If you’ve ever read David Bellos’ book Is That a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and The Meaning of Everything, you read his chapter called “What Translators Do.” If you haven’t, I highly recommend it.
He begins: “Speakers of any natural language repeat themselves and others all the time, and to do so they use their natural facility to rephrase together with a well-filled toolbox:
- they can replace one word with another of like meaning (synonymy)
- they can take one part of the expression and replace it with a longer and more elaborate one (expansion)
- they can take one part of the expression and replace it with a dummy, an abbreviation, a short form, or nothing at all (contraction)
- they can take one part of the expression and move it to a different position, rearranging the other words in appropriate ways (topic shift)
- they can use the relevant tool from their language kit to make one part of the expression stand out as more important than others (change of emphasis)
- they can add expressions that relate to facts of states or opinions implicit in the original in order to clarify what they (or their interlocutor) just said (clarification)
- but if they try to repeat exactly what has been said with the same tone, pitch, words, forms, and structures, they do not succeed (unless they are also gifted, sharp-eared, and well-trained impersonators, and probably employed in the music hall)
Translators do exactly the same things when they repeat the words of another, and the fact that their ‘afterspeech’ is in what we call another tongue makes no difference at all to the range of discursive devices they use.”
I think it’s important to remember this when reading the Torah or the Tanakh in translation. Whether you are reading JPS, ESV, or (God forbid) KJV, you are reading the work of a translator, the speaker of the natural language (Hebrew or Greek) doing what Bellos lists above.
In reading this list, do you wonder if maybe you should be reading the Tanakh in Hebrew only?