Q: I am Catholic, and your information about the translations of the Bible has been of special interest. Would you please recommend the best translation of the Bible into English as I do not know the Hebrew language?
— P, via email
A: I have always agreed with the old saying that reading a work in translation is like kissing through a veil. It is still a kiss but not at all satisfying. So there is really no spiritually accurate alternative to reading the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew and the Greek New Testament in Greek. The nuances, as well as the clear meanings of the original words, are lost in translation. This is not just because of the limitations of transferring meanings from one language into another. It is also because translations are also interpretations.
Translations could help advance theological agendas that the original text never contained. Translating the commandment from Exodus 20:13 that reads in Hebrew, lo tirtzach, as “Thou shalt not kill” when it clearly means, “Thou shalt not murder” is grossly incorrect, but it is useful to those who wanted the Bible to be a proof text for pacifism. All murders are obviously acts of killing, but not all killings are acts of murder. Killing in self-defense and in a just war and for food are permitted by biblical Judaism, but they are all prohibited if the faulty translation is accepted as the real meaning of the biblical text.
I think the most famous example of how a translation can be distorted is the verse in Isaiah 7:14, “And behold a virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son ...” This interpretation provides a clear prediction of the virgin birth in the Hebrew Bible and is thus a powerful truth for Christians that Jesus’ virgin birth was foretold. Unfortunately for those Christians who wanted to find a prophecy of Jesus before the New Testament, the Hebrew word for virgin, betulah, is not the word used in the Isaiah text. There the Hebrew word is alma which means “a young woman.”
The other problem with translations is that even if they are free of hidden theological agendas, they can also commit harm to beloved translations in the name of linguistic accuracy. My favorite act of trampling upon iconic passages is the translation of Joseph’s coat (Genesis 37:3) that generations have loved as, “a coat of many colors” into the ridiculous, “ornamented tunic.” This is why, in my column over the years I have used the four-century old King James Version. It may be wrong in places, but it is still the most beautiful translation of the Bible into English I know.
So you ask, where can you go to find a translation of the Bible that does not distort the texts it claims to simply translate? To repeat myself, the basic answer is, “nowhere.” Spend your time learning Hebrew, not searching for accurate translations. However, if that is an unrealistic suggestion, as I am certain it is, here are a few suggestions:
The best traditional but accurate translation of the entire Hebrew Bible is the Jewish Publication Society’s translation.
Among the more poetic but still accurate modern translations are Robert Alter’s “The Five Books of Moses,” which only translates the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Alter has also done a beautiful translation of the Psalms, “The Book of Psalms,” and a translation of 1 and 2 Samuel, “The David Story.”
The Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig translated the Hebrew Bible into German. Their masterful and deeply poetic translation has been translated from German into English by Everett Fox. I love it.
Fox begins his work with a translation of a lecture by Martin Buber that says everything you need to know about reading the Bible,
“Read the Bible as though it were something entirely unfamiliar, as though it had not been set before you ready made . . . Face the book with a new attitude as something new . . . Let whatever may happen occur between yourself and it. You do not know which of its sayings and images will overwhelm and mold you . . . But hold yourself open. Do not believe anything a priori; do not disbelieve anything a priori. Read aloud the words written in the book in front of you; hear the word you utter and let it reach you.”