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I'm new to reading the Bible, I'm currently focused on the Old Testament and there's something I've been wondering about when looking through various translations and English-Hebrew interlinear versions.

With much of the text, if looking at the interlinear, the 'original' hebrew looks much simpler, and the English version looks as if a lot of things that may have been IMPLIED in the original have been added to make it more readable. I'll give one example, from Isaiah 26:2:

Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith.

In the Hebrew this is:

pātaḥ šaʽar ṣaddîq gôy bô’ šāmar ’ēmûn

Which is obviously a lot fewer words, and if translated more directly, wouldn't this be more like:

open gate righteous people come keep faith

Perhaps these individual Hebrew terms include more details, but isn't this roughly more accurate to what the actual text is? If so, is there a publication of the Old Testament which uses this much simplified direct translation word for word without the additions?

Thankyou.

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  • 5
    The answers to this question are very good in describing the hardships of translation, I can only agree with them. However, I would also urge you to not let your initial true interest be soothed by this. If you are interested in this: do learn Hebrew and do read the Hebrew text. There is no doubt that the available translations are commendable works of art by themselves. The depth of the original texts, though, makes any translation to be just a partial interpretation in comparison.
    – noncom
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 15:44
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    While the Answers here are not incorrect, there definitely are versions that try to remain more literal. To find them, just google "literal translations of the Old Testament" or even "literal translations of the Tanakh". I unfortunately can't advise you on which ones are the best, as I don't tend to use them much.
    – trlkly
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 1:55
  • To add a bit more substance, I'd mention, for example, that Torah has 4(+1) levels of understanding. And only the first one is "literal understanding". A translation can at best only go so far because it translates this literal meaning as if it was some kind of storybook. The other levels, however, can be accessed only in direct contact with the original text and study. The difference is immense, someday you might discover that the text was not what you were originally thinking it was.
    – noncom
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 3:45
  • Hmmm; is that supposed to be that? Would that please you? Other than that, when people is used as singular it has to mean nation. It's exactly the same in English but modern readers just aren't familiar with it.
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 4:40
  • ... Septuagint ;-)
    – M__
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 2:46

5 Answers 5

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Beginner learners of Hebrew might expect a more 1:1 ratio of English words for their translation, but they are unaware of many of the facts with regard to Hebrew word construction and grammar. Let us consider but a few of these.

Parts of a Hebrew Word

A Hebrew word joins what English would often separate into separate words. For example, "in the beginning" in English is all one word in Hebrew: "be-reshit" (literally "in beginning" as in Hebrew there is no need for the definite article here). Prepositions can sometimes stand alone, but usually they are joined to their object, the noun. A conjunction is also joined to the word it is joining, as is the definite article, if it is used. So one "word," delimited by spaces as are English words, will actually consist of multiple grammatical units. This can be seen in the notations of a good interlinear which shows the grammar.

Consider the following example.

Interlinear for 1 Chronicles 1:1

Each "|" in the grammatical notations indicates what we might consider a separate word. The last word of the verse, "לְמָֽעְלָה׃", translated as "exceedingly" in the interlinear, is actually from three grammatical units in Hebrew: the initial lamed "לְ" being a preposition meaning "to" or "for", followed by the root word which means "higher part" or "above", to which is added a pronominal suffix (a pronoun) which makes the whole word third-person feminine singular (like "she" or "her")--a point which may indicate agreement with the gender of what it is modifying, or may have nothing at all to do with the gender of what it modifies and more to do with its grammatical purpose (for example, numbers are usually feminine in Hebrew).

The word just before this also shows division into three sub-units, which are actually four: the "וַֽ" representing a conjunction, usually translated as "and" but which might contextually represent "so", "therefore", "thus", or even "but"; the rest of the word "יְגַדְּלֵ֖הוּ" representing the verb which already contains its pronoun and to which is added a pronominal suffix indicating third-person masculine singular ("he" or "him"--or, because Hebrew does not have a separate form for "it", this could also be "it").

Hebrew Verbs

A full treatise on Hebrew verbs might occupy several books in the making; but for purposes of this answer, a few details will suffice to bring more clarity.

Hebrew verbs always contain the person (1st-, 2nd-, or 3rd-person) and number (singular or plural) of the subject, and may also contain a pronominal suffix bearing this same information for the object. In Hebrew, verbs precede their subject in the typical sentence order, and because their subject's pronoun is already embedded, the subject itself is not always required to be specified separately (unlike English).

