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I was recently involved in a conference sponsored by the University of Warwick and marvelously titled, "Holy Untranslatable?" For most Jews during most of our history, the "official" answer to this admittedly rhetorical query would have been, and remains, yes. Although it is certainly possible, they would admit, to render large portions, if not all, of the Hebrew language into a modern tongue, the essence, if you will the "holy-ness," of the text defies translation.

In the face of such an "institutional" response, the incontrovertible fact remains that from its beginnings, with the Septuagint and Targumim, until today, Jews have prepared translations of the Hebrew Bible for themselves (for males included, not simply for women and children as once held) and provided crucial assistance, directly or indirectly, in the preparation of almost all other versions. I have spent the last decade or so-and hope to spend at least that much time in the future-illuminating, for both scholars and the general public, the intriguing and important history of Jewish Bible translation. The dialogue (even better, conversation) on this topic is increasingly rich in both quality and quantity, as we seek to determine the hows and whys of Jewish translations of the Bible.

Most influential for me in this task have been two giants of 20th century Jewish and biblical scholarship, Max L. Margolis (whose biography I wrote some years ago) and Harry M. Orlinksy (whose letters I am now editing). Both were editor-in-chief of a JPS translation of the Bible, both were influential scholars of the Septuagint, and both wrote prolifically and (in their own way) passionately about Jewish involvement in Bible translation. They are my models.

Thus far, I have been involved in two Bible translation projects. I was a consultant for the CEV Old Testament and translated the book of Joshua for NETS. The practical experience gained through this participation enriches all of my writing about translating. In particular, it has reinforced my view that a valuable (albeit not necessarily the most valuable) perspective is afforded when we look at translators within the social, political, historical, cultural, and religious contexts in which they operate. For me, such a perspective does not wholly displace the more traditional text critical methods in which I was trained; it does, however, open us up to the realities, physical and fiscal as much as anything else, that flesh-and-blood translators have faced and continue to face.

To return to Jewish translations: In my opinion, the very best of them constantly remind the reader that they are in fact translations, intended to supplement, not supplant; complement, not replace, the original. This does not diminish their importance; rather, it enhances it. It also adds to the already weighty responsibilities the Bible translator bears, for there are many within the Jewish community who, while readily using a translation, also have direct access to the Hebrew. They keep an eye on you, as well they should.

They, as well as you, need to realize that for Jews and non-Jews alike, the task of translating Scripture is not encompassed simply by intimate knowledge of both the source and the target language. Bible translations are also by and large communal enterprises and possessions. We must therefore steep ourselves in the vast Jewish exegetical traditions. These traditions are rarely unanimous, and their influence will be differently felt by divers translators. But they cannot be ignored.

In my carefree youth, I blithely conceived of a perfect sort of translation that would fulfill all needs for all people. I have learned, and been chastened to learn, that it just ain't so. There are a number of ways (although not an infinite number of ways) to authentically communicate to today's English-speaking Jews what the text of the Hebrew Bible meant, has meant, and means. No translation can do it all; hence the need for multiple translations and commentaries. If I can contribute something valuable in this respect for some group, however small, I feel my time and efforts have not been in vain.

Citation: Leonard Greenspoon, " Another Perspective-Jewish Translations of the Bible," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2005]. Online:


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