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Friday, July 15, 2005

Do you know my Aunty Seadent?

One of my favorite Bible verses, one I memorized as a child from the KJV, is Psalm 37:23:
The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD: and he delighteth in his way.
Periodically, I note that there is a problem with the English of this translation: I cannot tell what the antecedents of the pronouns are. Who is delighting in whose way? Is the good man delighting in God's way, or is God delighting in the way of the good man?

Problems like this, where it is difficult or impossible, to identify who or what a pronoun refers to, are fairly frequent in Bible translations. Sometimes this difficulty in a translation reflects the same difficulty in the source text. Fortunately, many, but not all, English exegetes have felt that Hebrew is clear in this verse: Many English versions I have checked indicate, to one degree of clarity or another, what the pronoun antecedents are. Different linguistics devices are used among the versions to make antecedence clear. Some of these devices, such as pluralization (CEV, NAB, NRSV, NLT, TNIV) or pronoun change (CEV) will not be acceptable to some who evaluate Bible versions:
Our steps are made firm by the LORD, when he delights in our way (NRSV)

The LORD guides us in the way we should go and protects those who please him. (TEV)

If you do what the LORD wants, he will make certain each step you take is sure. (CEV)

When a person's steps follow the LORD, God is pleased with his ways. (NCV)

The steps of the godly are directed by the LORD. He delights in every detail of their lives. (NLT)

A person's steps are directed by the LORD, and the LORD delights in his way. [GW; this is a good solution, widely used for clarifying antecedence, using a noun (here, "LORD") to make clear who a referent is]

Yahweh guides a strong man's steps and keeps them firm; and takes pleasure in him. (NJB)

Those who steps are guided by the LORD; whose way God approves (NAB)
The antecedents in the following versions are not clear from the syntax, but consideration of the semantics leads us to identify the antecedents which the translators intended:
The steps of a man are from the LORD, and he establishes him in whose way he delights (RSV; it would not make much sense for a man to "establish" God)

If the LORD delights in a man's way, he makes his steps firm (NIV; it is not likely that a man will make God's steps firm)

It is the LORD who directs a person's steps; he holds him firm and approves of his conduct. (REB; it is not likely that a person will hold God firm)

The Lord grants success to the one whose behavior he finds commendable. (NET, see footnote below)

The LORD makes firm the steps of those who delight in him (TNIV)
The following versions are clear to a reader, because there is capitalization for the pronoun referring to deity, but if the version is read aloud, the pronoun reference is unclear:
The steps of a man are established by the LORD, and He delights in his way. (NASB)

By Jehovah the very steps of an able-bodied man have been made ready, and in his way He takes delight (NWT)

The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, and He delights in his way (NKJV)

A man's steps are established by the LORD, and He takes pleasure in his way (HCSB)

It is of the LORD that a man's goings are established; and He delighted in his way. (JPS)

The steps of a man are made firm by the LORD, when He delights in his way. (Tanakh)
It is unclear both from the syntax and semantics what the antecedents are in the following version:
The steps of a man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way (ESV)
As with the KJV rendering, we do not know if the ESV translator intended the antecedent ambiguity or if it was an accidental oversight. Interestingly, antecedence in the ESV is less clear than in the RSV which the ESV revises. Now, IF the ESV translators intended the antecedent ambiguity here, because they believed the Hebrew texts is ambiguous, then they translated accurately. It would help, however, to have a footnote so the reader would know how the translators were thinking about the antecedents.

I mentioned that there seems to be a majority opinion among exegetes about the identification of antecedents in this verse. A translation note for this verse in the NET Bible, however, indicates that there is a lack of scholarly consensus:
Heb “from the Lord the steps of a man are established, and in his way he delights.” The second line qualifies the first. The man whose behavior is commendable in God’s sight is the one whose ways are established by God. Another option is that the second line refers to the godly man delighting in God’s “way,” namely the lifestyle which he prescribes for men. In this case one might translate, “The Lord grants success to the one who desires to obey his commands.”
Whenever supported by exegesis, any translation should make clear what antecedents are. When there is lack of exegetical consensus, there are at least two solutions:
1. Translate the text according to what the translators believe is the the strongest exegetical support, but footnote, as does the NET Bible.
2. Leave the text ambiguous regarding antecedence. In such cases, I prefer that there be a footnote indicating translation options, so a reader can know that the translators intended the translation to be ambiguous.
If there is no ambiguity in the biblical source text about antecedence, translators should not introduce antecedent ambiguity into the translated text. Sometimes this happens unintentionally. And that is where you and I can help; we can contact English Bible translation teams and tell them about passages where the antecedents are not clear. Our desire is to help make Bibles better, whenever that is possible. Accuracy, of course, always trumps clarity, but should never be an excuse for using unnatural, unclear wordings which are not considered good, literate language by the languages speakers. If the source text is clear, the translation should never be less clear.

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At Fri Jul 15, 06:02:00 PM, Anonymous rich shields said...

Good topic, Wayne. I think the classic "reference problem" in translation is

When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob's thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. Genesis 32:25 NAS

There are several referent difficulties in this one verse. I plan to look at quite a few (translations) to see how they (the translators) handle this one (verse).

Parentheses ( ) added just to be clear about the referents. LOL

At Fri Jul 15, 09:02:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Wow, Rich, that is a very difficult verse to understand. That particular wording needs to be revised so that English rules for pronominalization and partcipant identification (to use the technical terms) are used.

At Sat Jul 16, 01:00:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

On the general point translators give us FAR too few notes. They are continually making exegetical and hermeneutic decisions, but tell us little even about the finely balanced ones. Today when these notes could be published in a cheap electronic edition there is no excuse for not supplying the information!

Hiding these decisions helps preserve the idea that translation is arbitrary and should reflect the ideology of the reader!

At Sat Jul 16, 03:11:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I agree, Tim. That's one reason I enjoy using the NET Bible. It is full of such notes. OTOH, some people really don't like to refer to footnotes at all. Perhaps some even prefer to use Bibles which have not footnotes in them at all. I think for some people, a footnote giving alternatives might indicate some kind of doubt, and they do not want doubt, especially about anything having to do with the Bible, to be a part of their lives.


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