The positive contributions of interlinear Bibles

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Young woman studying Scriptures

As a student of Biblical Hebrew, I have been censured for asking for recommendations on what I call the absurdly literal translations of the Bible, or its twin sister, Biblical Hebrew interlinears. What is most amazing to me is the rapidity with which people are willing to dish out gratuitous advice and judgment—without pausing to ask how it is that I use these tools or why it is that I am interested in them. (Although my focus is on the Hebrew Bible, much of what is said here is generalizable to the Greek New Testament, also.)

In this paper, I will not only write about the valuable contributions of both interlinears and the absurdly literal translations of the Bible but also will provide a few recommendations. I realize that in a way, this article is not only about interlinears, but also concerns the dangers of generalizing beyond usefulness. Such oversimplifying lacks intellectual rigor.  

What are interlinears and literal translations?

Briefly, interlinears usually have a line from the Hebrew Scriptures, with each word or expression translated into English, usually on a line below. Those who utilize this tool can readily see how any word is translated from the Hebrew into the English (or another language) in the context of that verse. One of the best known interlinears was written by Jay Green, as is the excerpt I include below (Hebrew is read from right to left):

אֱלֹהִ֑ים  בָּרָ֣אבְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית
Godcreatedthe In beginning

Bible translations may be classified into various types, including the literal-tending renderings (word-for-word, or formal equivalence); dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought); as well as the paraphrase (functional equivalence, retelling). There is some variance as to how these labels are used, but the general idea is that the more literal translations attempt to preserve as much as possible the original language and expressions of the Hebrew text; while the dynamic approaches are more concerned with giving the clearest possible meaning of the text as it is understood today. While each type of translation has a role to play, I gravitate towards the literal. This is because the less literal versions end up interpreting Scripture for us to a greater extent. (Please also see my article King James Version: Not Obsolete, where I express my strong preference for the King James Version while noting that other translations may offer, from time to time, better translations.)

Generalizing beyond usefulness

Outsiders in any field quickly find that there are traditions. Some of these are vital while others keep us from seeing clearly. That is why outsiders, as well as those who are constantly questioning the whys behind the whats, can benefit from asking the unaskable. In today’s lingo, such questioning of cherished perspectives and willingness to test and retest hypotheses is called intellectual humility. Increased clarity and from time to time, more creative approaches may emerge.

I admit that at times I may annoy people because of my insistence in getting a real reason behind the way things are done, and not being content, nor impressed, by authoritative answers. I prefer to examine the idea rather than the person who offers it. (Of course, there are limits to such analysis. For me, theological issues constitute areas of thinking where I do not feel a constant need to question my faith.)  

I wish to share a couple of examples about traditions, from my own career in organizational psychology at the University of California, and the importance of questioning the way things are.

  1. A manager at one enterprise challenged me to mediate a conflict between two employees. Not knowing anything about such intervention, I knelt in prayer before proceeding. I freely admit that I could have gotten into much trouble by jumping into such an endeavor without proper training. At any rate, I felt inspired to meet with each of the parties separately in a pre-caucus and only after listening to each of them, bringing them together for a joint session. I sat away from the two parties during the joint session, thus permitting them to solve the dispute with very little interference on my part. That was 1992, and today this method, Party-Directed Mediation, has gained much acceptance among mediators. But at the time, I was told it violated numerous pillars of effective mediation.   
  2. In organizational psychology courses, students are often taught that pay does not motivate performance. While this may often be true, the real matter should be a response to the question, “Can pay motivate performance?” The answer is a resounding, yes! In one enterprise, for instance, worker productivity was doubled while the organization greatly improved the bottom line. All this because throughout my career I put myself in both the shoes of the employer and employee as I studied compensation systems.

In search for an absurdly literal Bible translation and interlinear

So, back to our topic. I have invited people to give their best reasons why interlinears and/or absurdly literal Bible translations ought to be avoided—or valued. Many individuals refuse to give a motive for their rejection with such dogmatic comments as: “If you really want to learn Hebrew you should not use them,” “These will just lead you astray,” “I am a professor at X or Y University or Seminary and tell you not to use those tools,” and even, “My professor said that if you have an enemy you should gift them an interlinear.”  

By reading several papers and listening to well-articulated opinions, I believe most of the reasoning behind the negative responses may be subsumed by these two:   

  1. The over-dependence that some language students develop over such tools (such as interlinears, overly literal translations, and electronic Bible software programs). 
  2. An emphasis on one person’s translation, be it an interlinear or a very literal version, may result in a poor understanding of the nuances of the language (in contrast to learning the grammar and the proper use of lexicons (i.e., language dictionaries that give the Hebrew along with the various ways these words are translated throughout the Hebrew Bible).  

What makes these tools useful?

Interlinears and the absurdly literal Bible translations are reference tools that permit me, as a Hebrew student, to (1) carve out a specific word in Hebrew to see how it is translated into another tongue; and (2) test my own translations. This is particularly useful because of the syntax of Semitic languages, as well as the use of Biblical expressions, is not common to most of us.

