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This question is prompted by a specific case, but I'm asking a general question. This question is not, specifically, about the Aramean.

The specific case, for illustration:

I've seen two different translations for D'varim 26:5, and they are reflected in different haggadot. (A haggadah difference at my seder this year led to this question.)

JPS translates אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי as "A wandering Aramean was my father". This is the translation shown at Sefaria.org. On the other hand, my (print) Sapirstein Chumash with Rashi, and the Chabad site, translate it "An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather", presumably because Rashi interprets it thus (meaning Lavan). Answers to this question cite a variety of interpretations, and one suggests that the Rashi interpretation is more midrashic.

"An Aramean sought to destroy my father" is a pretty big deviation from "a wandering Aramean was my father". I'm used to Tanakh translations sticking a little closer to the words that are actually there -- not necessarily literal, of course, as there's no such thing as a completely literal translation, but this is the sort of thing where I'd expect a translation closer to p'shat accompanied by commentary (or a footnote if the edition isn't doing fuller commentary). This, in turn, makes me wonder what else might vary.

My biblical Hebrew is, eh, spotty. I rely on translations for fuller understanding. How can I tell when a translation is holding closer to the p'shat and when it's varying more? I'm interested in both p'shat and interpretation/midrashim; I just want to know when I'm looking at which. How should I do that? Are there any "markers" one can look for? Do certain translators tend to do more or less of this and I should choose a translation with that in mind? Or do they all do it some of the time and I should routinely check multiple translations?

This question is about translations in general. If you have interpretations of the example passage, I suggest you offer them on this question about that passage.

  • FWIW I'm not impressed with any of the answers there and don't think that is a simple case of Midrash vs Pshat. But your general question is valid. – Double AA Apr 27 '16 at 16:38
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    Looks like i arrived late at the party. To summarize Targum followed by Rav Saadya Gaon interpret it as referring to Lavan. All the other pashtanim, who generally do not incorporate midrash into their explanations interpret the Arami as referring to yaakov. This is because, as I recall Ibn Ezra writing, אבד does not mean "destroy". This would be מאבד. or perhaps איבד In general Targum Onkelos, Rav Saadya Gaon, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and Rabbenu Avraham ben HaRambam explain things non-midrashically (sometimes explicitly repudiating Midrashic interpretations.) – mevaqesh May 1 '16 at 17:02
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    In later times these is also Shadal who sticks to pshat. In general one should be aware that "pshat" can mean many different things. To Rashi it perhaps means taking each verse on its own and explaining each component of it. His concept of pshat does not incorporate context from other verses. Others, (e.g. Sasag, Rabenu Avraham ben HaRambam) consider pshat that which is rationalistic, even if it does not seem to conform with the more literal interpretation of the text. Accordingly, they interpret magic as being ineffective in spite of that not being the simplest read. Shadal, reads neither – mevaqesh May 1 '16 at 17:06
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    [cont.] Midrash, nor philosophy into his interpretation. – mevaqesh May 1 '16 at 17:06
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    In this case, the Midrashic interpretation has the benefit of a more natural read in that more often it has the subject followed by the verb, followed by the object. This is how we are most used to seeing sentences structured. However, it is forced to interpret a word in manner that is not consistent with general rules of grammar, and forced to compromise on consistency with context, since descent to Egypt was not tied to Lavan. Interpretation depending not only on one's preference for peshat or derash, but also ones approach to peshat – mevaqesh May 1 '16 at 17:14
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One technique that ought to help would be to consult a translation that includes a commentary that explicitly shows the sources behind each translation choice that's a matter of diverging interpretations and especially, that indicates explicitly any time the chosen translation deviates from the plain meaning. Then, you will at least have one translator's explicit testimony/opinion as to what translation is plainest, and if a translation you're evaluating is in accord with any of the meanings discussed by the translation/commentary, you'll have the translator/commentator's opinion of the status of that translation.

