Introduction to the Hebrew Bible
By Jeff A. Benner

There are many factors that go into a translation which are invisible and unknown to the reader of the translation. Most Bible readers assume the English translation of the Bible is an equivalent and exact representation of the original text. Because of the vast difference between the Ancient Hebrews' language and our own, as well as the differences in the two cultures, an exact translation is impossible. The difficult job of the translator is to bridge the gap between the languages and cultures. Since one can translate the Hebrew text many different ways, the translator's personal beliefs will often dictate how the text is translated. A translation of the Biblical text is a translator's interpretation of the original text based on his own theology and doctrine. This forces the reader to use the translator's understanding of the text as his foundation for the text. For this reason, readers will often compare translations, but are usually limited to Christian translations. I always recommend including a “Jewish” translation when comparing texts, as this will give a translation from a different perspective. Yes, it will be biased toward the Jewish faith, but Christian translations are biased toward the Christian faith as well. A comparison of the two translations can help to discover the bias of each.

The translator's task is compounded by the presence of words and phrases whose original meanings have been lost. In these cases, the translator will attempt to interpret the words and phrases as best as possible based on the context of the word and the translator's opinion of what the author was attempting to convey. When the reader of the translation comes across the translator's attempts at translating the difficult text, the reader almost always makes the assumption the translator has accurately translated the text. The following passage will give an example of some of the difficulties the translators face when attempting to convert the Hebrew text into an understandable English rendering.

Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. (Genesis 6:16 - RSV)

The above translation seems very clear, concise and understandable. The reader would have no problem understanding the meaning of the text and assumes this translation adequately represents the original text. Behind this translation lies the Hebrew, which must be a translator's nightmare. Below is a literal rendering of the same verse according to the Hebrew.

“A light you do to an ark and to a cubit you complete it from to over it and a door of the ark in its side you put unders twenty and thirty you do.”

This is not an isolated case, but occurs continually throughout the Biblical texts. In order to assist the English reader, the translator has supplied words, phrases, and even whole sentences to enable the reader to understand the text. The reader is rarely aware of the difficulties in translating a certain passage and assumes the translator has accurately translated the text.