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"The Problematics of Translation" Lesson Plan

Steven Leonard Jacobs, DHL, DD
Aaron Aronov Endowed Chair of Judaic Studies
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
The University of Alabama


Accept as a given that one cannot translate literally from one language to another and expect that the recipient(s) of the translation will have a clearer and more fully correct understanding of the original. Languages are embedded in cultures and reflect the ways that their members communicate with one another both orally and in writing, often complicated by words and phrases and their meanings changing over time. When the language is historical—as is certainly the case with the Hebrew of the Torah/Hebrew Bible and the Greek of the New Testament—what may be lost in translation is the understanding of the words themselves in the minds of their original audiences, especially the use of clichés, slang, metaphor, and the like. When the text is that of sacred or holy scriptures (or writ), regardless of the particular religious community one is studying, and the claim of the adherents of that community is that those words are in fact the words of the deity, even if filtered and transmitted through human agency, the stakes are increased exponentially. Indeed, there are even cases historically whereby translators have been put to death for their work!

Today, we English speakers of the Bible have at our disposal any number of translations, and, while particular Jewish or Christian denominational communities may prefer one translation to another, all are readily accessible to all of us, either through hardcopy purchase or online. At this initial level, at the outset, the Oxford Biblical Studies Online website is a valuable tool for examining and raising questions regarding particular questions of texts, whether or not the students and/or instructors are familiar with or fluent in biblical Hebrew or biblical Greek. Six Oxford Bibles in translation are available for our comparison: New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), Oxford Study Bible (REB), Jewish Study Bible (TANAKH), Catholic Study Bible (NAB), Access Bible (NRSV), and the King James Bible (KJV). Please note that the Oxford Annotated and Access Bibles both use the NRSV translation.

The first question we may legitimately ask, therefore, is "why so many different translations?" While the KJV is the most historical of the above translations, the simplest answer is that our understanding of language has changed over the past several hundred years, and we in the English-speaking world need to have our Bibles reflect our contemporary or present-day understandings for our own religious commitments to remain meaningful to us, especially because the vast majority of us cannot read these valued texts in their original languages nor have the time to do so. For those of us not so affiliated with either Jewish or Christian religious communities, our own intellectual fascination with these ancient texts would parallel the need for clear and transparent language to enlarge our own engagement and understanding of both Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

What follows, then, are several examples of particular biblical passages to be used for comparison and a series of questions to be raised within the classroom for discussion by the instructor or for mini-writing assignments to get students involved in examining biblical texts in a more critical vein than has been the case prior to their entrée into the course. (Most students' knowledge of biblical texts prior to college or university reflects their exposure to the stories and examples heard from the pulpits of their particular religious communities and reflect the knowledge of their own religious leaders. Students who come into such classes with no religious exposure whatsoever, other than that gleaned from the general and larger culture, perceive themselves at a decided disadvantage. In this particular arena of the problematics of translation, such is decidedly not the case; their own limited knowledge of these texts may actually prove an advantage in that they are often more open to variant readings than their classmates.)

One final introductory note: An additional boon to using the Oxford Biblical Studies Online materials is the accompanying commentaries that surround these translations. Any examination of particular biblical passages is intellectually enriched by examining these commentaries. However, instructors must contextualize their use for students by making sure they understand and appreciate that the tradition of biblical commentaries up until the modern era reflect the orientations of particular Jewish and Christian communities at particular historical moments. Thus, when these commentaries were written and by whom is an additional opportunity to introduce the students to the world of biblical studies.

[NOTE: The examples chosen are all from the Torah/Hebrew Bible and reflect the orientation of the writer as holder of an endowed chair in Judaic studies and his course REL 110, "Survey of the Hebrew Bible," at The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL. Instructors are more than welcome to supply others; and NT instructors to parallel these exercises and/or assignments.]

I. Opening the Torah/Hebrew Bible

The opening sentence of the Torah/Hebrew Bible (what Christians refer to as the "Old Testament," Genesis 1:1, yet another topic well worth discussion and analysis) is, in all likelihood, known to most of us either through our religious/Sunday School training or simply as part of our Western cultural heritage: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Here are the translations available on OBSO:

"When God began to create heaven and earth" (TANAKH)

"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth" (NRSV)

"IN the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (REB)

"In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth" (NAB)

"IN the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (KJV)i

Consulting the TANAKH (Jewish) commentary, we find the following:

  1. A tradition over two millennia old sees 1:1 as a complete sentence: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." In the eleventh century, the great Jewish commentator Rashi made a case that the verse functions as a temporal clause. This is, in fact, how some ancient Near Eastern creation stories begin—including the one that starts at 2:4b. Hence the translation, When God began to create heaven and earth.

Questions for Discussion

1. Why the differences among these various translations? What do they communicate? Can we discern from these translations what the intent of the author(s) was, at least according to the translator(s) understanding? With the exception of the TANAKH translation, all would seem to affirm that the author(s) understanding of God's creative work was that of creatio ex nihilo (Latin, "creation out of nothing"). The TANAKH translation does not seem to address this particular issue, implying that there was, perhaps, already preexisting "stuff" (not necessarily negating divine creativity), but, rather, that God took that stuff and created from it (i.e., organized the existent chaotic matter into our world). Which is your instructor's preferred translation? Why? Which is your preferred translation? Why?

2. Consult the various commentaries associated with each of these translations. In what ways do they enlarge our understanding of this material? In what ways do they seemingly reflect either a particular Jewish or Christian bias? Try your hand at writing your own brief commentary on this verse, reflecting your own understanding and orientation.

