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Your Children’s Children

November 7, 2011

Since I at least theoretically read Biblical Hebrew, I like to stick my nose into translation debates from time to time. One of the major translation debates I’ve run across is the issue of gender-neutral translation. Rather than tackle this head on, though, I’d like to start by talking about the phrase “your children’s children” in Deuteronomy 4:9. An examination of this phrase will draw to the fore some of the pertinent issues that are simply inherent to translation.

The phrase “your children’s children” with a singular “your” appears only once in the Bible, but similar phrases such as “your children’s children” with a plural “your” appear elsewhere (Jeremiah 2:9) and phrases like “your children and their (your children’s) children” are quite similar when it comes to issue of translation. However, for the purists, were we to write out “your children’s children” with a singular masculine you it would look like this: בני בניך.

I’ve discussed elsewhere the difficulty of balancing accuracy against readability. However, if I were to sacrifice readability (and word count) the most accurate way to translate בניך בני is “the sons/male descendents/children/descendents of your (singular masculine) sons/male descendents/children/descendents”. Turning this into something readable, like “your children’s children”, requires jumping three hurdles.

First, Hebrew differentiates between male and female “you” as well as plural and singular “you”. English does not and so it is nearly impossible to capture the nuances suggested by the second person in Hebrew in English. However, in this case there’s some additional confusion: the singular masculine you refers to Israel, a group of both men and women. We could footnote “your” with notes on gender and pluralization (something that is sometimes done in Biblical translation) but without being aware of the usage patterns of the second person in Hebrew (specifically, the rather odd ones in the Torah where Israel is sometimes plural and sometimes not) this would not be helpful but confusing. In fact, this is probably a case where it’s not worth finding a work-around. The meaning is preserved pretty clearly in English because English is quite used to using context clues to determine who “you” is.

Second, there’s the issue of gender. The term בנ (“ben”) is used most commonly to mean “son”. However, like most male terms in Hebrew, the plural of בנ can mean either an all-male group or a mixed-gender group. There’s no in-text marker to distinguish “sons” from “children”.

Third, there’s the number of generations. בנ normally indicates one generation but can also indicate simple descent. For instance, in 2 Samuel 9:8-10 Mephibosheth, Saul’s grandson, is called Saul’s בנ several times. Several translations simply render בנ as “grandson” here but this is based on context not a grammatical clue. Most likely, בנ follows the pattern shown by אב (“ab” or “av”), father, where one’s father can be any number of generations back, as in Joshua 24:3 where “your father Abraham” has been dead for centuries.

Any attempt to translate בני בניך into English runs afoul of all of these problems. In the first case, “your”, English is less precise than Hebrew and will convey less information than the Hebrew. In the other two the Hebrew simply doesn’t align well with any English term. In fact, this is the problem with one method of translation people who aren’t familiar with other languages sometimes think should be used where each word is translated by itself. This would work if all other languages were really just English that sounded funny but they aren’t. They have their own structures for using words and even in relatively simple cases like nouns they have their own semantic fields, the breadth of concepts joined together in one word.

If we attempted to translate each word by its most common meaning we would render בני בניך “the sons of your sons”. This isn’t terrible, but it probably gets one aspect wrong. And, while it isn’t terrible, there are other cases where it would be. The verb נתן (NTN, pronounced “nathan” with flat a’s in the most basic form you might actually pronounce) means “to give” normally. But it can also mean “to appoint”. Genesis 41:41, if we translated it word-for-word in the manner I’m discussing, would read, “And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See, I am giving you upon all the land of Egypt.’” This is nonsense. If we used context and not just the most common meaning of any given word we’d get something more like, “And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See, I am appointing you over the entire land of Egypt.’” (This has also involved decided that כל, “kol”, is best translated as “entire” and not what I believe is the slightly more common “all”. This change is fairly minor, however.)

So let’s return to בני בניך and use context to translate it this time. I’ve already said that “your” is probably not worth messing with. What about generations? The context is actually a longer phrase – “Your children and your children’s children”. This seems to indicate a continuance into all generations, not just one. However, the English accomplishes this as well if we simply repeat the phrase. Sensitivity to English nuance is also important in translation (if you don’t believe me look at Luke 17:35 in the ESV) and here we can avoid a complicated workaround simply by noting that the English implies what the Hebrew does.

The gender of the phrase is a bit trickier and not made entirely clear by context (namely, that these people are to be taught about what God did in the Exodus). However, while you could make a case that men are the primary carriers of oral tradition in ancient society, it seems pretty reasonable to assume that all children should be taught about this important event in Israel’s history which serves as a reason to remain faithful to God. There’s an additional consideration: if we were wrong, which way of being wrong is worse? There seems to be little harm in asserting that women should be taught about God’s deeds even if they shouldn’t and more risk if we assert that they shouldn’t when they should. For these reasons I tend to think the phrase should be rendered “your children’s children”.

The point of this exercise is twofold. First, I wanted to note that all translation must take note of context. This isn’t something I see challenged all that often but one does run across it from time to time. Second, translation inherently involves balancing options and losing bits of information. Good translation tries to lose the least important bits of information but this is itself dependent upon determining the correct context for a phrase. It is a rare phrase that can be exactly paralleled in English and the original language. When people start deriding one translation or another for losing information it’s worth remembering that all translation does this and weighing the value of the information that was lost against the other alternatives.


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