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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Translating Psalm 119:32

Today Alan of Cafe Apocalypsis asks:
Could any Hebrew scholars help me decide which translation is best?

KJV: I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.

NASB: I shall run the way of Your commandments, For You will enlarge my heart.

ESV: I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!

NET: I run along in the path of your commands, for you give me the capacity to do so.

NIV: I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.

NRSV: I run the way of your commandments, for you enlarge my understanding.

NLT: I will pursue your commands, for you expand my understanding.
To Alan's list, I would also add the HCSB wording, since the HCSB is becoming a major English translation:
HCSB: I pursue the way of Your commands, for You broaden my understanding.
I am not a Hebrew scholar but I have Hebrew scholar friends and access to other Hebrew scholarship. I'll respond some to Alan's question. I invite others to do so, also. If you answer here, please post an answer on Alan's blog also.

First, I always find it difficult to answer the question, "Which translation is best?" To answer that question I need to know the answer to a prior question, "Best for what?" We have that same issue in the question in the poll which has been in the right margin of this blog for many weeks. For that poll question I deliberately did not specify what "best" means when I asked "Which translation is best?" And the poll answers indicate, as I anticipated, that different respondents answered according from a different point of view. Some have answered according to which English phrasing comes closest to conveying the referential meaning of the bibical text. Others answered according to what English would most literally match the words of the biblical text. Others answered, it appears, according to which wording continues the traditional English translation for the biblical text. Alan's question can be answered similarly, from these different viewpoints.

I will attempt to answer Alan's question based on what I consider as the most important criterion for translation, which is accuracy. I want to know which of the wordings Alan cited most accurately conveys the meaning of the original Hebrew to contemporary users of the translation.

Now, speaking directly to Alan's question, I'll bring up a matter of translation accuracy for this and many other Bible passages which may startle many readers. The English word "heart" is not the most accurate translation of the Hebrew word, lev, when the Hebrew word is used metaphorically, as it is in Ps. 119:32. The physical organ of the heart was viewed as primarily the seat of the intellect, rational thought, for the ancient Hebrews. This contrasts with the English metaphor of heart which is the center of emotions. More accurate English translation equivalents for Hebrew lev, then, are brain, mind, and understanding.

Translating Hebrew lev, when it has a metaphorical meaning, as it does in Ps. 119:32, with English heart only translates the form of the Hebrew word, but not its meaning. Biblical forms are absolutely essential and they must be translated, but when their forms are used figuratively, the best translation conveys the figurative meaning most accurately.

Bible versions which render Hebrew lev by the English word understanding in Ps. 119:32 translate the meaning of the Hebrew in this context more accurately than those which translate just the form of the Hebrew word, heart.

There are likely a number of other comments that can be made to respond to Alan's question, but I will offer only one other. None of the translations which have "run the way/path of your commandments" (or something very close to that) are good English. No good speaker or writer, with a native command of English, would ever say or write such a thing. That phrasing is simply not part of the rules of English syntax, lexicon, and composition. In English, we do not run a way (or path) or commandments. The verb "run" does not collocate with the noun "commandments" in the English language. Such a translation, as with the word "heart," translates the form of the Hebrew words, but not their meaning. Too many English Bible translators forget that while form is absolutely critical, form conveys meaning. Form is not meaning itself. We get at meaning through linguistic forms.

For me, the Bible version in Alan's list which most adequately translates the meaning of the Hebrew for the beginning of this verse is the NLT with its wording "pursue your commands." Even that wording is not quite right for English since I'm not sure that English lexical rules allow collocation of "pursue" with "commands." For me, it would be better English to have "obey your commands" or "follow your commands." Both of these wordings do obey the rules of the English lexicon.

