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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ps. 51:17 -- Who sacrifices?

Ambiguity occurs when a language form has more than one possible meaning. In English the possessive construction is multiply ambiguous. For example, is I say, "John's book is on the coffee table," the sentence could mean:
  1. The book that John is currently reading is on the coffee table.
  2. The book that John owns is on the coffee table.
  3. The book that John wrote is on the coffee table.
If we are translating from English to a language which does not have a possessive form (many languages do not, such as Greek which uses the genitive case to encode possessives as well as several other meanings), we must be sure we know which meaning of "John's book" is intended so that we will use the correct translation equivalent for that meaning in that language.

Similarly, many of the linguistic forms in the biblical languages are not found in English. English, for instance, does not have a genitive case, nor an instrumental case. When we translate a Greek genitive or instrumental to English we have to find some English translation equivalent for the meaning intended by that particular genitive or instrumental.

One of the greatest sources of confusion for readers of English Bibles is overuse of "of" prepositional phrases for translating the Greek genitive or the Hebrew status constructus forms. English does use "of" prepositional phrases. I naturally used three of them in the preceding sentence. But English does not use naturally nearly as many "of" phrases as are found in more "literal" Bible versions.

The use of so many "of" phrases in English Bibles creates potential ambiguities for English readers which were not ambiguities in the biblical texts, as their authors wrote that they intended to communicate. Just as the English possessive form has potential ambiguity, so do "of" prepositional phrases.

If I said "The revelation of John is the last book in the Bible", this could mean
  1. What John revealed is the last book in the Bible.
  2. The revelation about John is the last book in the Bible.
  3. The revelation that John owns is the last book in the Bible.
Last Sunday the minister of our church quoted Psalm 51:17 during his sermon. He quoted it with the traditional opening words, "the sacrifices of God," which I have heard all my life:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (NIV)
This time, however, I noticed that the "of" phrase is ambiguous in English. Potentially, this verse could be referring to
  1. Sacrifices which God makes
  2. When God is sacrificed
Those are the two possible meanings I get out of "the sacrifices of God". But I know that neither of them is the meaning intended by David when he wrote Psalm 51. I spent a long time running the wording "the sacrifices of God" through my mind, trying to come up with the intended meaning. There were times when I thought I almost got it but then it would slip from my brain.

I field tested the phrase with a number of people, including a group of linguists who do Bible translation. Some of the respondents said they got David's intended meaning which would be something like "sacrifices made to God" or "sacrifices which God desires." Others responded as I did and said the traditional English translation of Ps. 51:17 sounds like God is making sacrifices. Some pointed out that the preceding and following contexts for this test phrase clarify who is making the sacrifices. This is true, however, when it is possible for any phrase to be both accurate and clear, we should not have to depend on context to clarify an ambiguity which was not there in the original biblical text.

It is easy to find and use an English translation equivalent which does not create the problem of potential ambiguity or unintended meaning for Ps. 51:17. Several English versions are already unambiguous and clear, including some (Wycliffe, Bishop's, Douay-Rheims) which were produced centuries ago:
  1. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (RSV; note that ESV reintroduces the problematic traditional wording)
  2. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (NRSV)
  3. The sacrifices God desires are a humble spirit – O God, a humble and repentant heart you will not reject. (NET)
  4. The sacrifice you want is a broken spirit. A broken and repentant heart, O God,
    you will not despise. (NLT)
  5. The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. O God, you do not despise a broken and sorrowful heart. (GW)
  6. The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart. (HCSB)
  7. The sacrifice God wants is a broken spirit. God, you will not reject a heart that is broken and sorry for sin. (NCV)
  8. A sacrifice to God is a spirit troblid; God, thou schalt not dispise a contrit herte and maad meke. (Wycliffe)
  9. A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Douay-Rheims)
  10. Sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a broken, contrite heart you never scorn. (NJB)
  11. Sacrifices for God is a mortified spirite: O Lorde thou wylt not despise a mortified and an humble heart. (Bishop's Bible)
Better Bibles do not introduce ambiguities in translation which were not intended by the biblical authors.

9 Comments:

At Sun Sep 03, 11:15:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

An excellent post, Wayne. It is good to see how an early translation got it right.

 
At Sun Sep 03, 12:27:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I wonder... the nearest parallel (unless someone knows on in the epigraphic material) seems to be זִבְחֵי מֵתִים sacrifices of dead people/things in Ps 106:28, where the "dead people/things" seem to be the entities to thom the sacrifices are offered. Rather than refering to sacrificing things already dead (road kill? ;-)

So, Ps 51:17(Hebrew 19) would read: "Sacrifices to God are..."