For example: "bereshit bara Elohim" in Genesis 1:1 would literally translate as "in beginning he-created God" which would be restructured in English as "in the beginning, God, he created." The added pronominal information of the verb is usually dropped in English when it is redundant, as in this case, since the "he" just refers to "God"--so we would say "in the beginning God created..." But even with those five words in English, there is still more meaning that was packed into the three words of Hebrew than English reveals. For example, "bara", the verb, is only used for God throughout the Old Testament. If someone else creates something, a different verb will be used--unlike English where "create" is used for both God and anyone else.

Hebrew verbs are divided up into "binyanim" (verb forms)--of which there are as many as 490 forms for a single verb; but scholars tend to shy away from calling these "tenses." This is because Hebrew verbs do not indicate past, present, and future as English verb tenses do. Hebrew verbs may indicate a transpiring action (imperfect) versus a completed action or simple fact (perfect). They have modal forms (like "can", "may", "should", etc.) which some might term "subjunctive" in usage, but Hebrew grammarians will subdivide these by their persons into cohortative, imperative, or jussive forms. An English verb might have multiple words to express it, such as "should have been accompanying" (modal perfect continuous tense); whereas a verb like that would be expressed as a single word in Hebrew.

The spelling of the word, particularly its vowel pointings, determines its form. This brings us to another important point.

Hebrew Word Spellings

Written Hebrew did not originally have vowels. The earliest vowels began to creep into the writing hundreds of years after the Pentateuch was written, but even these were few. Vowel pointings were not added until the Masoretes did so between about A.D. 500 and A.D. 1100. So each Hebrew word is more "compact" than an English word would be. In the original, vowels occupied no space at all, and modern manuscripts have the pointings above and below each consonant, still not requiring much, if any, horizontal space.

Construct Chains versus Predicate Adjectives

Hebrew does not need to add a preposition between two consecutive nouns, or a verb of being between those nouns, where in English our grammar would require this. In Hebrew, if both nouns are definite or if both are *not definite, then they have equal definiteness. If they are equal, they form a "construct chain." In this case, they are placed in genitive relationship, usually indicated by the use of "of" in English.

For example, "face deep" in Genesis 1:2 must have the "of" added as well as the articles to become "the face of the deep" because both "face" and "deep"--two consecutive nouns--are in their common, non-definite forms. If we were to make one of these nouns definite by adding the definite article ("the") so that they were no longer equal in definiteness, then they would be placed together in a predicate adjective relationship, implying a verb of being; e.g. "the face deep" would be translated as "the face is deep." These verbs of being and prepositions showing relationship of nouns are unnecessary in Hebrew grammar, but are required in the English translation.

Nuance

It is common that during translation words with a particular nuance in their original language require multiple words in the target language to convey the same meaning. If a word does not happen to have even a close equivalent in the target language, sometimes an entire phrase may be needed to describe it. In English, for one example, the word "love" might be considered a word with broad meaning, as compared with Greek which has many words for love. If a translator desires to distinguish between "agape" love and "eros" (romantic/lust), or "philia" (friendship), or "storge" (family), or "mania" (obsession), or "philautia" (self-love), how can he or she do so without the addition of some modifier or explanation?

Nuance is either lost, or maintained through the addition of words; and translations from almost any language tend to result in a greater amount of text in their target (translated) language.

Conclusion

Hebrew ranks among the most complex of languages in the world. Overall, Hebrew "words" are far more compact than English words, and contain multiple words-worth of information. Only the Hebrew direct-object-marker word "et" is typically untranslated/unnecessary in English. Most Hebrew words will naturally require multiple words in English to properly render their meaning.

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  • Excellent answer. +1. Minor quibble. Many English speakers use the word create, but they really mean invent. Human beings do not have the ability to create. Only God creates, out of the fullness of His being (notice I do not say ex nihilo, since there is no such thing as nothing). Mortals, on the other hand, use the raw materials God has created and they invent new things out of them. The most significant of those raw materials is language. Even there, God beat us to it, since Jesus is the Word of God, the Logos. Don Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 21:22
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    @rhetorician that’s not true. Inventing generally means new concepts, entirely new ideas. One can always create a new instance of an existing concept, e.g. I can create a new lake. I’ve not “invented” a lake. And even if it were, you seem to have a very prescriptivist view of the English language.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 21:30
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    @rhetorician Actually, I even disagree with the premise. I think much of what we do is creation, and creativity, a reflection, a shadow of us being made in the image of our creator. All the art we create is a pale imitation of what He has done.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 0:10
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    linguistically, "Hebrew ranks among the most complex of languages in the world" is essentially meaningless. Hebrew is significantly more inflected than English, so strikes English-speakers as complex, but it's not especially unusual in that regard, in fact English is the unusual one being unusually isolating, whilst Hebrew is actually pretty middling, with languages like Georgian or Turkish being at the other extreme
    – Tristan
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 16:38
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    @Biblasia how difficult a language is to learn depends heavily on the languages you're already exposed to and is not an objective measure
    – Tristan
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 9:49
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The other answers here are not wrong, but I think they're missing an important point, which is that the Hebrew of that verse is not what you say it is; you seem to have misunderstood your source, in a way that makes the translation seem much more distant from the literal Hebrew than it really is.

