Posts Tagged ‘bible translation’

Chapter 2

It happened in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first census to occur while Quirinius was governing Syria. And everyone was travelling to enrol, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth to Judea to the city of David called Bethlehem – for he was of the house and lineage of David – to enrol with Mariam his betrothed who was pregnant. And it happened while they were there that the days were completed for her to give birth and she bore a son, her firstborn, and wrapped him and laid him in a feeding-trough, for there was no place for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds in that region camping out and keeping guard over their flock in the night. And an angel of the Lord stood before them and the shining glory of the Lord surrounded them, and they were gripped by terror. And the angel said to them, “Fear not! For I am announcing to you good news of great joy which will be for all the people. For born to you today is a Saviour who is Messiah Lord in the city of David. And this will be for you the sign: you will find the child wrapped and lying in a feeding-trough.”

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a huge host of the army of heaven, praising God and saying

Glory in the highest to God!
and on earth, peace among the people of his favour!

Gains? Generally a streamlined, faster pace with simpler syntax. This emphasises how the birth narrative is raced through quickly, in barest summary form, no lingering on details. Then the pace slows down for the shepherds’ scene, we get details, emotions, etc.

There’s a nice bit of ambiguity in the greek for ‘born to you today is a Saviour who is Messiah Lord in the city of David.’ Is he born in the city of David? Or is he Lord in the city of David – since he is Messiah? Which city is the city of David anyway? Thus the whole issue of Jerusalem and its relation to Messiah is introduced here obliquely. But it will come to dominate the narrative.

Luke 1: 26-38

And the people were awaiting Zechariah, and they began to marvel at his delay in the sanctuary. And when he came out he could not speak to them, and they understood that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. And he could only gesture to them, and remained mute. And so it was, when his days of temple-service were complete, he went home.

And after those days Elizabeth his wife conceived, and she confined herself five months, saying, “This is what the Lord has done for me, in the days when he looked upon me to take away my disgrace among the people.”

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to the Galilean town named Nazareth, to a virgin who was betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the name of the virgin was Mary. And coming near her, he said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But at this word she startled and wondered what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel told her,

Fear not, Mary, 
for you have found favour with God,
And look! you will conceive within your womb 
and bear a son
And you will call his name Jesus.
This one will mighty be,
and ‘Son of the Most High’ will he be called.
And the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father,
and he will reign over the house of Jacob for all ages
and of his kingdom there will be no end.

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since no man have I known?”

And the angel answered her, saying,

The Holy Breath will come upon you
and the power of the Most High overshadow;
And so the holy one born will be called Son of God.

“And look, Elizabeth your relation, even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who is called ‘barren’. For nothing shall be impossible with God.”

And Mary said “Here stands the slave-girl of the Lord. Amen, let it be for me according to your word.” And the angel left her.

What gains are there here?

Elizabeth’s speech actually sounds Jewish. That’s nice. The introduction of Mary occurs in a long, fast-paced sentence, very paratactic. A lot of intro in one breath!

There is the more sensory, aural effect of ‘At this word she startled’  – being greeted by an angel was scarey! There is the concrete bodily imagery of ‘conceive within your womb’ – politely excised by the Holman.

The song brings out the many parallelisms and verse pairings so typical of Jewish poetry: you will conceive/and bear a son. It ends with a triple parallel.

The one line of the poem that doesn’t have a parallel is the naming of the child. By standing alone, this instruction stands out like a highlighted saying. It will of course need to be remembered later, when Luke shows us Mary and Joseph giving their child the name the angel told them. (Luke 2:21)

Mary’s query also sounds Jewish. ‘Servant’ is too weak for doulos: here ‘slave-girl’ is more nuanced and gender-specific as in the greek. Also more interesting!

“Amen” is something Old Testament Jews said a bit, indicating agreement. It didn’t sound especially religious, just emphatic. It’s nice to bring out this Hebraism that Luke puts in his text.

Robert Alter has spent a lifetime thinking about how Hebrew texts work. He has helped a lot of us read these texts better through his book, The Art of Biblical NarrativeIn his own translations he shows us the fruit of his thinking, shows what can be done with a sensitive and informed reading of the texts.

The results are a little surprising. Reading Alter’s translation is not like reading anyone else’s. It may take some time to get used to. It took me a while. That’s because he’s doing a whole bunch of stuff other translations aren’t doing. In fact, he’s doing stuff other translations never even dreamed of.

Most of our translations take an ‘engineers’ approach. They’re a bit mathematical. They consider the Hebrew word or phrase, they ask, what does it mean? Language is about meaning, so the great task of the translator is clarity.