I would recommend, for this purpose, Onkelos On the Torah: Understanding the Bible Text, by R' Drs. (etc.) Israel Drazin and Stanley M. Wagner. The authors provide their own English translation of the Targum Onkelos Aramaic rendition of the Torah, and their commentary very thoroughly catalogues every instance in which case they consider Onkelos to be making a particular interpretive choice.

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    Caveat emptor? – WAF May 1 '16 at 22:00
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    @WAF well, sure. I wasn't aware of those criticisms, but I did deliberately qualify that what such a work (by anyone) would give you is the author's opinion. I can't vouch for the accuracy of every word in OotT, but I do get the string impression, having read parts of it, that the authors did an excellent job of flagging every single instance of what they consider to be an interpretative choice by Onkelos, a very broad set. This alone is very useful for the task at hand. – Isaac Moses May 1 '16 at 23:48
  • A good idea. Can you for example show the result of your technic with Arami oved Avi? – kouty May 1 '16 at 23:54
  • @kouty I plan to, the next time I'm in front of my books, beli neder. :) – Isaac Moses May 2 '16 at 2:09
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Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir) 1085–1158 was the grandson of Rashi and the brother of Rabbeinu Tam and noted for his devotion to the peshat.

So it would be good to check the Rashbam's comments where available in English (some in Sefaria).

He is quoted as saying,

"The sages have said a Biblical passage must not be deprived of its original meaning [on Gen. xxxvii. 1]. Yet as a consequence of the opinion expressed by them, that the constant study of the Talmud is one of the most laudable pursuits, commentators have been unable, by reason of such study, to expound individual verses according to their obvious meaning. Even my grandfather Solomon was an adherent of this school; and I had an argument with him on that account, in which he admitted that he would revise his commentaries if he had time to do so."

Rashbam's commentary on the possuk was mentioned in your quote and reads in my translation: “Avrohom was an Aramean, he strayed/wandered and was exiled from Aram.”

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Firstly, it would seem that is an obvious mistake to think that the translation derived from the Haggada is literal. But if someone says the answer is yes, he has someone to line on, we cannot just deny that.
Despite the great number of posts on the pshat of this verse "ארמי אובד אבי", I want to give my own contribution to understand that nothing is unequivocal.
My purpose is to show that both translations of the verse quoted in the OP, Sefaria and Chabad.org could claim to be literal. First I would list some Drashot from Gemara and Midrashe Halacha. In the next step I would try to understand the explanation of the Ibn Ezra Al Hatora and Radak in Sefer Hashorashim. And the last part would explain the MizrachiM and Gur Arie (Maharal) Al Hatora.

Drashot Chazal with Rishonim

Masechet Sota 32b Gemara and Rashi

It has been taught: R`Simeon B`Yohai said: A man should recount what is to his discredit in a loud voice.
Rashi
‏ וגנותו. כגון ‏ ‏ ארמי אובד אבי היינו גנותו שמתודין שאביהן לבן הארמי היה רשע ‏ ‏: ‏
His discredits, as "My father was an Aramean in perdition". Since their father, Laban the Aramean, was a bad man.
conclusion: Arami = Avi = Lavan.

Sifrey Devarim (on verse Deuteronomy 26, 5)

‏[כו, ה]‏ ואמרת לפני ה' ארמי אובד אבי -[גירסא של זהבה גרליץ, אתר דעת תשע"א]‏ מלמד שלא ירד להשתקע אלא לגור שם. שמא תאמר ירד ליטל כתר מלכות? [במהדורה עם פירוש ‏רבינו הלל ‏ הגירסא ‏ מלמד שלא ירד יעקב לארם אלא לאובד, ומעלה על לבן הארמי כאילו איבדו. ]‏ תלמוד לומר: ויגר שם. יכול באוכלוסין הרבה? תלמוד לומר: במתי מעט, כמה שנאמר בשבעים נפש ירדו אבותיך מצרימה (דברים י'). ויהי שם לגוי גדול - מלמד שהיו ישראל מצויינים שם. ‏
"And You will say before G_d Aramean 'oved' my father". We know that he do not tempted to stay there, but to passing through the region.
May be you could comment that he was looking for royal crown? The text indicates "He transited"... etc...
The first lecture is that Yaakov was a "stray citizen of Aram" (Arami). But the next Drasha in the version in square brackets is: There is counted for Laban the Aramean as if he killed Yaakov.
This Midrash exposes clearly both translations. The second is similar to the Drasha of the Agada
Yaacov = Arami = Oved
Avi = Yaakov; Lavan = oved (= killer)