The correct Hebrew is פִּתְחוּ שְׁעָרִים וְיָבֹא גוֹי־צַדִּיק שֹׁמֵר אֱמֻנִים [link], or pitəḥû šəʽārîm wəyāvô’ gôy-ṣaddîq šômēr ’ĕmûnîm. You'll notice that only two of those words match the Hebrew you've given — gôy and ṣaddîq — and even those appear in the reverse order from what you've said.

I don't know what source you used, but it made three major changes to the Hebrew:

  1. It replaced every word with the base form, e.g. replacing šəʽārîm (meaning "gates") with šaʽar (meaning "gate") and yāvô’ (meaning "will enter") with bô’ (meaning "enter"). These base forms are what you'd look up in a Hebrew dictionary — like how English dictionaries don't have separate entries for "gates" and "entering", they expect you to look up "gate" and "enter" — so I'm guessing that your source was trying to facilitate that? This may also be helpful if you want to look up other places in the Bible that use the same word.
  2. It reordered the words to align with the English translation, e.g. replacing gôy-ṣaddîq with ṣaddîq gôy to match the translation "righteous nation" (because English puts adjectives before nouns). I assume that this was to help you see which Hebrew word corresponds to which part of the translation.
  3. It dropped the conjunction wə- (meaning "and") for some reason — maybe because it's expressed as a prefix? (This is probably related to change #1.)

This strips out all of the grammar of the verse; it's analogous to taking an English sentence like

The cooks will eat and drink later.

and stripping it down to "Cook eat drink late". Naturally, that would be a very poor starting-point for a translation.

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The translation problem has many facets.

1. The language syntax is dense

As explained by Biblasia, Hebrew language syntax and orthography is exceptionally dense and lacking in redundancy. Much interpolation is therefore required. Single-letter changes and transpositions of letters in a single word can change the meaning of an entire verse and can be difficult to detect. This problem is also present in modern Hebrew and affects the manner in which military communications and other critical communications are performed in modern Hebrew.

2. Much of the text is mnemonic

The MT was written in an age or oral culture when books and writing were expensive and scarce. The text itself is minimalistic, and condensed and serves to remind the reader of the essential points of the oral narrative which the reader is assumed to already know in within a much wider context or oral tradition. So even in the MT text itself, many words must be interpolated in order to understand the text.

3. The style is aphoristic

This is not a elucidatory text. It does not explain. It is a document written in a Semitic language produced by a near east Semitic culture. The hallmarks of this linguistic culture are aphorism, metaphor, figures of speech and indirect reference. One-to-one "literal" translations generally make no sense when trying to present this content to a non-Hebrew reading reader.

4. The historical and cultural distance is huge

The MT is largely based on late bronze age traditions that are very far away from us historically and culturally and therefore very difficult to understand without interpolations. There are many cultural references that we can only guess about or assume from cognate cultures.

For these reasons, a one-to-one translation approach results in a text that is vastly inferior to the best of the commonly accepted English translations.

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Others have pointed out that actual one-word-for-one-word translations aren't feasible, and they've explained it far better than I can.

One of your questions went unanswered though:

is there a publication of the Old Testament which uses this much simplified direct translation word for word without the additions?

It sounds like what you are looking for is a translation that prioritizes accuracy over readability. What some call a "word-for-word translation", rather than a "thought-for-thought translation".

This is called Dynamic and Formal Equivalence.

New American Standard Bible (NASB) is one of the best English translations for prioritizing the accuracy of the actual wording, which does make the sentences slightly clunkier and less flowy/poetic, but still very readable, and more valuable for studying what the OT and NT is directly saying with less room for potentially-erroneous opinionated "explanation".

What few (very few) words of NASB are implied, are shown (at least in my Bible) in italics, so as you read, you can see them. Usually it's just a few 'the' or 'from' or 'to' type words that don't change the meaning of the sentence.

New American Standard is a proper translation, whereas some others are partially or wholly modern interpretations.

Different translations are a mix of Translation ("here's what it says") and Interpretation ("here's what it means"), and New American Standard is one of the best in terms of modern peer-reviewed scholarly translation. There are others like it; I've heard ESV (English Standard Version) is of similar quality, but haven't researched it personally.

