mozes of Reches Educational Projects, the books are selling. For every educator who objects to the translation, there are parents, students or new immigrants who write to thank him for the useful study aid.

Mozes did not anticipate the controversy. “I thought I would be doing a service, not just for students but also educated people who speak fluent Hebrew but still have trouble with biblical language,” he said. Tanakh RAM first came out as a series of booklets for students in 2008, and a hardcover edition was published in 2010. In the book, the “translation”—the quotation marks appear in the introduction—runs in a column next to the original in a slightly smaller font.

The Tanakh RAM pamphlets for schoolchildren.

The Bible is a core curriculum subject in Israel’s public school system and a compulsory subject in college matriculation exams. Zionist ideology put a special emphasis on Bible study, viewed as proof of the Jewish connection to the land. In the words of David Ben-Gurion: “The Bible is our mandate.”

Both religious and secular critics of Tanakh RAM object to a simplified Bible, whether because the original is sacred or because it is a classic. The ferocity of the argument has revealed deep questions about the current state of the Israeli nation: Has the public—or at least the nonreligious sector—become so estranged from its Jewish heritage that it can no longer understand foundational scripture? Is the education system so bad it can no longer mediate between a difficult text and students? And how can you call a rendering from Hebrew into Hebrew a translation?

The Bible is the most translated book in the world, with versions in over 2,000 languages. The first mention of a Bible translation is in the Bible itself, Nehemiah 8:8: “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” The Talmud, in Tractate Megillah, explains that this was targum, translation into Aramaic for the benefit of exiles returning from Babylon to Judea. Since then, new translations have been made to address different needs: to bring the word of God to new populations or to make it accessible to believers. Some translations were officially sanctioned, for example the Septuagint, the third-century B.C.E. translation into Greek; some rocked the seats of power, like Martin Luther’s 16th-century translation of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles into German that spearheaded the Protestant Reformation.

Publisher Mozes and translator Avraham Ahuvia, a retired Bible teacher and Holocaust survivor, had humbler intentions when they set out to translate the Bible, an enterprise that took four and a half years.

Ahuvia, 90, was surprised at the uproar. “[The Bible] has been translated into…every language in the world, because without a translation you could not understand it,” he related during an interview at his home on Kibbutz Netzer Sireni, of which he was a founder in 1945. “Obviously the Danes will not understand the Bible if it is not translated into Danish, but people do not want to accept that Israelis do not understand it because it is not written in ‘Israeli.’”

But as an educator for more than 40 years—a teacher, a principal and a supervisor for the Ministry of Education—he asserted, “students don’t understand the Bible without an explanation. Every lesson includes the translation of the text, not just in my classes.”

“There is a big difference between an oral explanation and a written explanation, and a big difference between the explanation of specific sentences and words, appearing at the bottom of the page or in the margins, and creating a continuous text,” retorted Naama Pinhasi, a Hebrew-language editor at Van Leer Institute, a private think tank in Jerusalem, who calls the Tanakh RAM “defeatist.”

These differences make a powerful statement, she added: “It is great that the original text appears alongside the translation, but nobody is going to read it closely if the easy version appears next to it.”

“What Tanakh RAM does and what Avraham did with love and skill is to mediate between the biblical language and the Hebrew spoken today,” said Mozes, pointing out that the traditional method of providing explanations of difficult words in the margins is cumbersome.
“Denouncers say children will grow estranged from the biblical language,” he said. “I think they already are.”

Miriam Shlesinger of the translation and interpretation department at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan says religious objection to Tanakh RAM—the argument that sacred texts should not be tampered with—has to be accepted. “Islam,” she said, “says the Koran should never be translated because every translation distorts the text; therefore, do not translate it—learn Arabic.” Judaism, however, does not take that categorical a position, she noted.

“An entirely different argument is that it’s not necessary…that children are going to forget biblical Hebrew if they are spoon-fed,” continued Shlesinger. “Chances are that children will find the RAM text easier than the original…. Anything that makes the text more accessible is at least legitimate. At the same time, I think children should be exposed to the original text. A teacher who knows how to use this tool will repeatedly point out the relationship between the two.”

