Saturday, March 13, 2010

Can Google Translate the Bible?

Machine translation dates back to the earliest days of computing. “The Georgetown Experiment” in 1954 involved the translation of sixty Russian sentences into English. In an IBM Press Release issued back in the day, Prof. Leon Dostert hopefully predicted “that five, perhaps three years hence, interlingual meaning conversion by electronic process in important functional areas of several languages may well be an accomplished fact. (whatever he meant by that).
Recently, Google has been offering Google Translate, a free service, that provides immediate bi-directional translation in 55 languages, Hebrew Arabic, and Yiddish included.
It does a pretty good job with this blog, a result that is readily apparent if you pull down your language of choice and press translate.  But could it handle the Bible?
The Tanach, of course, has been translated many times.
Most probably, it was first translated (by hand, of course) into Greek for the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt, around 250 B.C.E. This translation is known as the Septuagint, for the seventy scholars who labored over it. The Gemara in Tractate Berakhot 8a says,  Rav Huna bar Yehuda in the name of Rabbi Ammi: "one should always complete the reading of one's weekly Torah portion with the congregation.” This statement was interpreted to require the ritual of Shnayim mikra ve-echad targum, referring to twice reciting the Hebrew text and once reciting Targum Onkelos, an Aramaic  translation and commentary on the Pentatuch. Aramaic was the language of the Jews of Babylonia. Other early Jewish translations include the Targum Yonatan on the Prophets, and Targum Yerushalmi, both into dialects of Aramaic. Two other translations, composed at the beginning of the common era were the Peshitta into Syriac, and the Vulgate into Latin.
Over the years, the Bible  has since has been translated into at least 2,400 of the 6,900  languages listed by the “Summer Institute of Linguistics,” a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to study, develop and document languages.
A website called has 22 searchable translations into English, and 54 languages sport at least one searchable translation.
But Biblical translation is a treacherous business, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
The Talmud records (B. Talmud Megilla, 3a) that when Jonathan ben Uziel translated the Prophets into Aramaic that “the land of Israel quaked over an area of 400 parasangs by 400 parasangs.” Moreover, the Tosefta warns (Megillah 4:41 )that “he who translates a verse literally is a falsifier, and whomever makes additions to it is a blasphemer.” Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Undeterred by these dire warnings I fed the Masoretic text of the ten verses of Psalm 8, which the late Biblical Scholar, Professor Nahum M. Sarna called “unique in the Psalter” into Google Translate. After all, I wasn’t the one doing the translation, so the risks seemed manageable.
No. dice. The translation was unintelligible.
A few examples amply make the point.
The Jewish Publication Society’s translation of 1985 (NJPS) renders verse 3 as “3From the mouths of infants and sucklings You have founded strength on account of Your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger.” Google came up with: “from infants, links - I founded - a goat: John   For Tzorrich; disable enemy, revenge.” NJPS renders verse 5  as “4When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place;” the best Google could do was “that - see Shmich, act Azvatich  D- Moon and stars, which shank.”
A side-by-side comparison of the Hebrew, NJPS, and Google’s translation is available at
56 years after Dr. Dostert’s  prediction, human study and effort is still as indispensible as ever for understanding and appreciating the Tanach. 

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