Aramaic Bible Translation Project Proposal

Victor Alexander ©1997-2015


The following are excerpts from a project proposal that I made in 1995 to the NEH, to translate the Ancient Aramaic Scriptures directly into English. The proposal was rejected because none of the mainline Protestant Churches nor the Catholic Church in the US approved the project.  Nevertheless, I commenced the translation on my own. Here is the original proposal.

Statement of Significance and Impact of Project

The purpose of this project is to translate the Bible from the original Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. In its present translations the Bible contains thousands of verses which do not rhyme or maintain any appreciable poetic structure, whereas the original Aramaic version is a masterfully written and poetically beautiful work. Besides considerations of style, there are extensive passages in the present English language versions that are translated so poorly from an idiomatic standpoint that the scholar, let alone the layman can hardly understand them. And there are two larger issues in the humanities, which will benefit by a non-denominational, authentic translation of the Bible according to standards of literary excellence. First of all, the major reason for the insistence of Western Biblical theologians that Greek was the original language of the Gospel can be traced to the original controversies between the Greek converts to Christianity and the founding Jewish Christians. In addition, a Bible translated from Aramaic, with total disregard for the influence of the churches will not contain racist connotations. Mostly theologians grinding their own ax have imposed these on it. The second consideration is to expose the influence that the Aramaic language has had on early English, Shakespearean English and subsequent literature and thought, because of the place of the Bible in English society throughout the Christian era. Therefore, restoring the Aramaic idioms and poetic constructions through a fresh translation from the original Aramaic, would likewise benefit American students and scholars of humanities in their renewed appreciation for the language of the Bible. The readership of the Bible [in authentic translation] would be dramatically expanded, since people of all cultures and religious backgrounds could read it for purely literary reasons. And the students of religion would find it a very profound work of theological thought. For the deeply religious Christian, it would be a breath of fresh air, as passage after passage begins to read with clarity, style and impact.

Narrative Description

The Bible has been translated into hundreds of languages. A new translation and the intellectual significance of the project is based on the literary considerations of providing a truly authentic translation of Scriptures, utilizing the know-how of literary styles and poetic structures of the two languages, the original Aramaic that Jesus spoke and modern American English.

The value of an idiomatic translation to scholars and general readers is an obvious one. We Americans know more than any other nation how foreigners and new immigrants introduce their own idioms in their efforts to communicate with us, and how sometimes unintended humor is the result. More significantly, total misunderstandings emerge out of the introduction of incompatible foreign idioms into English. In addition to this, when it comes to Aramaic, there are many letters with phonetic sounds that simply do not exist in English. And there is no really effective way in even approximating the sounds. Literally hundreds of significant words have been translated in error. In fact, in the case of translating the Bible, without going into literally pages and pages of examples to prove this point, allow me to state very simply that there is no other way to translate the Bible from the original Aramaic unless the translator knows the languages involved fluently.

As for idiomatic speech, the translator should have a strong feel for the tone, texture and mood of the words, phrases, idioms, expressions and figures of speech. Aramaic comes down from the earliest of times; the first writings were in pictographic form, then cuneiform and alphabetic, through to the first literature, and the recording of myths and legends of Mesopotamia. It is a very rich language, with profound twists and turns of expression, richly poetic, complex, exacting and flexible all at once. It is paradoxical, ironic and full of hyperbole, and yet ideal for presenting profound ideas.

The churches in modern times have simply failed to provide a proper translation of the Scripture from the original language of Jesus Christ. I can sympathize to a certain extent with the churches. Why stir up the issue of an authentic Aramaic language translation when the language itself has faded away from the expertise of so many church leaders?

There is no doubt about the significance of the material itself from an American cultural perspective, the US being predominantly a Judeo-Christian culture. However, the Christian theological establishment has decreed that Greek is the "original" language of the NEW TESTAMENT, despite the existence of voluminous proof that the Gospels were written in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke and the language of the Biblical lands at the time. My preliminary consideration of this project presents the obvious fact that of the thousands of poetic verses in the Bible, none rhyme in Greek or any other language and yet all rhyme in Aramaic. Surely to consider this coincidence is preposterous.

The project's potential contribution to scholarship in the humanities is in providing a clear translation of the message of Jesus, the greatest teacher who ever lived. By translating the dynamics of the language through its idioms, and retaining the poetic impact of its verses, without consideration for the differing interpretations of various theological schools, religious institutions or churches, the wisdom and elegance of the words of Jesus Christ will emerge more clearly.

The project's relationship to larger themes or issues in the humanities is the renewed historical perspective this translation offers, an airing of the prejudicial considerations of the so-called "Gentile" converts and the resulting jealousy and prejudice directed at the original Jewish Christians and their customs. Subsequently much of the alienation of the Jews in Europe owes to the continued emphasis on and the tangential interpretation of the Scriptures as God's gift to the "Gentiles," a totally erroneous concept if there ever was one. One need not go into all the ramifications of the constant repression against the Jews throughout history, based on strictly non-Scriptural misinterpretations of the European establishment, in order to see the humanitarian need for a non-prejudicial and therefore, by definition, authentic translation of the holy Scriptures. There is clear and systematic mistranslating that can be footnoted or presented in the final compilation of translator notes that will demonstrate the deliberate attempt committed by translators, that ended up destroying a significant bond that would have existed between the Jews and Christians from the very beginning, even if there was no meeting of the minds on theological matters to the very end.