English Bible versions which, to my understanding, adequately translate the beginning of Ps. 119:32 to proper English include:
I will eagerly obey your commands, because you will give me more understanding. (TEV)

I am eager to learn all that you want me to do; help me to understand more and more. (CEV)

I will quickly obey your commands, because you have made me happy. (NCV; as I currently understand the meaning of the Hebrew, I don't think the second half of this wording is translated accurately)
I don't know what to think of the ending of the NIV (and identical TNIV) wording of Ps. 119:32:
I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.
I would need to find out from the NIV/TNIV translators why they translated the Hebrew ending as "for you have set my heart free" before I could comment on that unique wording.

Categories: , , , ,

15 Comments:

At Wed Mar 08, 09:41:00 AM, Blogger Alan S. Bandy said...

Thanks for your hefty response Wayne.

I also believe that the NLT best conveys the meaning. The idea of running after God's commands constitutes a metaphor common in Hebrew writings. We (in religious settings) use the same idea of "walking in the way of Christ." So in this case, it would seem that the metaphor does translate well into English, unless you are suggesting that it is a dead metaphor.

Thanks again for the reply.

 
At Wed Mar 08, 10:10:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Alan responded:

So in this case, it would seem that the metaphor does translate well into English, unless you are suggesting that it is a dead metaphor.

Alan, I don't think it has ever been a metaphor in English. It's a metaphor in Hebrew. I don't think the rules of English allow us to "run after" or "run in the way of" commandments. We need to find accurate English wordings, which follow the rules of English, which communicate the meaning of the Hebrew metaphor.

 
At Wed Mar 08, 11:14:00 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

I think part of the problem here is whether poetic statements should be reduced to a simple prose propositions, on occasion or in general. And the context should be considered, too, despite the tendency to cite verses as if they stood alone.

The first part of the KJV for the verse is a bit mechanical, but "ruts" is a fairly common word for "run, go quickly," and goes nicely with "derek" as both "way" and "course of action."

The NJPS "I eagerly pursue Your commandments" (like similar renderings already quoted) seems to me closer to modern English than "I will run the way of Thy commandments," without sacrificing the idea of acting continuously in a set direction. Yes, it isn't normal English prose; but the Psalm isn't in normal Hebrew prose!

However, suppressing the presence of "way" (or an equivalent) in this verse, as in the version just quoted, may prevent the reader of the English from seeing that this is part of an extended metaphorical use of "derek" and synonyms in verses 26-37. In NJPS, these other instances are in fact clear: "My way," "the way of Your precepts," "false ways," "ways of faithfulness," "way of Your laws," "path of Your commandments," and "Your ways." (This is a major clustering in Psalm 119, but see also 119:1, 3, 5; other appearances of "derek" are verses 14, 49, and 168).

 
At Wed Mar 08, 12:39:00 PM, Blogger s said...

While I am not in a position to question the accuracy of your suggested translation I tend to agree that it loses the poetic and in some ways therefore also loses meaning

'Running along the path of your commandments' might not be a metaphor in english (why does it have to be?) but such a phrase I think is understandable and would convey the sense of 'a long obedience in the same direction' (as someone infamous once put it but which I think Ian is getting at) in the Hebrew. Perhaps too it subtly reinforces the idea that God's commandments are not just a code of dos and dont's; they guide and bound and lead to somewhere (someone?). There are some things that I think poetry/poetic images convey much better than flat prose.

My humble uniformed 2 cents.

 
At Wed Mar 08, 12:44:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Ian said:

I think part of the problem here is whether poetic statements should be reduced to a simple prose propositions, on occasion or in general.

Good point, Ian. As a poet myself, my preference is for the English translation of biblical poetry to sound like poetry. But that can be done while also following the rules of English syntax and lexicon. The two need not be in opposition. Of course much English poetry bends the rules of English some, but there would be no communication of any meaning if all rules were bent or broken. So I still believe that when we translation biblical poetry it should follow English syntactic and lexical rules, in general. I don't think we need to use wordings such as "I will run in the way of your commandments" to translate the Hebrew poetry here to poetic English. This English doesn't make much sense, but the Hebrew did. We lose accuracy when the translation does not make as much sense as the original.