Contrast to New King James which tries to be more readable and also tries to keep the linguistic sound of the older King James, and so is a great translation but with more liberties in the sentence flows and word choices (90% translation, 10% interpretation). NIV is similar: peer-reviewed translation, but with some word-accuracy sacrificed to make the sentences flow better and be more readable. (Note: these two are still great translations and are going to try their hardest to be accurate and readable).

(Note: I'm a fan of NASB and NKJV, and but recommend NASB for accuracy, NKJV for readability and compatibility with what many churches use)

Contrast to "translations" like The Passion which isn't really translation at all, but a single human's interpretation that takes extreme liberties. Same with, for example, The Message, or The Living Bible. They are entire re-wordings of what they think the Bible is saying, and many scholars have condemned some of these as being improperly labeled as 'translations' when they are too heavily paraphrased and make unjustified removals or additions to the original texts. I don't recommend 'translations' like these that take too many liberties in the wording, as you are actually reading a commentary in disguise, and most casual readers don't realize that, and take the commentary (someone's explanation/interpretation) as if it is the thing itself. If clearly labeled as a commentary, then I have no problem.

These are the broad three categories of translations, and there are many translations available in each of these three categories:

  • Prioritizes accuracy over readability [recommended for studying]
  • Prioritizes readability alongside accuracy [recommended for casual reading]
  • Interpretations disguised as translations [recommended for the trash bin] =P

Edit: I should also note that most (but not all) chapter breaks, verse breaks, paragraph breaks, and even sentence breaks, are not in the original texts, with many ancient documents just being continuous strings of words with no breaks. In a few cases, there were genuine breaks (and some bibles mark the original ones with a ¶ glyph). In very very few cases does the added breaks, for human readability, change the meaning of the words - but verses and chapters can sometimes break in the "wrong" location, accidentally adding separation of what was intended to be read continuously.

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  • Are you aware of the fact that Frank Logsdon, one of the major players in producing the NASB, later renounced it as being inaccurate, having made many changes to the text, especially omissions? A transcript of one of his speeches can be found HERE.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 0:24
  • @Biblasia, your cited source cites no sources for the questionable rant it includes. Example excerpt: "For instance, if you were in a church when the pastor is speaking on the words of the Lord Jesus in his temptation, 'Get thee behind me, Satan,' if you have a New American Standard you wouldn't even find it. It's not even in there. " No, it's not even in there since that quote is from Mat 16:23, not Jesus' temptation in (e.g.) Mat 4. But nonetheless the command to the satan is there in all of the NASB versions on BibleHub.
    – ZX9
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 22:53
  • @ZX9 You are looking in the wrong place, perhaps. Check Luke 4:8. In NASB, the "get thee behind me Satan" is omitted. It's there in the KJV.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 0:06
  • @Biblasia Coming back to this now, unless you have evidence to the contrary, it seems most likely that the KJV and various more modern translations might be referencing different manuscripts for Luke. I don't see evidence of that phrase in the greek on e.g. BibleHub biblehub.com/text/luke/4-8.htm
    – ZX9
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 3:28
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Besides the points raised in the other answers, what I would call the masoretic factor is another reason for attaining proficiency in Biblical Hebrew instead of relying on translations of the Bible.

The introduction of vowel marks by the Masoretes and of other punctuation is detrimental because of its influence on the reader's understanding of biblical passages. This "treading of the path" tends to block or narrow the reader's perception by subtly turning him from hermeneutics to doctrine.

One example of this is the term ערום in Gen. 3:1, which typically is translated as crafty. This comes from עָרוּם, with the dot in the middle of ו (the letter waw). But ערום with the dot above that letter means naked, which matches better the context because:

  1. unlike most animals, serpents essentially have no fur, fur being a sensical depiction of being clothed; and
  2. the notion of nakedness reappears as a central element in what leads to Adam's subsequent encounter with Elohim.

By contrast, adopting crafty as the meaning of ערום induces a bias against gaining the knowledge that elevates man to the status that hitherto only Elohim possessed. There is a practical reason for inducing that prejudice: Depriving others of knowledge is key to preserving a relation of power and domination. That adoption creates inconsistencies when switching between crafty and naked in that same passage, thereby leading to confusion as reflected in other post.

Intricacies of this sort are lost in translations, thus further constraining the hermeneutics of the Bible.

Likewise, translations have a polluting effect. That is because the reader reaffirms his preconceptions as he associates Hebrew terms in the Bible to notions from his prior acquaintance with the biblical passages. Unrooting those preconceptions requires considerable, conscious effort on the reader's part.

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