And God Said… what exactly?–a review of "And God Said" by Joel Hoffman

I have just read “And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning.” And it’s great. And you should all read it. I say these nice things by way of pointing out that you should think hard about all of the criticizing of this book that I’m about to heap on you and then go read it anyway because, despite my criticisms, the book is really quite good. It’s engaging, it’s funny, it makes sense and it’s written to appeal to anyone of any level of knowledge about the Bible or about Hebrew.
Hoffman, who I’m already a big fan of from his translations of the siddur in Larry Hoffman’s (father of Joel) My People’s Prayer Book series, attempts in this book to completely change the way we think about the process and purpose of translation, with the Bible as his case in point. After an initial section in which he lays out his rules and his process, each chapter deals with a specific, well known passage that Hoffman believes has been badly mistranslated. Among the words he dismantles our common translations of are ro’eh–usually translated as “shepherd,” b’chol nafshecha uvechol meodecha–usually translated as “with all your soul and all your might,” and lev–usually “heart.” There are others.
He goes through most commonly available contemporary translations as well as, of course, the King James Version, and pretty much demolishes them, the best thing he can ever say being that one or another is adequate in some places. Hoffman’s main point about how to translate better is that it’s impossible to translate single words. As the book goes an and his thoughts pile up, it becomes clear that what he’s getting at is the idea that you shouldn’t even try to translate words. Rather, you should translate concepts. So rather than merely admitting that lev probably referred to the same physical organ we now call the heart, he gets into what the heart means to us what lev meant in the Bible’s own time(s).
Throughout most of the book, I’m willing to buy most of what he’s selling. For instance, this passage, part of his explanation of why internal word structure has nothing to do with the meaning of the word:

…[m]any people make a more subtle mistake. They assume that even though hikriv [which is constructed such that one might think it means “make near”] means “sacrifice,” it must have something to do with “make near.” Perhaps, they wrongly guess, the point of a sacrifice was to bring the sacrificer closer to God. Or perhaps the point was simply to make the sacrificed animal closer to God. Or to bring us closer to the animal. (I hope not). One of these is a lovely idea, in my mind, and only the third is ridiculous, but all three are wrong. Or, at least, the reasoning is flawed, because, as we have seen, words don’t get their meaning from their internal word structure. It’s just a mistake to think that Biblical sacrifice had more to do with nearnedd than modern sacrifice does.

He then goes into why internal word structure not only has nothing to do with meaning, but nothing to do with subtle nuance by pointing out that a someone who holds a party may be called the “host,” but that call them “host” does not imply that they are also “hostile.” Like I say, it’s a clever book.
But in the extended sections that deal with a particular word or phrase that he’d like to translate differently, I started to have a big problem with the book, which I have a solution for. I’ll get to that.
The most frustrating example was the section on the meaning of the word ro’eh. Hoffman takes issue, rightly, with the translation of ro’eh as shepherd. Citing intertextual examples, he points out that the shepherds that the Bible knew of did indeed herd sheep. They were also know of as fierce warriors and dangerous men who could defeat a lion and who went to war for their king (I won’t even go into Hoffman’s problems with that word). But shepherds, insofar as we have any conception of them today, are gentle farmers who herd sheep. So, his point goes, to translate Adonai roi as “The Lord is my shepherd,” totally misconstrues the point of the psalm. The psalm is saying that God is some sort of fierce wilderness man who mightily protects his people. The translation pictures God as a calm, nurturing force. This mis-conceptualization of the word is bad, Hoffman says. And up to this point, I agree.
But then he starts proposing alternative translations that might capture the point of the word for a modern American audience and kind of goes off the rails. He proposes Knight in shining armor, Parent, Hero, and a variety of others that don’t quite fit. Hoffman eventually admits defeat, as he does in just about every chapter. Each of these case study chapters left me slightly disappointed, feeling like I’d been through a kind of brillian linguistic adventure with him, to discover that all of the other translations got it wrong… because there’s no right answer. Which may be so, but it’s disappointing. Hoffman repeatedly tears down translations that are on the the tip of the tongue of the modern biblically literate American Jew, like nefesh as soul, then leaves us with no better alternative.
So here’s my solution: Joel Hoffman needs to translate a book of the Bible. Or even the whole thing. He can start wherever he likes, but this book remains disappointingly theoretical if his ideas and processes can’t lead to a coherent translation. I’ve liked his translations in My People’s Prayer Book, but they’re not as daring as this new book would suggest Hoffman is willing to be with translation. Until I see his translation of the Book of Psalms, the chapter on (mis)translating ro’eh is just unfinished. But the journey to his incomplete conclusions is great. So go read “And God Said.”

7 thoughts on “And God Said… what exactly?–a review of "And God Said" by Joel Hoffman

  1. Nice reveiw, I’m going to check this book out. The other thing that he is saying but not saying is that we should read and study the Tanach in Hebrew so that we won’t fall prey to the conceptual misunderstandings that translations sometimes (often) create for the reader.
    Who wans Biblical Hebrew ulpan?

  2. …[m]any people make a more subtle mistake. They assume that even though hikriv [which is constructed such that one might think it means “make near”] means “sacrifice,” it must have something to do with “make near.”
    This isn’t nearly as bad as all the derashot on Vayikra based on the modern usage of the English word “sacrifice”, which conclude based on this one word that the main point of the korbanot is giving something up (and yes, I know those sheep were expensive, but you’re still reading too much into one word that isn’t even in the original text).

  3. Isnt the beauty of the words that their meaning is not static? Meaning, what relevance does the Torah have to my life if the only correct way to read it is historical? So what if Roi meant something different 2000 years ago? Back then, that meaning moved people. Today our understanding of it provides meaning to millions of lives. But I guess that only makes sense to me because I believe. I believe the Torah to be word of God, not human. And so I believe that the intention of the author was to have the words meanings shift so that they will never cease to provide meaning in people’s lives.

  4. Coming late to the party because I was in Israel when this first appeared and not following blogs. But it did prompt me to read the book, and then come back to this post.
    Jonah’s comment — applying PaRDeS theory to what the word means in our time — has some resonance, but fails on the pshat — we still need to know the simple meaning of the word at the time it was used. And Uzi’s suggestion that we read Tanach in Hebrew doesn’t really take us very far, because we’re still going to read ro-i with today’s take on what a shepherd is and melech with today’s take on what a king is.
    One way I approach understanding Chumash texts is similar to what Hoffman does in this book — comparing choices made by a variety of translators, although I stick largely to Jewish translations, with an occasional look at King James. Old JPS, New JPS, the Reform updates of New JPS, Alter and Fox, and Scherman (ArtScroll) — and then I try to puzzle out how doctrinal considerations have led to the translation and commentary. This sometimes works, and in any event, I have fun doing it.

  5. I like your approach to this. Make him translate a book of the Bible so we can see if his theoretical approach works.
    The cultural descriptions and symbolic representations used by ancient cultures are so colossally different than what we’re used to, that it’s often difficult to get the right meaning. But the rewards of doing so are great, so I’m going to keep trying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.