II. Jewish and Christian Readings of the Torah/Hebrew Bible/Old Testament

One of the dividing lines between Jews and Christians is their reading of the Torah/Hebrew Bible versus the Old Testament. Simply put, Jews do not see the Christ anywhere in their text; Christians do. One such opportunity to point up the differences in reading is not necessarily that of translation but rather the commentary traditions.ii Specifically, Gen 1:26:

  1. And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." (TANAKH)


  1. The plural construction (Let us . . .) most likely reflects a setting in the divine council (cf. 1 Kings 22:19–22; Isa 6; Job 1–2): God the King announces the proposed course of action to his cabinet of subordinate deities, though he alone retains the power of decision. The midrash manifests considerable uneasiness with God's proposal to create something so capable of evil as human beings are. Playing on Ps 1:6, one midrash reports that God told his ministering angels only of "the way of the righteous" and hid from them "the way of the wicked" (Gen Rab. 8:4). Another one reports that while the angels were debating the proposal among themselves, God took the matter in hand. "Why are you debating?" he asked them. "Man has already been created!" (Gen Rab. 8:5). Whereas the earth and the waters (at God's command) bring forth the plants, fish, birds, and other animals (1:12, 20, 24), humankind has a different origin and a different character. In the ancient Near East, the king was often said to be the "image" of the god and thus to act with divine authority. So here, the creation of humanity in God's image and likeness carries with it a commission to rule over the animal kingdom (1:26b, 28b; cf. Ps 8: 4–9). Some have seen in that commission a license for ecological irresponsibility. The fact is, however, that the Tanakh presents humanity not as the owner of nature but as its steward, strictly accountable to its true Owner (see Lev 25:23–24). This theology is one source of the important institutions of the sabbatical and (see Ex 23:10–11; Lev 25). Whereas the next account of human origins (Gen 2.4b–24) speaks of God's creation of one male from whom one female subsequently emerges, Gen 1 seems to speak of groups of men and women created simultaneously. The division of humankind into two sexes is closely associated with the divine mandate to Be fertile and increase. In Jewish law, this is a positive commandment, although it is obligatory only on Jewish men, not women (b. Yebam. 65b).

[NOTE: This Judaic commentary provides the instructor with an opportunity to open the conversation to a discussion of postbiblical Jewish literature and a Jewish history beyond the second century and the life of the Christ, a world with which, in all likelihood, the students are totally unfamiliar.]

Questions for Discussion

1. Examine the commentaries associated with the various OBSO translations as well as any others you may be able to supply. In what ways do these commentaries, too, reflect a particular or parochial reading of biblical texts? Is it possible to achieve a nonreligious or nontheological reading of this material?

III. From Prophetic Literature

Continuing the theme of II, one of the historical foundational texts of Christian thinking and reflecting a parochial reading of prophetic literature as "predicting" the coming of the Christ has been that of Isa 7:14:

  1. "Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel." (TANAKH)iii [Emphases added.]

Comparing this translation with that of the King James version—14 "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,"—we see immediately not only the difference in translation but the somewhat dramatic difference in religious orientation between Jews and Christians. And, by extension, we also see the religious orientations of the translators themselves.

Questions for Discussion

1. Examine all the various translations and commentaries supplied in the OBSO. Are they the same? In what ways? Where are the differences, not only in translation but in understanding, i.e., the commentaries?

2. Overall, based on these and other examples supplied by your instructor, what conclusions have you reached regarding the problematics of translation?


i The capitalization in both the REB and the KJV may very well reflect the fact that in the original Hebrew scrolls and continuing the practice today the very first letter of the first word "Bet" בּ is written somewhat larger than the letters that succeed it.

ii Another case could be made for that of Gen 22:1–19, what Jews refer to as Akedat Yitzchak/The Binding of Isaac and Christians refer to as "The Sacrifice of Isaac," a pre-figuration of the Christ-event.

iii Obviously, this translation does not render the Hebrew almah as "virgin" (Hebrew, b'tulah) and thus undercuts a mainstay of historical Christian theological thinking. The second sentence in translation is equally problematic: historically "Immanuel" was not a name but a phrase-designation "God is with us, " implying to one and all that the birth of a healthy child was evidence of divine favor and the reverse that of divine disfavor. While Isaiah most assuredly associates himself with messianic thinking, especially in chs 52 and 53 (reflecting a scholarly presumption of a Deutero-Isaiah), he is not a precursor of thinking about the Christ in specific.

Further Reading

[NOTE: These bibliographic texts reflect a further opportunity to enlarge the discussion of the problematics of translation. If possible, assign different students each of these texts—or sections of them—and have them present in class the essence of their readings and their own understandings of them. A good place to start would be having the students collectively read and discuss the articles by Timothy Beal and Hillel Harkin.]

  • Bailey, Randall C., and Tina Pippin, eds. Semeia 76: Race, Class, and the Poltics of Bible Translation. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1976.
  • Barker, Kenneth. The Balance of the NIV: What Makes a Good Translation? Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.
  • Beal, Timothy. "Bibles du Jour" Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Review, July 26 (2002), B5.
  • Carson, D. A. The Inclusive Langauge Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.
  • Gruden, Wayne, et al. Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation. Wheaton: CrossWay Books, 2005.
  • Halkin, Hillel. "The Translator's Paradox." Commentary, June (2008): 38–43.
  • Knobloch, Frederick W., ed. Biblical Translation in Context. College Park: University of Maryland, 2002.
  • Porter, Stanley E., and Richard S. Hess, eds. Translating the Bible: Problems and Prospects. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.
  • Strauss, Mark L. Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation & Gender Accuracy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
  • Translation of Scripture: Proceedings of a Conference at the Annenberg Research Institute May 15–16, 1989. Philadelphia: Annenberg Research Institute, 1990.

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