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‘Discovering the beauty hidden by bad translations’
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‘Discovering the beauty hidden by bad translations’

Questions for Dr. Joel M. Hoffman

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman, proficient in ancient Hebrew, Greek, and modern Hebrew, has translated almost all of the Jewish liturgy, including the Bible, prayers, and a variety of other material. He looks for the beauty in ancient texts, and tries to correct the errors that come between classic passages and modern readers.

On Friday-Saturday, Nov. 18-19, he will be guest speaker at Monmouth Reform Temple’s Bob Rosin Memorial Shabbat Kallah program. Hoffman will address both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament in this interfaith program. Local churches have been invited to participate.

Hoffman holds a PhD in linguistics and has served on the faculties of Brandeis University and Hebrew Union College. He is the chief translator for the popular 10-volume series “My People’s Prayer Book” (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and for My People’s Passover Haggadah (both from Jewish Lights Publishing) and the author of the critically acclaimed In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language (2004, NYU Press). His latest book is And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning (2010, St. Martin’s Press). A resident of Westchester, NY, Hoffman can be reached through his website at www.Lashon.net.

In a Q&A with NJJN, Hoffman spoke about his craft and his upcoming program

NJJN: Can you summarize what you will discuss at the Monmouth Reform Temple Shabbat Kallah?

Hoffman: Friday night will be devoted to the patterns in history that have created a thriving modern Judaism. On Saturday I’ll address how we know what the Bible means and, in particular, why printed English translations of the Bible are so inaccurate.

NJJN: What inspired the topics?

Hoffman: For the first, I think the general pattern that I’ll describe — exile followed by renewed creativity — is simply fascinating. And for the second, I’ve found a lot of beauty of the Bible, but bad translations often hide it. I want to share what I’ve uncovered.

NJJN: You have said that after each exile or attack, the Jews emerged stronger than ever. What do you attribute that strength to?

Hoffman: I don’t know. But if I had to guess, it would be something that many people overlook: Judaism has always stressed the inherent value and worthiness of every human.

NJJN: What are the unique challenges of translating and interpreting Hebrew texts?

Hoffman: The biggest challenge is how to know when we’ve correctly understood the ancient language. With French, for example, if I want to know if my understanding is correct, I can fly to Paris and ask someone. With ancient Hebrew, everyone who speaks the language natively has inconveniently died.

NJJN: What kinds of mistakes can occur in translations?

Hoffman: Everything from missing a nuance to misrepresenting the whole point. Accurate translations reveal that the Ten Commandments don’t forbid coveting or killing; Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd”) isn’t about sheep or shepherds; the opening lines of Genesis aren’t about what God did but rather about when God did it; and so forth.

NJJN: What do you enjoy most about your work as a translator?

Hoffman: I love discovering the beauty that’s been hidden by bad translations. The Bible is like a canvas waiting to be unearthed, and our current translations are sometimes like accumulated dirt and grime that mask its beauty. I get to remove the facade of bad translation and see the original glory of the text.

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