Translations – good or bad?

Is translating the Tanach into foreign languages a benefit or a scourge? It all depends. Examining what Chazal say about this subject we end up with a paradox; some sources indicate that translations are a tragedy, while others suggest that translations have always been an integral part of the Torah.


Masseches Sofrim (1:7) tells us that “there were once five (Megilla 9a says seventy) chachamim who wrote the Torah in Greek for King Talmai (Ptolemy II Philadelphus); that day was as difficult for the people of Yisroel as the day the Golden Calf was made [as] the Torah could not be properly translated.” This event occurred about 400 years before the Churban.

How can we reconcile this condemnation of translating with Hashem’s command to Moshe that Klal Yisroel should inscribe the Torah onto rocks in seventy languages after crossing the Yarden River (Rashi, Devorim 27:8)? Furthermore, how can Chazal insist that King Talmai’s Greek translation was a tragedy when they tell us elsewhere that the Targum was given at Sinai? Also, if translating the Torah is negative, why did Rav Saadya Gaon produce an Arabic translation of the Torah known as the “Tafsir,” which was so revered that Teimanim used it as a second Targum during Krias HaTorah, reading each verse three times, once in Hebrew, a second time in Targum, and a third time in Arabic? Does this indicate that there is something tragic about rendering the Torah into other languages?

Perhaps one can answer that there is a world of difference between translations made by Jews at Hashem’s command and translations made at the injunction of a non-Jewish king. In the latter case it is inevitable that the translation will reflect the biases and foibles of the person who ordered
the translation and of its intended audience. As the Gemara (Megilla 9a) tells us, this is exactly what happened. Even though Talmai’s 70 translators were chachamim who possessed ruach hakodesh, they were forced to mistranslate a number of verses due to considerations of how the king and his non-Jewish public might react to certain verses.

Examining the current translations of the Tanach which exist in over 2,000 languages ranging from Afrikaans (first translation in 5693/1933) to Zulu (first translation in 5677/1917), it is easy to see that they are adversely influenced by foreign beliefs and scholarship, and worst of all, most of these “Old Testaments” are bound together with the execrable text cooked up in the years after the Churban.

An interesting illustration of how these thousands of different Bibles demonstrate that minor changes reduce Torah translation to farce is to examine the bizarre typesetting errors that have endowed many Bibles with immortal fame.

The King James Bible once brought its publishers to financial ruin when they omitted the word “not” from the seventh commandment (Shemos 20:14). As a penalty for their carelessness they were fined the astronomical sum of £300, a lifetime of wages in those days. Because the kings’ agents recalled and destroyed every copy they could lay hands on, only eleven copies of this so called “Wicked Bible” still survive and the only one currently on sale is going for the asking price of $89,500. (If that seems steep, it is nothing compared to Johann Gutenberg’s first printing of the Bible in 5215/1455. Just one page from this edition sells for about $80,000.) Another printing error resulted in what is known as the “Fools Bible.” This was when a printer was fined £3,000 for omitting the word “no” from the verse, “The fool hath said in his heart there is no G-d” (Tehillim 14:1), and substituting an “a” in its place.

In a lighter vein, there is the
“Breeches (britches) Bible” of Geneva (5240/1560), so named because of its insistence that after Adam and Chava ate the forbidden fruit, Hashem “dressed them in breeches.” There is also the King James Bible of 5371/1611 that came in “he” and “she” variants because one version printed that after Boaz measured six measures of barley to Rus, “he went into the city,” instead of, “she went into the city.” The “Printers Bible” got its name by substituting “princes have persecuted me” (Tehillim 119:161) with “printers have persecuted me.” Perhaps the typesetter was at loggerheads with his boss.

If such bizarre results result from human error, is it surprising that Chazal characterize the meddling of strangers in Torah translations as sheer disaster?

Some Bibles’ claims to fame result not from errata but from other distinguishing features. For example, the “Bear Bible” printed in Spain in 5249/1569 got its name from the illustration of a bear eating honey out of a tree on its title page. As the Spanish Inquisition forbade printing Bibles in Spanish at the time, most copies were promptly seized and destroyed. Only one exception was made to this rule – seven years earlier the office of the Inquisition had approved the printing of the Ferrara Bible that was specially designed for Spain’s Marranos, organizing the order of its seforim according to Jewish massores.

Another unique Bible is the “Giant Macklin Bible Set” of 5559/1799, the largest Bible ever printed; each leviathan volume of this set weighs over a hundred pounds, towers almost two feet high, and stretches sixteen inches wide.


The Hebrew Tanach was first printed in Bologna in 5242/1482, followed by the Mikraos Gedolos of 5288/1518. English came shortly afterwards when Myles Coverdale printed the first English Bible in 5295/1535. An indication of its objectivity and accuracy is the fact that it was modeled after Martin Luther’s German Bible. The first Bible printed in the Americas in 5423/1663 was produced not in English but in the Algonquin Indian language in order to convert local Indians. Since it was cheaper to order Bibles from England than print them in Colonial America, English Bibles were never printed in America until the Revolution when the English supply dried up. However, by the time Congress authorized the printing of this “Bible of the Revolution,” which was small enough to fit into a soldier’s pocket, it was too late. The Revolution was over.

The first time a Jew translated the Tanach was when Abraham Benisch published his “A Translation of
the Old Testament Published with the Hebrew Text” in London in 5611/1851. The firstJewish-American translation was that of Isaac Leeser in Philadelphia in 5615/1845. This was widely used in America and England until superceded by the Jewish Publication Society translation of 5677/1917.

Recent translations include the Korn “Jerusalem Bible” which is based on Friedlander’s “Jewish Family Bible” of 5641/1881. This was the first English Bible which divides the text into parshiyos instead of dividing it into the non-Jewish invented system of chapters and verses. The latter are indicated in the margin. The Korn edition pioneered the usage of names transliterized from Hebrew, discontinuing annoying “English” names such as Genesis, Exodus, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Actually, these names are not English but Greek and date back to the Targum Shivim. Instead of naming the five seforim of the Chumash after their initial words as in Hebrew, the Septuagint names them after the main theme of each sefer:               Genesis (origin), Exodus

(going out), Leviticus (concerning Levites), Arithmoi (Numbers), and Deuteronomy (deutoro – second, nomos – law). Eventually, Arithmoi became the odd man out after it was anglicized into “Numbers.” The Septuagint also Hellenizes names like Moshe, Pinchas and Yerushalayim, replacing them with Moses, Phineas and Jerusalem in accordance to Greek grammar and pronunciation. Take Moshe for example. In ancient Greek there is a rule that masculine names cannot end with a vowel, so to prevent this the Septuagint adds an extra “s” to Moshe, turning it into Moses.

Another authentic translation is Rav Aryeh Kaplan’s “The Living Torah” (5741/1981) which incorporates perushim of Chazal and innovated the idea of incorporating user friendly English instead of making the prophets sound as if they were employees of King James in Medieval England. As a result, new translations have become as simple and readable as the original Hebrew. For example, Kaplan renders Shemos 20:8-10 as, “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. You can work during the six weekdays and do all your tasks. But Saturday is the Sabbath to G-d your L-rd,” which is an improvement over archaic English texts such as: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the L-rd thy G- d.”

With the introduction of even more new translations such as the Judaica Press editions, and the Artscroll Tanach Series that were collated into one volume in the 5756/1996 “Stone Edition of the Tanach,” we can perhaps be confident that the English Tanach has been rescued from its foreign kidnappers.

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