So they analyse the grammar, find out who is subject and what is object, how the grammatical machinery is working, they determine word meaning – and then they try to render the whole in English. Then they move on to the next word or phrase. That’s about it. When the text has complexities such as imagery, they often end up giving an English ‘explanation’ or decoding of them – committing what Alter calls ‘the heresy of explanation.’ The end result is hopefully nice to read, but it communicates pretty much just through word and phrase meanings: very limited as a piece of writing. A bit mathematical.

So the reading is limited, and the writing is limited. There is communication loss at both ends. And the ‘decoding’ approach means that there is loss in the middle also. Overall, too much is lost. Alter writes, ‘The general result…is to reduce, simplify and denature the Bible’. And, I would add, to ‘de-culture’ it.

Alter starts his project with a different approach to reading. For Alter, the text communicates and functions in many different ways, not just by word and phrase meaning. So he tries to employ as many of these dimensions as possible to render the text in English. The result is a complex expressive creation – like the Hebrew!

Clarity is not always the goal. In fact it is only one aspect of a translation, for language is a quirky and playful thing. Often it functions by obscuring meaning, encoding it in metaphor, blurring it in ambiguity, veiling it in enigma etc. This playfulness is an integral part of language and should itself be translated as much as possible.

Here are some of the many ways the Hebrew text functions and conveys meaning.

cultural flavour – one thing about the Pentateuch writing is that it’s Jewish. Very Jewish! The flavour of that culture, the fact that the stories are about and by and for those particular people, that’s important, and worth translating. It gives us the cultural setting or context in which the stories make sense. Alter does this in many ways, one of the chief of which is:

rhythm – texts use rhythm to convey meaning. When Joseph is propositioned by Potiphar’s wife, his stream-of-consciousness, wordy reply strongly suggests panic: he’s in a flap. The rhythm gives it away. Also, the Semitic flavour of the texts is partly encoded in the Semitic rhythms which they employ. Notable in this regard is the frequent use of the same conjunction, waw, (= and). Where English likes to vary, Hebrew likes the rhythmic effect produced by sameness of conjunction. Alter creates this rhythm in English, and it’s a bit weird at first. Feels foreign! Which is the point. Stay with that rhythm for a bit, and you’re back in the Ancient Near East!

The other distinctive thing about Hebrew rhythm is its briefness. Hebrew prose won’t use three syllables where two will do. It tends to avoid wordy phrases. This makes for a streamlined, fast-moving, compact narrative style that sounds well out loud.

metaphor – Hebrew is fond of earthy metaphor, imagery taken from everyday life, and especially from the human body. These images have their own cognitive and emotive effects on the reader/hearer. Texts don’t just mean things: they do things. If you ‘decode’ these metaphors, you lose a whole dimension of meaning and function in the text. The Holman and the NIV are especially bad in this regard. More paraphrased translations in general are bad here.

repetition – where English loves the variety of synonyms, Hebrew loves repetition. A tightly limited vocabulary is deliberately used again and again. This gives an earthy simplicity and rhythmic musicality to the writing which makes it listenable and memorisable.

intertextuality – a specialised form of repetition. A word or phrase or image from one place will recur in another narrative context, creating an echo. The Joseph cycle is full of such echoes, regarding hands, memory, lordship, etc. These echoes convey meaning, they create links. Intertextual echoes are a device by which the writer can comment on the action and its significance. If the word or phrase is translated the same way each time, the echoes can be heard. If the word or image is translated differently each time, the echoes are lost.

These are some of the main ways in which, for Alter, the Hebrew text communicates. It doesn’t just mean something, it does things: it surprises, puzzles, delights, confuses, and moves. It dances and sings, and skips along at a cracking pace. It penetrates the mind with its terse and emphatic rhythms. It subtly betrays the feelings, intentions, and motives of the characters.

And all of this, all of these dimensions, are waiting to be rendered in English. This is the sophisticated, indeed breath-takingly demanding task that Alter has taken upon himself. Other translators, it seems, aren’t even aware of half of these dimensions of the language. But Alter is, and he is at least trying to translate them.

How does he do? Pretty well, actually. It’s not perfect. He is constantly stretching the expressive capacities of English, and sometimes the stretch is a bit far. But overall, this is a work of genius. It conveys so much more of the Hebrew text than our usual versions do, that there’s really no comparison. This is translating at a different level altogether.