Hagada shel Pessach

צא ולמד מה בקש לבן הארמי לעשות ליעקב אבינו. שפרעה לא גזר אלא על הזכרים ולבן בקש לעקור את הכול, שנאמר: ארמי אבד אבי, וירד מצרימה...‏
Everybody knows.

Onkelos, translation to Aramean

וְתָתֵיב וְתֵימַר קֳדָם יְיָ אֱלָהָךְ לָבָן אֲרָמָאָה בָּעָא לְאוֹבָדָא יָת אַבָּא‏
Lavan the Aramean wanted to kill my father.

Commentaries of Rishonim and Acharonim on Torah.

Ibn Ezra

אובד אבי. מלת אובד מהפעלים שאינם יוצאים ואילו היה ארמי על לבן היה הכתוב אומר מאביד או מאבד ועוד מה טעם לאמר לבן בקש להאביד אבי וירד מצרימה ולבן לא סבב לרדת אל מצרים והקרוב שארמי הוא יעקב כאלו אמר הכ' כאשר היה אבי בארם היה אובד והטעם עני בלא ממון וכן תנו שכר לאובד והעד ישתה וישכח רישו והנה הוא ארמי אובד היה אבי והטעם כי לא ירשתי הארץ מאבי כי עני היה כאשר בא אל ארם גם גר היה במצרים והוא היה במתי מעט ואחר כן שב לגוי גדול ואתה ה' הוצאתנו מעבדות ותתן לנו ארץ טובה ואל יטעון טוען איך יקרא יעקב ארמי והנה כמוהו יתרא הישמעאלי והוא ישראלי כי כן כתוב:‏
. The word Oved is an intransitive verb. If "Aramean" was Lavan, the verb should have been maavid or meabed It is not logical to say "Lavan wanted to kill my father and he go down to Egypt. There is no link between Lavan and going to Egypt. But the most likely is that Aramean was Yaakov... etc...

Radak, Sefer Hashorashim, "אבד"

ארמי אובד אבי, יעקב אבי היה אובד וקראו ארמי, לפי שגר בארם ושם היה אובד כי בצער גדול היה שם עשרים שנה, כמו שהתרעם על לבן ואמר הייתי ביום אכלני חורב וקרח בלילה...‏
Arami Oved Avi, Yaakov my father was stray, and we gave it the name Arami, because he lived in Aram, and thare he was stray. Because he suffered a lot twenty years, as he complained to Lavan... {This comment is very similar to the first statement of the Sifrey op. cit.}

Rabbi Eliahu Mizrachi parshat Ki Tavo

אבל חכמינו ז"ל העתיקו על פי קבלתם האמיתית איש מפי איש עד משה רבנו עליו השלום מפי הגבורה, שארמי הוא לבן והאובד הוא יוצא...‏
But our teachers transmitted ... that Arami is Lavan and Oved is transitive. {further he begin a length argumentation on grammar and concludes that the verb is transitive.}

Gur Arie

His way is similar to this to that of the Mizrachi, and he concluded, following the Rabbi Yaakov ben El'azar cited by Radak cited above (I not pasted it because I am not sure that Rabbi Yaakov says this about Arami Oved): Aramean was the perdition of my father (Lavan continuously wanted the perdition of Yaakov and was therefor called "perdition of Yaacov")

Conclusion

If someone have choosen to translate "An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather", he can say that it is a litteral traduction according to Mizrachi and Maharal.
But concerning the general scope of the O.P., this example is illustrative of the complexity of the topic and there is noway to know effortless what is the literal translation, including those who are able to reading hebrew, including Chachamim Gedolim.

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