On Translations and Targumim

On Translations and Targumim

An Introduction to Modern Translation Philosophies

We live in a day where the choice of differing translations and commentaries on the scriptures is almost overwhelming. When it comes to translations, there are several different philosophies.

Formal Equivalence

Formal equivalence is a translation philosophy that has as its goal as literal a translation of the base text as possible, with only minor corrections to make the text readable. Idioms remain their original wording, even when the usage is very unfamiliar without knowledge of the culture to assist. In many cases, the most literal of the formal equivalence translations can seem stilted, and difficult to read. However, the symbols and general flow of the original texts can come through stronger.

Some examples of popular Formal Equivalence translations are:

  • King James Version
  • New American Standard
  • New Revised Standard Version

Example from Genesis 3, from the King James Version:

1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

8 And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

Dynamic Equivalence

At the other end of the spectrum is what is called dynamic equivalence. In this case, the goal is understandability and readability rather than literal accuracy. In these translations, antiquated or culturally unique idioms are often paraphrased into a modern idiom that would be instantly understood, even if it departed from the symbols of the original. At their most extreme, dynamic equivalence translations become full on paraphrases of the text, with the specific theological leanings and interpretations of the translator often coming very much to the surface. Much more interpretation is brought into these by the translator, because the ideas are being rephrased into how the translator feels it should be interpreted.

Some examples of popular Dynamic Equivalence translations are:

  • New Living Translation
  • Good News Bible
  • The Message (a paraphrase)

Example from Genesis 3, from The Message:

The serpent was clever, more clever than any wild animal God had made. He spoke to the Woman: “Do I understand that God told you not to eat from any tree in the garden?”

The Woman said to the serpent, “Not at all. We can eat from the trees in the garden. It’s only about the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘Don’t eat from it; don’t even touch it or you’ll die.'”

The serpent told the Woman, “You won’t die. God knows that the moment you eat from that tree, you’ll see what’s really going on. You’ll be just like God, knowing everything, ranging all the way from good to evil.”

When the Woman saw that the tree looked like good eating and realized what she would get out of it—she’d know everything!—she took and ate the fruit and then gave some to her husband, and he ate.

Immediately the two of them did “see what’s really going on”—saw themselves naked! They sewed fig leaves together as makeshift clothes for themselves.

When they heard the sound of God strolling in the garden in the evening breeze, the Man and his Wife hid in the trees of the garden, hid from God.

“Balanced” Translations

In addition, there are some translations that attempt to balance between the two methods, and tend to go back and forth within the text.  Such examples may include:

  • New International Version
  • New American Bible
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible

Example from Genesis 3, from the New International Version:

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”

4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.

5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

What Are Their Uses?

Those who use the scriptures mainly as a devotional text tend to gear towards more of these dynamic translations. They don’t want to need to spend time researching ancient cultures and languages to understand what is going on, and what is being said. They want to quickly determine how what they are reading can be applied to their lives. While there are benefits to this, often times important symbolism essential to understanding the context and deeper meaning behind the original texts and events  are covered up and glossed over  in exchange for the translator’s interpretation of what is felt is the most important point – without giving the reader an opportunity to ponder and choose for themselves.  In many cases, plain and precious elements of the underlying text are indiscernible.

Those who desire to dig deep into the original context of the scriptural texts will generally choose a more formal translation, and supplement it with scholarly commentaries or footnotes, that help explain historical and linguistic context not evident on a surface reading, even in as literal a translation as possible. These translations require more effort, but with this effort exercised, much more can be learned from them.

Targum: An ancient form of Super-Dynamic Equivalence

As Hebrew was replaced by Aramaic as the common language of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period, the original texts of the scriptures became less accessible to the general population.

To facilitate this, official Aramaic versions of the scriptures were developed. In the Targum that are known to us today, it is clear that Formal Equivalence wasn’t always the name of the game.

While some Targum, such as Targum Onkelos is fairly literal, in many cases, the Targumim contain very fluid paraphrases of sections of scripture, with additional text added to explain and make clear the current theological understanding of the passage. These commentaries and additions are not marked out – to one unfamiliar with the original texts, it would not be clear where the translation ends, and the commentary begins.  In many cases, changes were made in order to do away with what were thought as heretical ideas. For example, in many cases where God was described in anthropomorphic terms, the description was changed to something more esoteric and allegorical.

In many cases, additions were added that were very much understood not to be a part of the original, but were presented to make the text more relevant to the listeners. It was a way to make the scriptures come alive to them, so that they would be able to picture themselves more vividly in the scriptural world.

An example from the Garden of Eden narrative follows from a translation of what is known as Targum Pseudo Jonathan1 , with Targumic additions emphasized:

And the Lord God threw a deep slumber upon Adam, and he slept. And He took one of his ribs, it was the thirteenth rib of the right side, and closed it up with flesh. And the Lord God builded the rib which he had taken from Adam into a woman; and He brought her to Adam. And Adam said, This time, and not again, is woman created from man. Thus, because she is created from me, (she is) bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. This it is fit to call Woman, because from man she was taken. Therefore a man shall leave, and be separate from the house of the bed of his father and of his mother, and shall consociate with his wife, and both of them shall be one flesh. And both of them were wise, Adam and his wife; but they were not faithful (or truthful) in their glory.

And the serpent was wiser unto evil than all the beasts of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, Is it truth that the Lord God hath said, You shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said to the serpent, From the rest of the fruits of the trees of the garden we have power to eat; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden the Lord hath said, You shall not eat of it, nor approach it, lest you die. In that hour the serpent spake accusation against his Creator, and said to the woman, Dying you will not die; for every artificer hateth the son of his art: for it is manifest before the Lord, that in the day that you eat of it, you will be as the great angels, who are wise to know between good and evil.

And the woman beheld Sammael, the angel of death, and was afraid; yet she knew that the tree was good to eat, and that it was medicine for the enlightenment of the eyes, and desirable tree by means of which to understand. And she took of its fruit, and did eat; and she gave to her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of both were enlightened, and they knew that they were naked, divested of the purple robe in which they had been created. And they saw the sight of their shame, and sewed to themselves the leaves of figs, and made to them cinctures.

And they heard the voice of the word of the Lord God walking in the garden in the repose of the day; and Adam and his wife hid themselves from before the Lord God among the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called to Adam, and said to him, Is not all the world which I have made manifest before Me; the darkness as the light? and how hast thou thought in thine heart to hide from before Me? The place where thou art concealed, do I not see? Where are the commandments that I commanded thee?

Thus, there came to be a time, including during the life of Jesus Christ, when the common Jewish people were more familiar with the rabbinic explanations and interpretations of the scriptures than the base text themselves.

Historical Targum can be very useful today in helping us understand how scriptures were commonly understood in different periods of time, and different places.

In fact, many modern Jewish commentaries on the scriptures include the original Hebrew Text, side by side with an Aramaic Targum, with the commentary running at the bottom. For example, A commentary I purchased by the Rabbi Rashi is presented in this format. Thus, in this way, the student has access to:

  • The original text
  • An additional interpretation, expansion, or explanation of the text
  • A Modern Commentary by a respected religious Authority that applies both in a practical way.


In part two, I’ll explain and illustrate why the concept and understanding of Targum is specifically of interest  to Latter-day Saints, and show that they’re probably more familiar with Targum then they may realize.

  1. from http://targum.info/pj/pjgen1-6.htm []

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