It’s not in easy English. You may not wish to read it in your church. But read it at home, and be enriched and refreshed. Give it some time, and it will reward you with new riches from the glories of the Hebrew Scriptures.

joseph-and-his-coat-of-many-coloursThe Joseph story is full of vivid and poignant images. Until our translations iron them out. Here are some of them:

Genesis 37:19    They said to one another “Here comes that dream-lord!” 

Joseph is only lord in his dream-world: that’s the point of the brothers’ sarcastic remark. ‘Let’s kill him. Then we’ll see how his dreams turn out.’ This sets the great question for the Joseph saga: are Joseph’s visions of lordship just a dream, or is it future reality?

At least it would set that question, if only our translations managed it. But actually they give us ‘Here comes that dreamer.’ So the whole lordship question is watered down.

Potiphar’s wife’s advance on Joseph is breathtakingly vivid:

Genesis 39:6     Now Joseph was handsome in form and handsome to behold.

And it happened after these things that his master’s wife raised her eyes to Joseph and said ‘Lie with me’.

Those eyes! And that aggressive sexual imperative. Just two Hebrew words. Leaves you tingling.

Or maybe not. In the TNIV it becomes ‘after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” ‘

Next she disrobes Joseph:

39:12 She seized him by his tunic, saying “Lie with me!” But he left his tunic in her hand and he fled and got out… And she called out to the servants and said “Look…he left his tunic beside me and fled and got out.”

The significance of the garment is clearly sexual. She disrobes him, and then claims that he had disrobed himself, the abandoned tunic being the ‘evidence’ of a sexual assault. Meanwhile Joseph is out there somewhere in his undies, like the disciple in Gethsemane in Mark’s Gospel.

The TNIV chastely covers all this by translating. “But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.” A cloak. Nice one. Why not go for ‘cardigan’?

There is an image running through the Joseph story, the bodily image of hands.

Genesis 39:22 The prison warden placed in Joseph’s hands all the prisoners…

Whose hands things are in – that’s a big deal in the Joseph stories. The image is used over 30 times. But not in the Holman!

“The warden put all the prisoners who were in the prison under Joseph’s authority”

The concrete, bodily image is nowhere to be found. It is routinely suppressed:

Genesis 41:42   “Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger.” (TNIV)

Should be ‘on Joseph’s hand’. And so on. Perhaps the key image of the whole cycle – missing.

When Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt, Joseph accuses them using a repeated bodily image:

Genesis 42:9      You are spies! To see the land’s nakedness you have come!

This image of ‘seeing the nakedness’ comes from the vocabulary of sex crimes. Joseph claims they have come to spy on the land in its famine-struck condition, and this is a violation.

The TNIV once again erases the vivid imagery, and also misses the point of the saying: It reads “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

Joseph and his brothers have a night of drinking:

43:34        and they drank, and they got drunk with him.

Our Bibles don’t like to see a Patriarch getting drunk, so we get

“So they drank and were merry with him.” (NRSV)   Merry. Cheerful. Like Robin Hood and his men. Merry as a newt.

There is a climactic moment when Jacob hears the news that his long-lost son is alive – and the ruler of Egypt!

Genesis 45:26   And his heart stopped, for he could not believe them.

So much intensity and complexity of feeling and thought conveyed in this one powerful bodily image. Erased in all our translations:

“He was stunned; he could not believe them.” (NRSV, Holman, TNIV). Unforgivable. Inexcusable.

Where can you go for a full colour coat on Joseph? Once again the NRSV isn’t too bad. And once again we recommend Robert Alter’s translation for full colour.

jacobsDreamThe second half of Genesis has the spicy story of Jacob. Watch how your translation takes out the spice.

When Jacob goes wife-hunting, we get this beautiful evocative description:

Genesis 29:1      And Jacob lifted his feet and journeyed to the land of the sons of the east.

What does the Holman to do here? ‘Jacob resumed his journey and went to the eastern country.’

As usual, the vivid, concrete body-reference omitted, and gone are the poor old sons of the east.

Jacob’s married life is dominated by  the competing fertility of Leah and Rachel, introduced with this arresting opener:

Genesis 29:31      And Yahweh saw that Leah was hated, and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.

Charged emotions, rejection, competition, jealousy, and the concrete vividness of bodily description. Dynamite. Until the TNIV gets to it:

‘When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive’.  Yawn.

How wealthy did Jacob get?

Genesis 30:43      And the man swelled out very much, very much, and he had many flocks…

This intense physical image of wealth, in the hands of the Holman, becomes… wait for it…

‘And the man became very rich…’       Slap forehead here.

When Jacob makes covenant with Laban,

Genesis 31:53           And Jacob swore by the Dread of his father Isaac.