BTW, that English translation has another problem, namely, an unfortunate ambiguity. In English if we speak (or write) of "running in the way of" something it generally refers to running into the path of something, to obstruct its progress or to get run over. For instance, if I say that "The little boy ran in the way of the truck," we know that there was likely an accident. Perhaps the little boy was even killed.

 
At Wed Mar 08, 12:48:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I should note another problem with the ESV wording:

ESV: I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!

Read the adverbial clause at the end carefully: "when you enlarge my heart." An enlarged heart is not something to be desired for English speakers. Because the ESV translates the Hebrew words, but not their meaning here, we get an inaccurate translation. The psalmist is not wanting a ailment, an enlarged heart. He is asking for something different, and that needs to be accurate and clear in translation.

 
At Wed Mar 08, 01:29:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

As with "heart," you are right about the problems with "run," which is why I am fairly satisfied with "pursue." I think it (or something similar) should be clear enough to most users of English for a general-use translation. Those targeted to specific groups may have good reason to find a simpler or more explanatory alternative. Something like "I act" might be needed, although I find that rather flat.

Perhaps we need to distinguish between a clear translation of a verse and finding an appropriate mode for translating Psalms, and other highly poetic texts. One which alerts the reader of the English to their special possibilities, and encourages reflection, without being baffling in a culture in which poetry is no longer common reading material. (Yes, a very difficult proposition!)

I am concerned about losing the appearance of "way" in this instance, because Psalm 119 is so long, seemingly diffuse, and, even if some indication is given of its acrostic structure, hard to see as anything but an endless set of variations offered at random.

There are clusters of metaphors and images, which link sets conceptually as well as alphabetically, and recur across sets. This is one of them; and it appears elsewhere as well. I wonder how many appearances can be sacrificed to lexical and grammatical clarity before the connections are lost completely, increasing rather than decreasing the chance of confusion.

 
At Wed Mar 08, 01:53:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

Perhaps "pursue" in the NLT isn't the most optimal rendering, as you pointed out, but it does communicate in fairly clear terms, while maintaining some kind of imagery of "running" that the Hebrew would suggest. "Pursuing commandments" isn't exactly the best rendering for English, but it's not a bad compromise either, I think.


Also...Once again, the HCSB surprises me. It uses "pursue" as well. Even though it's a generally more "literal" translation, it would seem that the HCSB translators, for the most part, do recognize the need to not translate idioms literally. I commend them for their approach. And with all due respect to the NRSV, the HSCB is actually more in line with the saying: "As literal as possible, as free as necessary". In many instances, it seems to be a kind of middle ground translation between the NASB and NLT.

 
At Wed Mar 08, 03:44:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Ian wondered:

I wonder how many appearances can be sacrificed to lexical and grammatical clarity before the connections are lost completely, increasing rather than decreasing the chance of confusion.

You're asking good questions, Ian, and they are obviously based on careful attention to the Hebrew poetic structures. Once again, my response would be that I don't think it's an either-or choice. I want to believe it's a both-and choice, that is, that the original poetic connections can be retained, but done in a way that the English translation communicates the original meaning accurately and within the rules of English syntax and lexicon.

As a general rule, I prefer win-win situations in life. I'm not sure enough English translators have worked hard enough at helping us have our (poetic) cake and eat it too! I would like to see dynamic equivalence translators work harder at reflecting the literary forms of the biblical texts. I would like to see formal equivalence (or essential literalists, might that be a term?) work harder at keeping the original literary forms while expressing them in better quality English. There is often tension between the different parameters of Bible translation. But as with many things in life, I don't think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. (I'm glad my wife and I kept our babies!)

 
At Wed Mar 08, 05:03:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Wayne,

I know this is not the main topic, but it was something that caught my attention.
-------------------
About ESV: I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!
-------------------
You said, "The psalmist is not wanting a ailment, an enlarged heart."

