Shacharit, the set of prayers recited by Jews in the morning, consists of several sections. One of them, the “Preliminary Prayers,” contains, among other things, the first nineteen verses of the Book of Genesis, Chapter 22. Jews refer to these nineteen verses as the Akedah or Akedat Yitzhak (in English, the Binding of Isaac). Over time, persons faithful in reciting the “Preliminary Prayers” will read these nineteen verses thousands of times in their prayer life. If one is not careful, doing anything thousands of times can lead to a careless rote-like performance. One way to mitigate this problem is to pay special attention to the words one is saying.
I daresay that more people read the Bible, and here I am referring specifically to what Christians ordinarily call the Old Testament, in a language other than Hebrew. I do, especially when I am reading excerpts of the Bible during prayer. I always read the Akedah in English, for example. When reading any work in translation, it is of the utmost importance to carefully select the translation one uses. I am writing this seated at my desk in my study. From where I am sitting, I can see the following Bible, whole or single book, translations:
- Old Testament – King James Version. Also known as the Authorized Version or AV. 1611.
- The Holy Scriptures – Jewish Publication Society. 1917 Version.
- Genesis – The Anchor Yale Bible. 1964.
- The Living Torah – by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. 1981.
- Holy Bible – NRSV. 1989.
- Tanach – The Stone Edition. 1996.
- The Five Books of Moses – A translation and commentary by Robert Alter. 2019.
I draw attention to these multiple translations to make a point below. Small differences in wording can have a powerful effect on one’s understanding. This post is the first of three on this topic. In all three, I will be discussing words from the Akedah only. Here, my focus is on the term hineni (הנני). I will use three translations to explain my point.
“Hineni” occurs in verses 1, 7, and 11, always in the same form. The KJV translates the word “here I am” (v.1), “here am I” (v.7), and again “here am I” (v.11). I don’t know why the KJV translation of verse 1 differs from 7 and 11. Whatever the reason, the meaning is essentially the same. Philosophers label this sort of minor variation in phrasing as a distinction without a difference.
It is reasonable to ask why not just consistently translate the same word the same way, at least in these nineteen verses telling a single story? Robert Alter does precisely this. In the Akedah, he always uses, “here I am.” I believe I understand why he does this in terms of his general approach to translation. Whenever possible, he seeks to mirror the meaning of the Hebrew source text as well as its structure. Repetition is a formal device used by many of the Biblical authors.
On the other hand, in English, we often prefer to make “elegant variations” in word selection when the same word repeatedly appears in the source text. But there is something to be said for Alter’s approach. It can move the reader closer to the feel of the original.
Now we come to someone who takes a very different approach when translating “hineni” in the Akedah. In the Anchor Yale Bible translation of Genesis, E. A. Speiser does the following: Verse 1 – “Ready,” verse 7, “Yes, my son,” and verse 11, “Here I am.” And his reason for using these different phrasings is fascinating. In his Notes, he says:
Ready. Literally “here I am,” a courteous response to a call, which should not be stereotyped in translation. Here the effect is that of our “Sir?” or “At your service, at once,”…In verse 7 we obviously need something like “Yes?”…In vs. 11, on the other hand, “Here I am” is not out of place.Genesis, translated by E. A. Speiser. AYB, p. 162. (Bold added for emphasis).
There is an amusing illustration of the verse 1 type of courteous response in a My Man Jeeves episode by P.G. Wodehouse. Unbeknownst to Bertie Wooster, Jeeves has brought a dog named Rollo into the house; as always, Jeeves has his reasons. However, not knowing Bertie, the dog grabs him by the trouser-leg upon his arrival home one night. Then we are treated to a delicious bit of dialog:
“Rollo is not used to you yet, sir,” said Jeeves, regarding the bally quadruped in an admiring sort of way. “He is an excellent watchdog.”Wodehouse, P. G. (Pelham Grenville). My Man Jeeves (p. 33). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
“I don’t want a watchdog to keep me out of my rooms.”
“Well, what am I to do?”
“No doubt in time the animal will learn to discriminate, sir. He will learn to distinguish your peculiar scent.”
“What do you mean—my peculiar scent? Correct the impression that I intend to hang about in the hall while life slips by, in the hope that one of these days that dashed animal will decide that I smell all right.” I thought for a bit. “Jeeves!”
In the second case (verse 7), again, Speiser gets the feeling right. If I am walking with my children and paying attention to other things, as has happened on occasion, and one of them calls out, “Dad?” I tend to respond, “Yes?” or “What?” or “Yeah?” When Isaac calls his father, Speiser has Abraham say, “Yes, my son.” That’s perfect! It appears to me to be much more natural than to reply, “Here I am.” Isaac knows where his father is.
However, in verse 11, Speiser uses “Here I am.” When one is in another place and hears someone calling their name as if they are looking for them, as opposed to wanting them to do something, a typical response would be “Here I am.”
When I recite the Akedah in the “Preliminary Prayers” section of the “Morning Prayers,” I read Speiser’s translation, not the one in my prayer book. Even so, I am not entirely satisfied with his version of all nineteen verses. Next time, I’ll say why, yet again focussing on only one word, a word one might say is “missing in action.”
All the best,
P.S. Any mistakes above are my wife’s fault. Regularly, she reads and edits what I write before I post it. However, early this morning, she received news that she is a grandmother—for the first time! Ever since, she’s been on the phone a lot, although she did take time out to find balloons to hang out in front of our house. Her editing skills at this point would be questionable.
I think there are so many challenges when translating! There’s a fine balance between staying faithful to the original and creating something that reads well in the new language. It’s particularly tricky with poetry.
The Bible is a very interesting example, because it has been translated so many times, with many translations being made with differing intent over the years. Certainly there are striking differences between the King James and the later, modern translations
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