December 25, 2011

The Nitty Gritty of Translation: A Few Examples of the Process

Filed under: Translation Notes — James Tabor @ 10:28 am

Most English translations generalize or fall back on theological and traditional commonplaces when it comes to translating the nuances and details of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. For example, there are five different words used to describe a “human being;”  seven separate words for “sin;” and a of tired and true “theological” words like atonement, redemption, salvation, soul, spirit; angel, Torah, priest,  that sit comfortably with most Bible readers but are highly misleading in terms of conveying the original meanings of the Hebrew or Greek. Even seemingly meaningless details such as how to bring across in English countless verbs and nouns that have two or more forms, but need careful distinction (what is the difference between a “rod” and a “staff,” or a “mantle” and a “cloak,” or a “congregation” and an “assembly”?). And then there is always the perennial key question—how literal should we be, and when should we smooth things out and use explanatory notes? As we work forward we also constantly go back and make revisions in what we have done; improving things in ways that few would notice but in the end will make all the difference in terms of the absolutely unique quality of our work.

Here are a few examples of some of these details from Exodus:

In Exodus 8:12 [v. 8 in the Hebrew] we read “Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh.” Seems like simple matter and all the major translations put it that way. However, the Hebrew verb is actually singular—what it actually says is that “Moses went out—and Aaron—from with Pharaoh.” Now I realize this is a bit awkward in English, and the meaning probably is not different, but our goal in the TEB, even in places where it might seem insignificant, it to give you precisely what the original says. What difference does it make, one might ask, whether one says “out from Pharaoh” or “out from with Pharaoh”? Maybe none at all, but both are found in various places and they are not the same expression, so in the TEB you get a faithful reflection of the Hebrew text—and you are informed that the verb is singular, not plural. Actually I think there is some subtle meaning to this fine distinction. Using the singular verb seems to give Moses priority. They both “went out,” but Moses first—and Aaron. This way of speaking occurs frequently in Hebrew and we had already indicated this several places in Genesis.

Take a look at Exodus 13 in the TEB. Here you have a long set of instructions given by Moses to the Israelite people regarding the Passover. What is really interesting is to follow the switch between the singular and the plural 2nd person pronoun “you” in the first sixteen verses. In v. 3 it is “you (plural) went out from Egypt,” and in v. 4 it is “Today you (plural) are going out,” but in v. 5 it switches to “when YHVH makes you (singular) come toward the land.” The narrative then switches to the singular, so that the instructions are very personalized through the rest of this section.

In this regard, take a guess. Do you think the commands “you shall do this” and “you shall not do that” in the Ten Words (Commandments) are singular or plural? After all, Moses is addressing the whole nation. One might expect the plural. But in fact, all the pronouns in Exodus 20:1-17 are singular. It begins: “I am YHVH your (singular) ELOHIM who made you (singular) go out from the land of Egypt . . .” (v.2). The same with the positive admonitions (Remember the Sabbath, honor your parents), as well as the negative prohibitions that follow (You shall not murder, et al.). It is as if each and every single person is being addressed personally.

Exodus 17:3 is really interesting in this regard. The people are grumbling against Moses and they say, “You have made us go up from Egypt to make me die and my sons.” All the standard translations read “to make us die and our sons,” even though the Hebrew has a clear switch from the plural to the singular—thus personalizing the complaint. It might not make much difference in essential meaning, but again, why not put what the Hebrew has and let people make of it what they wish? In v. 6 of this same chapter is another interesting example. Moses is told “you shall strike in the rock,” rather than “you shall strike the rock.” Perhaps there is not much of a difference but if you read carefully the entire passage you might notice something of significance in this regard.

We are actually being very careful with words like “he spoke,” vs. “he said,” which I am sure no one cares much about, but the expressions are different in Hebrew. For example, in Exo 5:10 we read “And the ones oppressing of the people, and its overseers, went out and they said toward the people, saying…” where you might expect it to say “they spoke toward the people saying.” Actually, as we point out in a note, the Dead Sea Scrolls have “they spoke toward the people saying.”

With the TEB you get it all—even in small and seemingly insignificant matters such as these.

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