But, Shlesinger noted that she, like others, “found the rephrasing jarring because I grew up on the original text.” Indeed, articles have been devoted to picking apart the translation. Take Genesis 1:1, which the King James version rendered “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” Ahuvia translates this as “At the beginning of creation, when God created the world,” ending with a comma leading into the next verse.

“I didn’t say ‘heaven and earth’ but ‘the world,’ because on the second day he created the firmament and called it heaven,” noted Ahuvia. “In the Bible, the phrase ha-shamayim ve-ha’aretz means ‘the world.’”

Of which verse Michael Handelsaltz, literary critic for the Ha’aretz daily, writes: “The difference between the original and the translation is like the difference between heaven and earth.” He recommends teachers show students how “with a little effort” they can understand the Bible, rather than “make it easier for Hebrew-speakers to understand the language of the Bible, which they speak.”

This advice makes Ghil’ad Zuckermann laugh. A professor of linguistics of endangered languages at the University of Adelaide, Australia, Zuckermann argues in his book Israeli, a Beautiful Language: Hebrew as Myth (Am Oved) that the idea that Israelis speak “the language of Isaiah” is a myth promulgated by Zionist ideologues to establish a direct link to the historic Jewish people. He posits that Modern Hebrew is a hybrid of Hebrew along with Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Romanian and other languages. He calls the language spoken in Israel today Israeli, and said: “It is a mosaic rather than Mosaic.

“In the last 10 years, I have, unfortunately, acquired many enemies because I insisted that Israelis not only do not understand the Bible, but much worse,” he said, “they misunderstand it without even realizing it!”

Zuckermann pointed out some common mistakes in a 2010 Jerusalem Post article: “How many Israelis know that an egla meshulleshet [Genesis 15:9],” he writes, “is not a triangular cow but ‘a heifer of three years old’? If they studied the RAM Bible, they would know because it is translated as such: egla bat shalosh. Most Israelis misunderstand yeled sha’ashuim [Jeremiah 31:19] as ‘playboy’ rather than ‘pleasant child.’ Ba’u banim ad mashber [Isaiah 37:3] is misinterpreted…as ‘children arrived at a crisis’ rather than as ‘children arrived at the mouth of the womb, [ready] to be born….’”

Zuckermann feels that “the Education Ministry should revise the way it teaches the Bible and treat it as a foreign language—just like Latin.”

Drora Halevy, national supervisor of Bible studies at the Ministry of Education, disagrees. “It is not a foreign language, this is our language,” she retorted. Halevy would ban the translation, “but this is a free country.” However, she is trying to keep Tanakh RAM out of the schools. “This translation,” she said, “cuts out the heart of the Bible. It reduces the Bible to just another book. In the Bible, form and content are bound together. The translation kills it.”

The importance of Bible study is not just for its religious and historic content but also as a basis for deep knowledge of the Hebrew language, she explained. “A child builds his world of associations on the basis of his cultural infrastructure. Hebrew literature of all ages, from the Mishna to this day, alludes to biblical stories and idioms. I want the classic phrases and idioms to enter the children’s minds [and] build a reservoir of associations.”

In Tanakh RAM’s introduction, Ahuvia recommends using it as a teaching aid. In the contest between the original and the translation, “I lose,” he admitted. “The Bible is much more beautiful than the translation.”

Halevy fears the opposite is true: “In [this] competition, the original biblical text doesn’t have a chance. If people were using [Tanakh RAM] as an aid, that would be fine, but it is replacing the text.”

Ayelet Kamay, a Jerusalem-based linguistics editor, hated the idea of Tanakh RAM, until she saw her children using it. “When I heard about…this abomination I was shocked to the foundation of my soul,” Kamay said. “Last year, when my children were studying the Book of Samuel in fifth grade, they asked me to buy Tanakh RAM after they saw their friends had it. I bought it, and [when they used it for homework], they really understood the text! I realized it is not only children who do not understand biblical Hebrew, but parents, too….

“Tanakh RAM is a welcome tool,” Kamay concluded. “If [many Israelis] did not have it they would understand nothing, and the whole Bible would remain mysterious territory they had no ability or desire to enter.”