Watch the blanding at work in your translation

Posted: July 15, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

Why do so few of our people want to read their bible? Let’s take a look at some of the quirky and colourful writing in early Genesis. See how good it could be, and how it gets blanded:

Genesis 3:6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, (TNIV)

except it really says, “the woman saw that that the tree was good for food, and a lust to the eyes“.

The tree is an object of strong desire. ‘Pleasing’ or ‘delightful’ sanitises this of its sense of lust. And how memorable it would have been if they’d left it in!

Genesis 4:5 Cain was furious, and he was downcast.  (Holman)

except it really says, “Cain was furious and his face fell.”

A vivid bodily image. Lost.

When Seth comes along Eve sings:

Genesis 4:25  “God has given me another child in place of Abel” (Holman)

which is really   “God has given me other seed in place of Abel”.

Seed is such a key Jewish concept. So frequently used, from Genesis 1 onwards. And so earthy and memorable. Translated out of existence.

Genesis 15:4 “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” (TNIV)

is really “one coming forth from your belly/loins will be your heir.”

The graphic and particular sexual connection of this, who could ever forget it? We all could, once it becomes the more general and asexual ‘coming from your own body’. Thanks TNIV.

Genesis 16:4        When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. (TNIV)

is really  “And she saw that she had conceived, and her mistress became slight in her eyes.”

The verse is all about what Hagar sees, and how she sees things. What a delicious eastern phrase for despising: ‘became slight in her eyes’. All gone in the TNIV. It gives a nice bland paraphrase of the whole thing.

Genesis 18:3     Abraham said, “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant.   (NRSV)

is really  “My lord, if I find favour in your eyes

The concrete bodily imagery of eyes is just erased.

Genesis 18:11          Sarah had passed the age of childbearing.   (Holman)

is really  “Sarah had ceased to have the woman’s way.”

Holman chastely backs off from this menstrual reference. And then we get

Genesis 18:12    “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”   (NRSV)

which is really   “After I am shrivelled/wasted, shall I have pleasure, and my lord is old?”

Sarah chooses this very physical word ‘wasted’ to describe herself, probably to describe her vagina. Can they still perform the deed? – and then an afterthought: Abe himself is an old cogger!

The TNIV tries to sanitise further with “Will I now have this pleasure?” – implying the pleasure of a child.

-whereas Sarah is likely thinking of the improbable pleasure of sexual intercourse. First things first! “Shall I have pleasure in my condition – and he in his?!”

This remarkable and memorable scene loses much of its intimacy and impact through these stale paraphrases.

When Abraham goes to sacrifice Isaac, Yahweh tells him:

Genesis 22: 18         “all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”   (TNIV)

which is really  “all nations on earth will be blessed because you listened to my voice.”

The TNIV loses this concrete, body-related phrase ‘listened to my voice’. This vivid phrase also revisits the vivid encounter scenes from earlier in the episode, in which God spoke out loud to Abram, and he answered. There were three of them  – which one is Yahweh refering to here? Possibly all three. One reason the nations will be blessed through Isaac is because Abram listened when the angel called out ‘Stop!’

When Abraham loses his wife, we get a scene full of fascinating detail, bargaining with the Hittites:

Genesis 23:8   “If you have it in your hearts that I should bury my dead here before me…”

– at least it would be fascinating except that the Holman cuts it to 

“If you are willing for me to bury my dead, ”  

Again a concrete bodily image ‘if you have it in your hearts’, and a visual presence-heightening device ‘here before me’  are both erased, leaving a bland result.

Abraham pays the Hittites for a burial site:

Genesis 23:16    400 silver shekels passed by the merchant

A vivid detail: the silver or its weight has to be approved by the expert.  Vivid, that is, until the Holman gets to it:

400 shekels of silver, at the current commercial rate  (Holman).

Gone is the merchant, and his approval process. Never mind that the Holman phrase is meaningless: even worse, it’s boring.

When Abraham’s servant suggests taking Isaac back to Mesopotamia, Abe reacts strongly:

Genesis 24:6     “Watch yourself, lest you take my son back there!”

Helpfully toned down by the Holman, to remove the visual element and the strong emotion:

“Make sure that you don’t take my son back there.

When the servant arrives in Nahor’s town, he stands at the well and prays a memorable prayer:

Genesis 24:12     “Yahweh God of my master Abraham, make something happen before me this day.”

Not so memorable  in the NRSV: “…please grant me success today”.

So much for Abraham’s story. Wait till you hear  what they did to Jacob!

Is there no way out of this morass of blandness? There is. Robert Alter’s translation.


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