The appropriateness of the research methods, critical apparatus, editorial policies, or translation approaches is evident in the translator's command of both languages. The critical apparatus applies to presenting comprehensive footnotes, encompassing transliterations of words that have no equivalents in phonetic pronunciation or meaning between the two languages, through a competent idiomatic translation. The editorial policies requiring extensive footnotes to define and clarify the literal and idiomatic wordings will be implemented throughout. And, lastly, the translation approach to the text of the Scripture is maintained at all times free of all prejudice, yet remaining incisive as to scholarly discernment and scrutiny in preserving its authenticity.

The appropriateness of selection criteria, the choice of texts for the translation will cover all mainstream and esoteric translations combined. This is important since it is mostly through the deliberate variations of interpretive translation that the critically important passages of Scriptures have become distorted and sometimes falsified, as in the case of the failure of certain denominations of recognizing the Triune essence of God, or the Trinity. It is furthermore important to compare all translations, because they frequently present all the possibilities of translating certain words. In the case of errors in translation, the intended meaning of the original idioms are easier to spot, since it is with such idiomatically critical passages that the biggest errors have occurred, and then in such cases the footnotes will expose the entire nature of the problem.

The most accurate original texts are of course the Galilean Aramaic that Jesus, the disciples and apostles spoke and wrote in. These are the primary texts. They are preserved only by the ancient Church of the East theologians. However, all other English translations are important, since they are the reason why a new, authentic translation is valuable insofar as comparative studies in the humanities are concerned.

The thoroughness and feasibility of the work plan can be demonstrated by the fact that I have already successfully translated the Gospel of John, the Three Letters of John, Revelation and the Gospel of Luke, which are posted on my page for your review.

The quality of the samples, and their transliteration will be carefully weighed according to their conformity and consistency with the authentic elegance of the style of the original Aramaic Jesus spoke.

And the appropriateness of the site will take into consideration the use of the best and oldest sources of the Books of the Bible. The different modern Aramaic versions of the Scriptures will be compared and carefully studies for intended idiomatic meanings, in the context of the texts and the cultures that embodied the specific scholarship that produced the variations of the idioms and styles of the Scripture. Furthermore, in the final index section, there will be references to the ancient literature and mythology of Ashur, Babylon, as well as all the other Biblical lands that corroborate and enrich the meaning and scope of the content and style of the Old Testament.

The quality and expertise of the staff and other contributors here applies to my capacity for undertaking the translation, transliteration and stylistic considerations of the Scriptures in both languages, the original Galilean Aramaic and American English. As a translator, I bring to the job a thorough, native Aramaic language competency, education and knowledge of the cultures of Biblical lands, together with a US University education and a degree (BA) in a communications field.

My expertise in translating is eclectic. I speak Aramaic (native language,) Arabic, Persian and Norwegian. I'm fluent only in English and Aramaic. I have a profound interest in dialects of various languages. I understand cultural perspectives through extensive travels and have studied anthropology at the university through elective courses.

At this time I don't contemplate using collaborators; however, I may use some editorial help if the need arises. If I should do this, it will be only on a marginal basis.

The quality and usefulness of the resulting publication will be significant and extensive, because of the revival of Christianity in the last decade in America, especially as evidenced through the numerous religious broadcasts on television and radio. There is a tremendous need for a translation of the Bible that can withstand the acid test of our times, both negative and positive. And I intend to deliver it.

The benefit to the audience is a renewed appreciation for the elegance of the texts of the Scripture, an enjoyment of the poetic impact of the verses, a fuller and more idiomatic understanding of the Bible. American readers can finally have an authentic translation, no matter what faith or background they come from.

The soundness of the dissemination plans in print are obvious, especially since the US religious institutions and missionaries are deeply committed to disseminating the Bible throughout the world. An authentic translation of the Bible will present the American people's intentions of good will to all nations through the support for an unbiased translation of the Bible. A Bible translation that does not include deliberate distortions of a racist and bigoted nature, which were designed over centuries by church hierarchies for the specific purpose of excluding certain people or religious groups from the power and financial control of religious institutions.

Furthermore, all people can appreciate a translation, which is free of errors. And then it can also generate a sense of unity and reduce friction among all people, because the Bible in its pure form is the instrument of God's Grace upon mankind.

The dissemination through other media can follow the same extensive means already in use, such as CD-ROM, computers, Internet and other traditional broadcast media.

