"[E]very translation," Gadamer declares, "is at the same time an interpretation." This is now a cliché, and Gadamer, surely, was not the one who coined it. In class, I like to quote the saying attributed to the Israeli poet and translator, Haim Nahman Bialik: "Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through a veil."**
Gadamer goes on to say that those who read a translated text can only engage in an interpretation of the translator's interpretation, not the original. In the somewhat stilted prose of Gadamer's translators:
[H]aving to rely on translation is tantamount to two people giving up their independent authority. Where a translation is necessary, the gap between the spirit of the original words and that of their reproduction must be taken into account. But in these cases understanding does not really take place between the partners of the conversation, but between the interpreters. ... The requirement that a translation be faithful cannot remove the fundamental gulf between the two languages. ... Every translation that takes its task seriously is at once clearer and flatter than the original. Even if it is a masterly re-creation, it must lack some of the overtones that vibrate in the original. ... [T]ranslating is like an especially laborious process of understanding, in which one views the distance between one's own opinion and its contrary as ultimately unbridgeable. And, as in conversation, when there are such unbridgeable differences, a compromise can sometimes be achieved in the to and fro of dialogue, so in the to and fro of weighing and balancing possibilities, the translator will seek the best solution--a solution that can never be more than a compromise." (pp. 386-8)
When he turns to learning a foreign language, Gadamer sets the bar higher than is normally done in your typical Greek or Hebrew language class:
"To understand a foreign language means that we do not need to translate it into our own. When we really master a language, then no translation is necessary--in fact, any translation seems impossible. ... For you understand a language by living in it--a statement that is true, as we know, not only of living but dead languages as well. Thus the hermeneutical problem concerns not the correct mastery of language but coming to a proper understanding about the subject matter, which takes place in the medium of language. Every language can be learned so perfectly that using it no longer means translating from or into one's native tongue, but thinking in the foreign language. Mastering the language is a necessary precondition for coming to an understanding in a conversation. ... Everything we have said characterizing the situation of two people coming to an understanding in conversation has a genuine application to hermeneutics, which is concerned with understanding texts." (pp. 386-7).In other words, understanding the subject matter requires mastery of the language, and real mastery means living in the foreign language long enough to be able to think in it.
By this measure, I have a way to go before I reach fluency in Biblical Greek and Hebrew. But the limited progress I have made convinces me both that the effort is worth it and that we can do a better job learning and teaching the biblical languages if we make this sort of fluency the goal and then adopt best practices in second-language acquisition.
For helpful reflections on what this can look like, I heartily recommend Seumus Macdonald's blog, The Patrologist.
*For some of my other posts on learning Biblical Greek and Hebrew, see here, here, and here.
**What Bialik actually said was either "He who knows Judaism in translation is like one who kisses his mother through a veil" (Michael D. Schwartz's translation) or "He who knows Judaism through translation is like a person who kisses his mother through a handkerchief" (Liran Yadgar). The original Hebrew saying can be found here.