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February 14, 2011

From time to time I get asked what the best translation of the Bible is on the market. My answer is “more than one”. I answer this primarily because translation always involves choices, and these are not always choices between right and wrong translation, but between two incomplete reflections of the original text.

Take, for instance, Genesis 46:2. In this passage God calls to Jacob, who answers that he is present. But he doesn’t say, “I am here,” or anything remotely like an English statement. Instead he uses a word that serves to emphasize the immediacy of a thing and draw attention to it, often translated as “Behold!” in more traditional translations of the Bible, and adds a suffix to it to make himself the object. In fact this word presents a number of translation difficulties, since it is frequently used where English would not use such a word. In the interests of readability it may be left out of the text entirely, or, as in Genesis 46:2, rendered into something entirely different that makes sense. But don’t we lose something when we do this? Perhaps we’ve just destroyed a wordplay or a parallelism with our ham-handed paraphrasing. But we can’t make both choices at once. We can choose to be closer to the words or closer to the meaning. The only way to be closer to both is to learn the language.

Readability extends beyond this, though. We don’t live in a culture of clans, patriarchs, extended nomadic or farming families, and “cities” of a few hundred people. We don’t sacrifice livestock to our gods, we don’t have arranged marriages, we don’t grind our own flour, and we don’t make arrangements to defend ourselves from bandits when we visit far-flung relatives. When we make something readable we inevitably re-contextualize it. The simplest example is with money, where numbers like “fifteen shekels” may be translated into a length of work or even, in more paraphrased translations, some modern equivalent of the translator’s home currency. We don’t deal in shekels and denarii. We haven’t bought a homer of wheat at the market recently. We need these things in our context to understand them. This inevitably means that an easy to read translation has moved a number of details over into our own context, or that we’ve become familiar with the Bible’s various contexts.

So what do we do about this? Let me propose a sort of solution: parallel complementary translations. I realize I’m not a translator, or even a particularly competent reader in the Biblical languages which I can hack through. But if we really wanted a single Bible that would allow us to grasp the words, the meaning, and the otherness of the Biblical world perhaps the best way to do this is allow us to make both choices at once.

So let us return to Genesis 46. The first seven verses contain a number of common features with which we might want to deal. First let’s do an extremely literal translation. If we truly did word for word we’d get something incomprehensible but adjusting for grammar and the tendency of Hebrew to allow verb structures to signal things requiring pronouns in English we can get something that one can struggle through.

I’ve also made another choice in this translation. I’ve decided to render familiar names in a more phonetic manner. This is purely to stress that these are not people who live down the street from you. Similarly, place names often mean something. At least in modern American culture we rarely refer to places by names like “Peace of the Jebusites” or “Face-of-God”. This sort of naming, which is common in the Bible, signals to the reader that these stories are happening somewhere else.

And Yisra’ail set out with all that was to him and he came to Well-of-Oaths and he sacrificed sacrifices to the god of his father Yitsahak. And God said to Yisra’ail in a night vision saying, “Ya’akov! Ya’akov!” And he said, “Behold me.” And he said, “I am the deity, the god of your father. Do not be afraid from going down to Egypt because I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you and I will bring you up. Also Yosaif will set his hand upon your eyes.”

And Ya’akov arose from Well-of-Oaths and the sons of Yisra’ail carried Ya’akov their father and their little ones and their women in the wagons that Pharaoh sent to carry him. And they took their herds and their property that they had acquired in the land of Kena’an and they brought Yisra’ail and all his seed with him to Egypt and his sons and the sons of his sons with him, his daughters and the daughters of his sons and all his seed he brought with him to Egypt.

I’ve also decided to break with tradition here and translate “El” and “Elohim” differently. “El” is being rendered “deity”, while “Elohim” is “god”. Both deities and gods are, of course, more species than name in the Ancient Near Eastern world, and so the capitalization of these words follows their use as distinct proper nouns. This difference may be confusing, but it is fairly hard to track what might be being said with these different names when El and Elohim are both translated “God”, and both Adonai and Yahweh are translated “the Lord”. Except when they aren’t, as in the phrase Adonai Yahweh (my lord Yahweh), where Yahweh is suddenly rendered as “God”.

The nice thing about this double translation is that I can do this. Is this confusing? Is it hard to read this with its strange grammar, its sacrificing sacrifices, its deities and gods? Then read the complimentary paraphrase, which will take the opposite tack on all these choices. (In fact, far from being the wimpy translation what follows is actually the more complete translation, since it is more English than the previous one.)

Israel set out with all his belongings and he came to Beersheba. There he sacrificed to the God of his father Isaac. And in a vision in the night God called to him, “Jacob! Jacob!”

Jacob answered, “Here I am!”

God said, “I am God, the god of your father. Don’t be afraid to go to Egypt, because I will make you into a great nation while you are there, and I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will bring you back. And when you die Joseph himself will close your eyes.”

And Jacob left Beersheba. He and his grandchildren and his son’s wives rode in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent for them. They took with them all their livestock and the wealth that they had acquired in Canaan, and all of Israel’s offspring, his sons, his grandsons, his daughters, and his granddaughters. All of this they brought to Egypt.

There’s at least one other advantage to this: by getting two takes on every word we can help restrict the semantic range of a word somewhat. Think of the English word “key”, which can mean “fundamental”, as in a key concept, or the thing that opens a lock. It never means both at once, except in strange wordplays. Now, these two meanings are so far apart that we’re unlikely to confuse them simply because context will clue us in. However, in Hebrew especially, context clues are often the only way to distinguish between different meanings that would be entirely different English words (such as the word נתנ which can mean “to give”, “to place”, or “to appoint”). By having two translations each word is approached twice, once in a style that attempts to always translate the same word the same way, and one in which the words matter much less, and the meaning of the sentence in English is given priority. Hopefully this reduces the chance of reading an English word with multiple meanings and choosing the wrong one.

Now, of course, there is a major problem with this approach: no one is doing it. What’s more, I seriously doubt anyone will start doing it, and it shouldn’t be done by one person, anyway, but by a translation team. However, I hope that by demonstrating these two approaches I’ve accomplished something useful, in that I’ve shown two correct approaches to translation. Certainly both of these approaches are used by commercially available translations of the Bible, and while it may be impossible to find a pair of translations actually meant to go together like this it is certainly possible to find a more word-for-word translation and a more thought-for-thought translation that complement each other.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2011 2:58 pm

    Hey Eric, dug through to find this one. I also think we “translated God” before we translated amongst our languages. The book makes enough sense to us because humans wrote it, and God chose to let us write it (aside from the stone tablets). “Human form Jesus” didn’t even write any of it; instead we learn of him through his disciples. This book is FUBU, and that has power. I think that even means in our mortality maybe there are some things we didn’t get quite right, or don’t understand in the text, or won’t translate no matter how they’re written. All in the fun of unpacking the Bible in its complete context.

  2. Eric permalink
    August 3, 2011 3:46 pm

    Agreed. Somewhere around here I have an article in which I compared God speaking to us to an adult speaking to a four year-old, in the sense that when an adult talks to a child concepts are simplified and brought into the child’s world.

    I also think this is the value of continued reading. As we practice what we learn and approach the likeness of Christ we are better able to understand things that were hidden to us before. This, I think, is more valuable most of the time than the difference between a decent translation and a great one.


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