The KJV renders Isaiah 29:12: “And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned” (לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְתִּי סֵֽפֶר, Isaiah 29:12, emphasis added, BHS/WHM 4.2). As I studied this last clause, I am not learned, in Hebrew, I was thrilled to see some nuances that I was not aware of. Most especially, the word book, SEFER, סֵֽפֶר, jumped out at me. In Hebrew, it does not just say “not learned,” but rather, it is a matter of not being learned in the way of books (or scrolls).  

Although the KJV is among the literal translations, this piece of information is lost. Almost every modern version has some variation of either illiterate or not able to read, which certainly is not what the Hebrew says, either. Among the more literal versions, I did find a few that make it clear that this individual would not be book-learned (see, e.g., HRB, LITV, YLT, TLV and MKJV).

It was finding the word SEFER in the Hebrew text that made me turn to my interlinears to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. And then it was also instructive to do a survey of other Biblical translations to see how they dealt with this clause.  

Another interesting example is the use of idioms, such as that a person was a son of five years and seventy years rather than simply stating that he was a seventy-five-year-old man. With the right interlinear, the Biblical Hebrew student can clearly see (1) the use of the word son when dealing with age; (2) the repetition of the word year; and (3) the separation of the age into the five-year portion and the seventy-year portion. These details, then, help the student realize that she is on course when evaluating her own translation.  

Several interlinears, including Young’s interlinear, provide two levels of translation: a more literal version below the Hebrew words, and a translated column that irons out some of the quirks, so the material is more readable. I find both useful. I am often curious as to how an author will provide this one-step-removed translation.       

Although I could easily get carried away with examples, I will only mention one more. In Genesis 1:14, the Hebrew word between is twice dropped from most translations. For instance, the KJV has: “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night.” While arguably the word between may not add very important material in this case, and certainly does not need a double repetition as is found in the Hebrew, yet the Biblical Hebrew student benefits from checking his work against such a translation to make sure nothing was missed.  

Finding what I was looking for

In the example about preserving the word book in the Isaiah passage, I mentioned five translations that did so. Unfortunately for me, not one of these retains both instances of the word between in Genesis 1:14. Once again, the contribution of the absurdly literal interlinear, or the absurdly literal translation, can act as an excellent check on our understanding of the Hebrew text. And in some instances, this understanding illuminates the text in very rich ways (e.g., the idea of cutting covenants such as we see in Genesis 15:18 (בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא כָּרַ֧ת יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־אַבְרָ֖ם בְּרִ֣ית לֵאמֹ֑ר, BHS/WHM 4.2).

An acquaintance shared with me both the Concordant Version of the Old Testament; and the Concordant Interlinear (the latter includes both the interlinear as well as the column one-step-removed literal version in more readable English). Hebrew nouns have gender (as do most verbs and adjectives), and the interlinear preserves this and many other useful details for the language student. The column version, in order to avoid some of the more awkward constructions, substitutes symbols for words, such as the right chevron (>) for the letter LAMED, often translated as to. The PDFs of both of these tools are available as free downloads. So also, a very useful Scriptures for All software program.

Two important caveats before I conclude. First, in expressing how much I like and how useful the Concordant tools are, I am not agreeing with either the theology or the choice of vocabulary used. Nor am I suggesting that Concordance provides the best translation. Certainly, it is impossible to read, let alone translate, without interpreting the text. For this reason, an effort to avoid overdependence (in terms of accepting the translations without studying it out); and seeking of the guidance of the Spirit, are vital. Second, there are other good interlinears (e.g., the Lexham Hebrew-English Interlinear Bible, also see Bible Hub) as well as morphologically tagged Hebrew texts and diglots (e.g., Hebrew-English with side by side paragraphs, such as the Jewish Publication Society 1917 diglot) which are excellent tools. Furthermore, lexicons and studies of how various Hebrew words are translated throughout the Hebrew Bible can also be beneficial.  

Finally, no tool can make up for the hard work and long hours involved in learning another language, especially a Biblical one.

Conclusions   

Many traditions that are preserved today were often built on solid foundations. Even so, there is a need to constantly look for better ways of doing things. This means questioning the approaches we take without losing sight of the caveats. In the case of the absurdly literal Bible translations and interlinears, it is possible to use them to disadvantage when we avoid the hard work of learning Hebrew vocabulary, grammar and syntax. It is also a grave mistake to assume that the translations may not be improved upon. It is my hope that before we criticize others for how they go about learning—or doing something—that we give them the courtesy of considering how they are using the tools we disapprove of. The absurdly literal translations, as well as the well-designed interlinear, offer at least two very positive contributions for the Biblical Hebrew student: (1) being able to carve out specific words in the Hebrew text; and (2) testing our own translation of the Hebrew.

Photo Credit: Bethany Laird, unsplash

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Gregorio Billikopf belongs to the Llanquihue Branch, Puerto Montt Stake, in the south of Chile. He is the author of Isaiah Testifies of Christ and an emeritus academic of the University of California and professor of the University of Chile; author of Party-Directed Mediation: Facilitating Dialogue between Individuals and other books. Gregorio’s paternal grandparents are Lithuanian Jews and German Jews and on his mother’s side of the family he is Chilean. He found Christ through reading the Book of Mormon. You may contact him through bielikov2@yahoo.cl.

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