Personally I believe you are not allowing enough room for metaphors here, the English language is not always literal - nor do I think many, in the context of this verse, would think the psalmist was asking for an ailment. English is full of metaphoric language, and I don't think it is 100% necessary for the translators to decide what that phrase means - for we see, that some translators translate it "increasing", or "broadening my understanding", or "show me how to do it", or "set my heart free"

So which one has chosen correctly?

But I do think the word "enlarge" could be replaced with a better word to make sure that no one did misunderstand - I do think your point is valid, because it is totally possible. Something from the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary - they put the word "expand". A good choice, that still leaves the metaphor intact - though I am no Hebrew scholar.

 
At Wed Mar 08, 08:29:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Personally I believe you are not allowing enough room for metaphors here, the English language is not always literal - nor do I think many, in the context of this verse, would think the psalmist was asking for an ailment.

Ah, but I do. I love English metaphors and I think it is wonderful when they are used in English Bible versions. And you have hit the nail on the head (so to speak!!): metaphors on English Bibles need to be English metaphors if they are going to accurately communicate their metaphoric meaning to users of the translation.

English is full of metaphoric language,

Correct

and I don't think it is 100% necessary for the translators to decide what that phrase means - for we see, that some translators translate it "increasing", or "broadening my understanding", or "show me how to do it", or "set my heart free"

But this is a matter for exegesis, not of whether or not there should be metaphors in an English translation. The issue before us in this post and comments is: How do we most accurately translate a Hebrew metaphor to English?

Almost all translation scholars and professional translators recognize that metaphors do not translate both literally and accurately from one language to anotherm, except in the few very unusual cases where both languages have the same metaphor. But that is not the case here. The Hebrew metaphor for "heart" is not the same metaphor as the English metaphor for "heart." Both languages build a metaphor on the same organ of the body, but the metaphoric meaning is different in the two languages. That was the point of my post, not that metaphors should not appear in a translation. I have loved metaphor all my life, when at least since I was old enuf to understand what they were. I wrote a term paper on them once in high school or college. I have technical books on metaphor. I have studied principles for translation of metaphors in the Bible. It's a most fascinating area of study.

So which one has chosen correctly?

Whichever one accurately communicate the metaphoric meaning of the Hebrew term to English readers.

Would you agree?

 
At Wed Mar 08, 10:57:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Hi Wayne,



You said, "The Hebrew metaphor for "heart" is not the same metaphor as the English"

I don't know Hebrew so I am putting this out just from what others have said.
Here is a bit on the Hebrew:
"The Hebrew word for "heart" is לב (lev). The heart is the concrete and physical "heart", the organ in the chest. But, this same word also represents the abstract idea of "emotion" as the ancient Hebrews understood the "heart" as the seat of emotion (much like we see thinking being associated with the brain)."

from http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/emagazine/009.html

I don't see much difference between the Hebrew heart and the English heart here - but that is just me.

I guess a lot of times I feel like if the words in the metaphor are words that are correct (for instance, they use their word for "heart" and we use our word for "heart") that there is freedom to translate the metaphor directly - even if it has never been used in the target language (English in this case). Idioms on the other hand are another story. If I say, "That's sick man!" and translate that into Khmer (language of Cambodia where I live) it would make absolutely no sense at all. But if I say - "I hunger for God" and translate that word for word into Khmer, they can understand that, even if a Cambodian has never said or heard someone say that (using the word for "hunger", instead of a word that is more like our English "desire" or "want" that is normally used by a Cambodian when they want to say the same thing). I don't eat God, but they understand the connection without much of a problem (I used that example because I just was talking about "hungering for God" with a group of Cambodian students last week - they laughed when I said it, but after I used it for a while they understood, and were able to connect the thought in the metaphor with one of the reasons for fasting - being that we are showing in a physical way that we want God more than food, more than life).

Metaphors I believe come into being by people creating and using them (I don't know this for sure, but didn't Shakespeare make up his own sometimes?), and as far as understanding, I think they can be understood, even if they have never been heard before - though it might take a little thinking on the readers part.

I might be overlooking something about metaphors here though - if you can point out where I would appreciate it in order to better understand your thoughts.

