The translation of Biblical writings is — or should be — a huge stumbling block to anyone proposing a dogmatic interpretation of this ancient book. The Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written is a heavy, elemental tongue which, in its more poetic applications, is capable of generating considerable ambiguity. There is often no simple mapping onto English, nor do vastly different historical and geographical conditions help clarify matters.
In reading a text like the Bible, my approach is not to search for Truth, but for meaning. If one assumes beforehand that there is some Absolute truth contained in these pages, than the need for translation stands only as an impediment to learning. But if it is meaning one seeks, then the opacity of language is an opportunity: knowing that I am reading a translation forces me to consider alternatives. It’s not that I doubt (or accept) the historical truth of the Bible — that’s a whole different project. No, this is an excercise in imagination. I let the words conjure up images of places and times, where life was immediate and intense, at times brutal, peppered with love and passion. Often the language used to describe these scenes is quite blunt, and in some of the more traditional translations this comes across as matter-of-factness.
Mitchell’s is the third and so far the best translation I have read in that it is a sincere effort to do justice to the original text. One way it does this is by comparing different versions of the same Biblical stories (such as The Flood). In this way it is seen that the Bible was written by different authors, each with their own unique style. Furthermore, Mitchell’s selection of English wording is honest, in that he uses his grasp of Hebrew to enter into the world of the authors and the characters they describe. The result is a refreshing change from both the stuffy formalism of literalist translations and the casual paraphrasing of most “modernized” versions. I applaud Mitchell on a job very well done. [New York: HarperCollins Publishers]