Gili Bar-Hillel abhillel at
Mon Feb 10 07:25:25 EST 2003

Kathryn Andersen:

>On Sun, Feb 09, 2003 at 02:57:52PM -0000, Caleb wrote:
> > Translations of the Bible are probably actually getting closer tothe
> > original meaning - I was reading about a new translation which > makes a 
>big thing of sticking to the precise wording of the text
> > rather than trying to give a more comprehensible sense of the
> > meaning, so as to avoid the
> > translators' interpretations of the meaning being imposed upon the > > 
>text, sensibly enough.
>But as we have a bona-fide translator on this list -- Gili, Gili!
>Albeit translating DWJ isn't necessarily going to be like translating
>the Bible, since Modern Hebrew isn't the same as Ancient Hebrew, but
>still -- what kind of problems have you run into Gili, in translating
>fiction, in the tension between the literal meaning, and conveying the
>interpreted sense of the text?

You asked for it.
This opens up a huge philosophical debate which I will not presume to 
resolve in a single email. I will say though, that what strikes Caleb as 
sensible, strikes me as entirely nonsensical. One cannot produce a 
reasonable translation without imposing an interpretation. It is no 
coincidence that "interpretation" is a synonym for "translation".

I don't see how sticking closer to the precise original wording will make 
the text anything but harder to read. You can't translate word by word, 
because sentence structure is different from language to language, and 
because certain words in conjunction with other words have different 
meanings. (the Hebrew word for "no", for example, is also the word for 
"not", "didn't", "won't" - the only way to translate it correctly, is to 
analyze its position in a sentence.)

Another problem with this "precise wording" approach: often words in the 
bible have different meanings now than they did when the bible was written, 
and sometimes the meaning can only be guessed at through the context. If you 
were attempt to translate them out of context, you would end up with a 
string of nonsense.

How do these translators that Caleb refers to intend to translate passages 
in which the meaning of a particular word, or of a passage in its entirety, 
is contested? By inventing parallel words or phrases that can be equally 
contested in the target language? That's nonsense. I can think of only two 
reasonable ways of solving such a problem: one is to select the 
interpretation that is most in keeping with the translator's overall intent 
for the text; the other is to create an annotated text, which attempts to 
explain the difficulty in understanding the original, and brings forth more 
than one possible interpretation.

And then there's the whole matter of idiom. Idioms, when translated 
literally, lose their meaning. At best they just sound stupid (heaven only 
knows how many times the Israelites evoked the wrinkle of God's nose - 
usually translated as God's wrath). But more often than not they are simply 

And one last thought about the "precise wording" approach - the assumption 
is that the only function of words is to convey precise meaning. But words 
have other functions as well: they evoke images, they incite us to create 
sounds, they beguile us with beauty. The "King James" bible may not be the 
most literal translation of the bible ever made, but one of its great 
strengths lies in the poetry of its translation. Surely a translation of a 
holy text *needs* to be moving and powerful, no less than it needs to be 

Okay, I've gone on and on here, and I'm finding it hard to follow my own 
arguments. But the bottom line is, I don't see how "trying to give a more 
comprehensible sense of the meaning" constitutes bad translation, and I 
don't see how "literal meaning" can be viewed as distinct from the 
"interpreted sense of the text".

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