You said: "Both languages build a metaphor on the same organ of the body, but the metaphoric meaning is different in the two languages. That was the point of my post, not that metaphors should not appear in a translation."

Thank you, I think I understand better now - does my reply help focus things in the direction of what you were talking about?

You said: "Almost all translation scholars and professional translators recognize that metaphors do not translate both literally and accurately from one language to another"

Again, this makes me feel like I am missing something - so please point me in the right direction.

Actually something interesting for me in regards to this topic - in Khmer, metaphors are never - ever used (none that I can think of anyway). So actually, I deal with this a lot and find it really hard, especially in speaking my thoughts - because I am so used to using metaphors - so if I use them, I have to be very careful and make sure those who are listening or reading, understand the though behind the words. In Khmer you can use similes but not metaphors.

And that is a major issue with Bible translation here - what do you do? Some say, take it all out and put in a phrase that explains it. Other say, leave it all in, and then explain it (through teaching etc).

So English says, "Hunger for God"
And to be "correct" in Khmer you would say something (that would translate back into English) like, "I want God in the same way that I hunger for food". Or something like that.

Just a side note :)

Have a good day,
Nathan

 
At Thu Mar 09, 08:06:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan cited:

"The Hebrew word for "heart" is לב (lev). The heart is the concrete and physical "heart", the organ in the chest. But, this same word also represents the abstract idea of "emotion" as the ancient Hebrews understood the "heart" as the seat of emotion (much like we see thinking being associated with the brain)."

from http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/emagazine/009.html


Good morning, Nathan. I read that webpage also, before creating my blog post. That webpage is not based on the best Hebrew scholarship. You will find more accurate Hebrew information on lev if you use the link in my blog post. It has been recognized for a long time by Hebrew scholars that Hebrew "heart" metaphor refers primarily to understanding, the mind.

But don't take my word for it. Check with the scholars. Read the Hebrew lexicons.

 
At Thu Mar 09, 04:29:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Yes you are right.

I actually did look at some other sources before I posted that page -

Strongs: A form of H3824; the heart; also used (figuratively) very widely for the feelings, the will and even the intellect; likewise for the centre of anything: - + care for, comfortably, consent, X considered, courag [-eous], friend [-ly], ([broken-], [hard-], [merry-], [stiff-], [stout-], double) heart ([-ed]), X heed, X I, kindly, midst, mind (-ed), X regard ([-ed)], X themselves, X unawares, understanding, X well, willingly, wisdom.


BDB Definition:
1) inner man, mind, will, heart, understanding
1a) inner part, midst
1a1) midst (of things)
1a2) heart (of man)
1a3) soul, heart (of man)
1a4) mind, knowledge, thinking, reflection, memory
1a5) inclination, resolution, determination (of will)
1a6) conscience
1a7) heart (of moral character)
1a8) as seat of appetites
1a9) as seat of emotions and passions
1a10) as seat of courage
Part of Speech: noun masculine

ISBE:
As representing the man himself, it was considered to be the seat of the emotions and passions and appetites (Gen_18:5; Lev_19:17; Psa_104:15), and embraced likewise the intellectual and moral faculties - though these are necessarily ascribed to the “soul” as well. This distinction is not always observed.