Jacob uses this strange name for God. The word ‘dread’ is reserved for occasions of great terror. It’s a ‘bones shaking’ sort of word. Luckily our translations all water it down to the safer

‘So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac.’

When Jacob is afraid of being massacred by Esau his brother, he sends gifts ahead for his brother to find:

Genesis 32:20       “and after I shall look on his face: perhaps he will show a welcoming face.”

This is intensely personal stuff, the brother thinking about what his brother’s face will tell him, whether of welcome or of violence. How does the TNIV try to capture the colour and emotion of this bodily imagery?

“later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.”

The moment of Esau’s appearing is one of intense panic, the emotion conjured up by the careful writing:

Genesis 33:1       And Jacob raised his eyes and saw and – look: Esau coming! And with him 400 men!

Thankfully the Holman keeps everything as calm as possible: ‘Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming toward him with 400 men’.

This is all very bland and boring. How can we get Jacob back in full colour, without having to learn Hebrew? The NRSV is better than most. But for full colour, read Robert Alter’s translation.

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.

Why do so few of our people read the bible? Even the keen Christians. So few.

I don’t know the whole answer, but I reckon our translations are part of the problem. We have more choices in English bible translation than ever before, but I reckon our people are reading them less than ever. Let’s be honest: we are not finding the bible to be compelling reading.

It’s not easy to translate any text let alone the Scriptures, and I’m sure the translators do their best, but there are problems emerging, aren’t there? More translations, less reading. Somehow things are not going the right direction.

I have had the privilege of learning both Greek and Hebrew (though not Aramaic!) and perhaps the thing that has surprised me most is how good so much of the bible’s writing is. It’s racy, colourful, quirky, creative, earthy, full of vivid metaphor, memorable one-liners. It’s so rich, I love it. It keeps me going back for more.

Then I turn to the NIV. Or the Holman. Sigh. So much is missing.

I know something is always lost in translation. But so much? So much of the colour and immediacy, ironed out by the committees. So much that might startle or puzzle or catch the attention, smoothed out in the name of ‘clarity’ or ‘reading age’. Anything arresting or memorable in the language, anything that might fire the imagination, tends to be neutered. Anything that stands out is very likely to get the chop.

It’s especially bad in the OT. Hebrew is a wonderfully concrete language, full of earthy imagery and characteristic turns of phrase. The Jewish mindset is very much built into the language. There’s not much abstract or academic in the Hebrew Scriptures.

But time and again, our translators take the solid, concrete, vivid, Jewish-sounding phrases, and turn them into colourless, abstract, mid-Atlantic news-feed-sounding and completely unmemorable pap. Instead of translating the metaphors, they try to explain them. Duh!

Fellas, this does not good reading make…

Sure the texts are easier to make some sense of at first glance, this way. But a first glance is all they invite. There’s often not enough of interest there to warrant a second reading. Let alone repeated reading over the years. Or memorisation. Who reads newsprint more than once?

It’s hard to get excited when most of the visual hooks have been excised. When abstract nouns are so dominant.

I’m not surprised people don’t feel like reading these translations: let’s be honest, they’re boring. They read like the findings of a committee. That’s because they are the findings of a committee!

It’s hard to feel that we are even reading Jewish literature: there’s not much of a Jewish feel to the language of the NIV Old Testament. It’s as though we think that the only way for these writings to speak to people today is if they are stripped of their Jewish culture. What’s going on there?

I’m going to call it: when you take the most important Jewish text, and turn it into something that doesn’t sound remotely Jewish, there’s anti-Semitism at work here isn’t there. Think about it.

I would never say all this to the people in our church. They’ve got to use these translations, no sense making them feel dissatisfied about them. But here at The Grit, it’s a forum for open discussion and critique.

Are they all so bad? The ESV is better, but only in the patches where the modernisers ran out of time, and didn’t get around to updating it! There are plenty of those. But all the rest, they have carefully blandified. The NRSV is also more restrained than most in the blandifying department. But it’s a relative thing – they all do it.

The King James had the wisdom to retain many of the Jewish turns of phrase, it avoids abstract nouns, the result being a text that is harder to read at first, sounds unusual at times, and is totally fascinating and memorisable. But a bit old for contemporary use. The NRSV where it follows the KJV is better than most others.

Robert Alter’s translations are so much better. But I’ve only found the Pentateuch, Psalms and David stories done by him. Hoping for more!

Maybe you’re not convinced by my ranting. Don’t blame you. I am going to start listing examples of where the modern English committee-translations blandify the original. There are thousands of them, so I might need to be selective!