Calque (Word-for-Word) Translations
of Biblical Texts
Sacred Hebrew texts, especially the Bible and prayers, have been translated into Jewish languages around the world. Often the translations imitate the original Hebrew word order (a linguistic phenomenon known as calque). Here are some examples, using the first verse of Bereshit (Genesis):
In partnership with JArts Boston's Kolture initiative, we created this 6-language calque translation of the first line of the Tanakh. Below you can find curatorial and curricular content for teachers, students, and others.
Above is a series of hyper-literal translations, or calques, of the first verse of Genesis into multiple Jewish languages — Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Greek, Baghdadi-Judeo Arabic, Halych Karaim (Karaite Judeo-Turkic from the Ukrainian city of Halych), and Hulaulá (Jewish Neo-Aramaic from the Kurdish region in Iran). All of the translations directly parallel the syntax and terminology of the original Hebrew, as opposed to reflecting the normative grammars of their respective languages.
Aspects of Hebrew that are difficult to translate directly — for instance, the direct object marker את et — are translated using awkward one-for-one correspondences. For instance, the Judeo-Persian consistently translates it as mar (‘on’), while the Ladino translates it as a (‘to’). This causes these translations to use what linguists call “marked forms,” meaning that they sound strange to the native speaker. An English translation following the same principles might read “Ahead created God with the heavens and with the earth.” You can hear how odd that sounds!
All of the translations depicted here are from traditional Jewish sources, and they span several centuries. The Ladino, Judeo-Greek, and Judeo-Persian translations from the sixteenth century are some of the earliest printed Jewish works.
Translation is a tricky subject. As the old Italian expression goes, Traduttore, traditore - translator, traitor. To translate, one must balance the need to be understood and represent the target language authentically with the need to convey the original meaning precisely. Nowhere is the dichotomy of meaning versus form more acute than in the translation of sacred texts.
The Bible is written largely in Hebrew. This means that any Biblical text in another language is necessarily an interpretation of the original. So when translating the Bible into other languages, one must ask: accessibility or accuracy?
Traditional Jewish translations of the Biblical text, as can be seen in the image, often choose the latter. These hyper-literal "calque translations" end up sounding alien when compared to normative speech, using prepositions in extraordinary ways and twisting grammatical forms to more closely reflect the original Hebrew.
Things to consider:
For literature lovers: In your opinion, what should be the top priority for a translator? Does your opinion change when the text is considered sacred?
For critical thinkers: Why do you think traditional Jewish translations emphasize accuracy over accessibility? Do you think this was the right choice? Why or why not?
For anyone: Find one translation choice you wouldn't expect. Why does it surprise you? Why do you think it is used?