As the central organ in the body, forming a focus for its vital action, it has come to stand for the center of its moral, spiritual, intellectual life. “In particular the heart is the place in which the process of self-consciousness is carried out, in which the soul is at home with itself, and is conscious of all its doing and suffering as its own” (Oehler). Hence, it is that men of “courage” are called “men of the heart”; that the Lord is said to speak “in his heart” (Gen_8:21); that men “know in their own heart” (Deu_8:5); that “no one considereth in his heart' (Isa_44:19 the King James Version). “Heart” in this connection is sometimes rendered “mind,” as in Num_16:28 (“of mine own mind,” Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 ad) ex proprio corde, Septuagint ap' emautoú); the foolish “is void of understanding,” i.e. “heart” (Pro_6:32, where the Septuagint renders phrenō̇n, Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 ad) cordis, Luther “der ist ein Narr”). God is represented as “searching the heart” and “trying the reins” (Jer_17:10 the King James Version). Thus, “heart” comes to stand for “conscience,” for which there is no word in Hebrew, as in Job_27:6, “My heart shall not reproach me,” or in 1Sa_24:5, “David's heart smote him”; compare 1Sa_25:31. From this it appears, in the words of Owen: “The heart in Scripture is variously used, sometimes for the mind and understanding, sometimes for the will, sometimes for the affections, sometimes for the conscience, sometimes for the whole soul. Generally, it denotes the whole soul of man and all the faculties of it, not absolutely, but as they are all one principle of moral operations, as they all concur in our doing of good and evil.”

Fausset:
Often including the intellect as well as the affections and will; as conversely the "mind" often includes the feeling and will as well as the intellect. Rom_1:21, "their foolish heart was darkened." Eph_1:18, "the eyes of your understanding (the Vaticanus manuscript; but the Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus manuscripts 'heart') being enlightened." Thus, the Scripture implies that the heart and the head act and react on one another; and in men's unbelief it is the will that perverts the intellectual perceptions. Joh_7:17, "if any man be willing to (Greek) do, he shall know."

Again, to me it seems like the word לב can go in many directions, just like the English word:

1. The vital center and source of one's being, emotions, and sensibilities.
2. The repository of one's deepest and sincerest feelings and beliefs: an appeal from the heart; a subject dear to her heart.
3. The seat of the intellect or imagination: the worst atrocities the human heart could devise.
1. Emotional constitution, basic disposition, or character: a man after my own heart.
2. One's prevailing mood or current inclination: We were light of heart.
1. Capacity for sympathy or generosity; compassion: a leader who seems to have no heart.
2. Love; affection: The child won my heart.
1. Courage; resolution; fortitude: The soldiers lost heart and retreated.
2. The firmness of will or the callousness required to carry out an unpleasant task or responsibility: hadn't the heart to send them away without food.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition


I guess even with reading the page you sited, I still don't see that the Heberew word לב is primarily used only as the seat of the intellect, rational thought.

These are the only tools I really have access to, so it is possible there are better ones out there.

Actually it is interesting to note, a few of the examples given from the English dictionary seem to fit right in with the English Bible.

Like, "A man after his own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14 using the Hebrew word לבב).

-Nathan

 
At Thu Mar 09, 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

This turned out to be cross paths with the now immediately preceding, and much more comprehensive post, so I'm offering an abbreviated version of a longer exposition.

Wayne said:
"It has been recognized for a long time by Hebrew scholars that Hebrew "heart" metaphor refers primarily to understanding, the mind."

While the anatomical reference of "lev" (and the alternate form of "levav") is "heart" (sometimes, it seems, the whole chest region), the meaning of "mind, understanding" is certainly clearly established. The emotional application seems more restricted, and is not as obvious or primary as it is in modern English.

I found this a bit odd at first. But I learned that it is not a peculiar characteristic of Biblical Hebrew. It was one of several views found in ancient Greece, where the documentation is clearer. Aristotle was quite convinced that the heart was the seat of consciousness and thought, and assigned another function to the brain. Strato, a later leader of Aristotle's school, the Lyceum, noted that the consequences of brain injuries demonstrated that mental functions *must* reside there, but not everyone was convinced.

An antiquated, but still impressive, survey of this and related subjects can be found in R.B. Onians' "The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate" (Cambridge, 1951; mostly written in the 1930s).

The reader attempting it without fairly fluent Greek and Latin (or a really good memory of translations of a wide range of texts!) will probably want to have access to a good library (or a very fast internet connection to e.g., the Perseus Digital Library), in order to understand the frequent quotations. Fortunately, the comparative material, including that from Hebrew, is given in translation; and much of the argument is quite comprehensible without the full range of citations.

 

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