Project Staff

My interest in translating the Bible from Aramaic started out a long time ago, however I was not aware of the lack of an authentic translation, until my wife prodded me into studying certain specific passages and Books she was interested in. Originally, I was interest in the religious heritage of the Ashurai people. Being a descendant of a very small ethnic minority, the Ashurai, I began reading the Bible to corroborate some of the historical books being written about Mesopotamia and the cultures that emerged from that land. I discovered that the Bible contained certain strange and unintelligible passages. At first I was not very concerned about these, because like most people I considered the Bible as a strictly religious book, esoteric in scope and somehow the domain of religious people, a sort of private phenomenon that need not be the concern of the "man on the street."

However, a revival of Christianity and the proliferation of religious programming on television are a growing phenomena of recent years, and they have begun to show their effects on the secular world of the average American. Furthermore, religious groups and institutions now are fielding their own political candidates for office. Although somewhat naiive to think that religion was not a big influence on American politics before, I see now that religion has always been a major influence.

Before starting my translation project, I looked around me and saw, in this town where I live, over fifty churches. Only fifty thousand people live here. A dozen religious broadcasts a week, that I am aware of, reach us here. There are hints from every one of them that they have the "True Gospel." There was such a tremendous inclination to dust off the old family Aramaic language Bible and find out a thing or two. However, it was finally my wife who urged me to translate. Her study and devotion to the Words of Jesus Christ compelled me to undertake the work.

After I studied the Bible and compared texts between different versions, it suddenly dawned on me that there really was no competent translation! I searched some more. As unbelievable as it seemed, it was true. Then I thought, surely, who am I, a layman, to even think of translating the Bible? Did I truly have the competence to do justice to the job? I looked around me and talked to many experts, scholars and clergy alike, and I came to the conclusion, amazingly, that I was probably one of the rarest of translators who had the most extensive and powerful understanding of both the languages of the Scriptures and modern American English.

Yes, I do understand Aramaic to a profound level. I went to an Aramaic language school. It was a Presbyterian Church school. Our two teachers were both from Urmia, Iran, where the Aramaic language scholarship was the dominant force in Ashurai cultural life and where most of our best literary people came from. I studied religion and language from the first grade, in the language Jesus spoke! I continued my education at an American Jesuit high school, from the time I was twelve, entering the seventh grade. I studied religion with Father Merrick. I got an "A" in the course based on my presenting a final assignment on the "Proof of the Existence of God." I studied Latin at Regiopolis College in Kingston, Ontario, during my eleventh grade. Later, I completed my high school in San Francisco in 1962. I entered college and finally graduated in 1970, from the San Francisco State University, with a BA in Filmmaking.

Aside from my interest in world literature, I have studied American literature extensively. From the early sixties, as an eighteen-year-old, I began to write and kept a journal. In 1967, I began my first novel. I have taken many writing and literature courses. I have recently published a book on my knowledge and experiences in the film industry. I have made documentaries about Mesopotamian artifacts in the museums in London and Paris, the British Museum and the Louvre respectively. My knowledge and expertise in American English is extensive. I bring a great deal more to the job as a translator, but this for now is sufficient with respect to an overview of my competence in the two languages.

Project Methodology

The original texts of the Bible are strangely enough available in print. The Christian world does not know that they are the originals, because almost no one can read and understand them, or even discern their authenticity, since the original language is dormant. Therefore, I am not affected by the controversy as to which is the oldest found version of the Bible at all. As I am dealing with the original Aramaic idioms, transliterating the verses and maintaining true idiomatic readings, as well as Aramaic poetic construction, my main concern is recovering the original meanings of the passages, especially the words that Jesus spoke. Authoritative texts are freely available and shall be used for comparison, such as the 1611 King James version, the Standard American Bible, the Concordance, the New American Version Bible (the St. Thomas Edition,) the New International Version and so on, including the Greek and Latin versions as well.

My interest is primarily in translating the Aramaic into American English, since Jesus' words are the most important from the perspective of what Christianity and the Christian Bible are all about.

Dealing with errors is a very sensitive issue when it comes to the Bible. I intend to provide extensive and ample footnotes whenever my translation corrects an outright error; however, if the passage or word in question is acceptable but poorly translated, then I will merely give a better idiomatic translation. However, I will use extensive notes on the translation in the forward to the Bible.

There are no serious problems posed by the translation, except for the fact that some of the concepts that have been embraced by certain denominations have created major obstacles to a clear understanding of the Bible. Only careful, comparative study of my translation against all other translations, including the Greek "Original", can lead to a clear understanding of the true words of Jesus Christ and the holy Bible.

The introduction and annotations to the translation will deal with the main reasons why a new translation is essential, namely that Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic and that the idioms and the poetic elegance of his words have never been properly translated before. There will be ample annotations to identify various passages in Aramaic, both in literal and idiomatic translations, and I will clarify all relevant details and differences between my translation and other translations.

[Aramaic New Testament paperback cover]The Aramaic New Testament is the paperback edition
of my translation with footnotes,
516 pages, 5.5x8.5x1.3 inches paperback, font size 11. It is $50 (includes shipping.)

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