I’m not an expert in translation theory, but experience has taught me a couple of things. First of all, a mastery of both source and target languages is the fundamental prerequisite for the work of translation. By mastery, I mean the ability to engage in simultaneous translation from one language to the other, unaided by a dictionary.
The mechanisms by which this skill level is attained are various. Mastery of a modern language usually requires full immersion of 8 to 16 months. Or bilingualism may be accomplished in fits and spurts, as in the case of my children, whose mother tongue (literally) is Italian, but whose primary language outside of the home is English. Their Italian is latent most of the time, but comes out fine and continues to improve in an Italian-only environment, as when in Italy with cugini e amici.
In the case of
an ancient language, a degree of bilingualism can be attained and should be
attempted. Trained in the old school, I did all the English-to-Hebrew exercises
in Jacob Weingreen’s Classical Hebrew Composition (Oxford: Clarendon,
1966 ) under the tutelage of Menahem Mansoor. Those of us who did this
sweat bullets along the way, but I know of no better way to attain bilingualism
than by moving from source to target language and back again. Want to get good
at translating from Hebrew to English? Learn to translate from English to
The other way
was listening to audio tapes of portions of the Tanakh until I got to the point
where I could understand what was being said both word-for-word and in terms of
Gestalt perception, such that I could translate from the tape simultaneously. It
is also an excellent way to memorize Scripture. Thanks to Gary Martin of the Academy of Ancient Languages, anyone may do this today from the comfort of their home. Go here.
Mansoor liked to tell his students the story of an atheist he knew in Israel who knew all the psalms by heart. It was an effective way of needling pious Christians into doing likewise. He gave me a pocket edition of the Psalms in Hebrew as a gift, and clearly expected me to memorize as many of the Psalms as I could. He also liked to tell us the story (perhaps apocryphal) of the first students of divinity at Yale (or was it Harvard?) who were required to memorize Psalm 23 in Hebrew so that, if and when they made it to heaven, they could chime in with the angels.