The usage זִבְחֵי־צֶדֶק sacrifices of righteousness" in Dt 33:19; Ps 4:6; as well as verse 19 (Hebrew 21) of this psalm, in which case the word in absolute might be treated as an adjective in English: "Divine sacrifices are...".

In either case the English would be something like: "... is a true sacrifice to God."

 
At Sun Sep 03, 07:36:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Better Bibles do not introduce ambiguities in translation which were not intended by the biblical authors.

This brings into question the subject of "authorial intent". Which often falls down to judgement calls or value based decisions.

Too bad the authors aren't alive...

 
At Sun Sep 03, 08:27:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Too bad the authors aren't alive...

I suspect they are but we have to wait until we can ask them what meanings they intended.

:-)

Have a nice Labor Day!

 
At Mon Sep 04, 03:09:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

TNIV, like NEB and REB, also apparently follows the Peshitta, although without referencing it:

My sacrifice, O God, is [a] a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.


Footnote [a] reads "Or The sacrifices of God are".

This rendering in fact corresponds to the Masoretic text apart from one dot! The Masoretic text (Psalm 51:19) has זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים zibchey 'elohim (sorry about the misplaced holam dot in many browers), literally "the sacrifices of God". The Peshitta reading "my sacrifice, O God" is based on a Hebrew text only very slightly amended in its vowel points: זִבְחִי אֱלֹהִים zibchiy 'elohim. This could easily be a copyist's error. On the other hand, LXX (Psalm 50:19) θυσία τῷ θεῷ thusia tō theō tends to confirm something more like the Masoretic text.

 
At Thu Sep 07, 10:59:00 PM, Blogger Gummby said...

Would it have made a difference to you (or any of your field testers) if you add v. 16? I hear what you're saying here, but then on the other hand, you're taking that one verse out of context.

A particularly dangerous practice in poetry, by the way (though we do it all the time with memorization).

 
At Thu Sep 07, 11:32:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

gummby asked:

Would it have made a difference to you (or any of your field testers) if you add v. 16? I hear what you're saying here, but then on the other hand, you're taking that one verse out of context.

Context is always important, esp. if it clarifies meaning. In this case it does, as I noted in my post from some respondents:

"Some pointed out that the preceding and following contexts for this test phrase clarify who is making the sacrifices."

The problem is that even though we can figure out from the context who makes the sacrifices, the wording "the sacrifices of God" is still not appropriate English for the meaning that is figured out from context. Translation should always use appropriate English that uses only English forms.

The question should not be:

"Can we figure out the meaning from the context?"

but, rather,

"What is the equivalent way to state in English the meaning of the original text?"

Context then adds redundancy that often occurs in language, which affirms the meanings we should get from good quality English wordings.

I don't know if what I'm writing makes sense or not. It's way past my bedtime and my brain is fuzzy.

:-)

 
At Fri Sep 08, 09:24:00 AM, Blogger Gummby said...

Wayne said: Context is always important, esp. if it clarifies meaning. In this case it does, as I noted in my post from some respondents:

You're exactly right. I apparently didn't read as closely as I should have (a problem that unfortunately seems to be happening more & more these days--I wonder if that is the blogging equivalent to forming your next thought without listening to what the person in front of you is actually saying...).

In any case, as I re-read this statement: we should not have to depend on context to clarify an ambiguity which was not there in the original biblical text, I would rephrase this to say translations shouldn't create problems (ambiguities) that weren't there in the original. Is that a fair restatement?

I guess my radar automatically goes up any time a discussion talks about moving away from context. Your notion that "context adds redundancy" seems quite odd to me, and indeed a bit perilous, as I've always believed that something only has meaning within its context.

 
At Fri Sep 08, 09:47:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I guess my radar automatically goes up any time a discussion talks about moving away from context. Your notion that "context adds redundancy" seems quite odd to me, and indeed a bit perilous, as I've always believed that something only has meaning within its context.

I'm glad that you flagged this. When I wrote what I did, I realized that my wording was not adequate to explain what was in my mind (and maybe my mind was not adequate for the concept, also!!). But I didn't know a better way to state things at the time and I, too, often write rushed. It's a malady of our times (!), I'm afraid.

Redundancy is an important part of languages. It helps us process meaning more easily. Redundancy is found within context. There, maybe that's better.

I absolutely agree with you that something has meaning within its context,.

 

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