Self Defining Hebrew and Essentially Literal Translation


Dan Clanton called my attention to "The Chronicle Project," an effort (from a couple of years ago) to decode the Hebrew Bible by assigning word meanings to individual letters without all of the pesky (and difficult) linguistic training required to actually translate the Bible. They call their system "Self Defining Hebrew" (SDH)

It's truly, astonishingly stupid, and has no more value than as an early morning curiosity. However, the rhetoric associated with the project is interesting in that it reflects concerns and anxieties that we see in the larger religious community. The SDH "researchers" claim that the Hebrew language is much simpler and easy to learn than modern scholars pretend with all of their theories and grammar rules. SDH is simple, based on the assumption that the Bible should be simple to understand.

They also want to end all partisan disagreements about the meaning of the Bible. This new "discovery" of theirs is supposed to give people access to the true scripture without having to rely on the biases of interpreters. In this video, the leader repeatedly says, "this is not a translation," as if a translation is a bad thing.

At around 8:35, he says, "This isn't our opinion. This is what is actually there." In essence, he claims that what stands between readers and the biblical truth is the flawed and biased interpretations of translators.

Note that this attitude is not too different from that shown by "essentially literal translation" advocates, who says things such as "We believe that when a person reads the Bible, he should be confident that he is actually reading the words of God, in the form God delivered them to the biblical authors. From that starting point we trust God to reveal His Word to the reader. We do not trust a well meaning translator to do that work."

The ESV translators put it this way:

The ESV is an “essentially literal” translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on “word-for-word” correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.

In contrast to the ESV, some Bible versions have followed a “thought-for-thought” rather than “word-for-word” translation philosophy, emphasizing “dynamic equivalence” rather than the “essentially literal” meaning of the original. A “thought-for-thought” translation is of necessity more inclined to reflect the interpretive opinions of the translator and the influences of contemporary culture.

The Bible-reading public is no doubt happy to hear that this translation is a window into the ancient originals without any modern tinting. By all means let's avoid translators and their "interpretive opinions" and their surrender to the "influences of contemporary culture!"

Here's the thing: the translators who worked on the ESV are smart people and good scholars. They know (I would assume) that translation is necessarily an interpretive activity. The problem is that the ESV project as a whole hides its interpretive perspective (it's "sway," in Douglas Robinson's terminology) behind this claim of "essentially literal" translation.

So, in conclusion, the Chronicle Project is ridiculous, but it does tap into larger religious and cultural anxieties about biblical translation that need to be addressed. In my view, the advocates of literal or "word-for-word" translations make this situation worse rather than better. Their dream of an unbiased, literal rendering of the Bible into English is barely more plausible than the Chronicle Project. However, "essentially literal translation" is more damaging than Self Defining Hebrew because it has popular credibility.