And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning, by Joel M. Hoffman. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2010. 256 pp. $25.99.
A little learning, they say, is a dangerous thing. Joel Hoffman's background would seem to have lefthim with more than just a little learning, but a reading of his book And God Said demonstrates that he still falls well within the danger area. It's too bad, because his topic is one that deserves a good book for a general readership; and Hoffman himself has a few worthwhile things to say.
The book is divided into two sections, each comprising about half the book. The first, "Getting Started," consists of three chapters explaining why all previous translations of the Bible are "wrong," and demonstrating the "correct" approach to Bible translation. The second, "Moving Forward," applies Hoffman's method to five biblical phrases or passages: b'chol levavcha u-v'chol nafshecha (Deut 6:5); YHWH ro'i (Ps 23:1); ahoti kallah (Song of Songs, passim); lo tirtzach and lo tahmod (in the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5); and almah (Isa 7:14).
Part I of the book, "Getting Started," is intended to prove the inadequacy of all translation methods other than Hoffman's (which he does by demonstrating that pushed to extremes they all lead to absurdity) and to demonstrate his own approach. This is the method of "functional equivalence" (p. 238)- though the reader will not learn this phrase without reading the "Guide to Translations and Further Reading" that appears in a significantly smaller type size as an appendix at the back of the book. In the main text, explanation is more or less limited to one sentence saying that "the goal is to understand not just the vocabulary but also the grammar of the source language ... and then try to do the same thing in the target language" (p. 69) and a diagram, labeled "Table I" (it is the only graphic feature in the book), showing translation as a process of "decoding" the "function" of the phrase in the source language and encoding the same "function" in the target language (p. 69).
This technique, too, could be shown to lead to absurd results if carried to extremes. The amazing thing about the book is that Hoffman himself provides the absurdities of his own method. Take, for example, "the Lord is my shepherd" from Psalm 23. Hoffman explains what is wrong with this translation: "The problem is that shepherds, once common, are now rare" (p. 126). Nowadays, a shepherd is "meek, humble, powerless, and . . . not a part of mainstream society" (p. 133), whereas in biblical times shepherds provided sustenance and were powerful, romantic, and common-none of which apply to shepherds today. So Hoffman tries out various other options: marine, fireman, lawyer, lumberjack, cowboy, pilot, doctor, …