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Friday, March 02, 2007

translating the poetry of Gen. 1:27

Gen. 1:27 is one of the most beautiful and seminal pieces of poetry in the Hebrew Bible. Yesterday I was asked by the ISV team to review its translation of the beginning chapters of Genesis. I want to share my comments to them on Gen. 1:27 with you. But first, let's see the Hebrew and several other translations of it:
כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ,
בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה,
בָּרָא אֹתָם


So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (ESV)

So God created man in His own image;
He created him in the image of God;
He created them male and female. (HCSB)

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (NIV)

So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (TNIV)

God created human beings in his own image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (REB)

God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them. (NET)

So God created human beings, making them to be like himself. He created them male and female (TEV/GNB)

So God created human beings* in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (NLT)

So God created humans in his image.
In the image of God he created them.
He created them male and female. (GW)

So God created human beings in his own image:
in the image of God did he create them,
male and female he created them. (ISV)
I emailed the ISV team:
This, of course, is Hebraic parallel poetry where the second line [basically] repeats the first line. English poetry is different so we are faced with that translation treason dilemma again. I happen to like the TEV solution, where the Hebraic synonymous elements are spread between the two [clauses] so that the second [clause] is worded differently enough from the first that they sound different, which English requires, except where we repeat poetic lines verbatim in English, which is a different kind of form.

Let's see if I can think of a revision suggestion similar to the TEV wording, which can still be as close to the Hebrew form as possible without distorting English form:
So God created human beings:
in his own image he created them,
male and female he created them. (LUV*)
Yes, that would work for me. Notice that it does not repeat the name God in the second line which is poor English style. It includes each semantic element. I retained your Hebraic word order as much as possible, because I think we can still understand it almost as well in English as more natural English word order. For variety, "made" could substitute for "created" in the second line.
Perhaps I should elaborate just a bit on what I said about English poetry:
I happen to like the TEV solution, where the Hebraic synonymous elements are spread between the two [clauses] so that the second [clause] is worded differently enough from the first that they sound different, which English requires, except where we repeat poetic lines verbatim in English, which is a different kind of form.
What I mean here is that English speakers interpret synonymous elements of adjoining lines differently from how speakers of Biblical Hebrew interpreted those same elements. The reason for the difference has to do with differences between English and Hebrew with reference to their syntax and semantics. For instance, I, as an English speaker, hear "in the image" as being redundant repetition from the first to the second line. Hebrew speakers, however, hear the "redundancy" as part of the beauty of their parallel poetry. As an English speaker, I hear the second instance of "God" and want to interpret it as referring to a different god from the one mentioned in the first line. In English, to create the lexical cohesion between "God" of the first line and "God" of the second line, we pronominalize the second instance. The English pronoun "he" in the second line enables us to know clearly that we are continuing to speak about the same God. In Hebrew it is perfectly fine to repeat the word for a referent in the second line and it will be understood to refer to the same entity.

And now your comments are invited.

Shabbat shalom.

-------
* LUV = Leman Universal Version :-)

16 Comments:

At Fri Mar 02, 02:42:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

It is ha-adam, not adam -- so humankind or mankind would be a better translation than "human beings" which is not what the text says.

I don't agree that repetition of God is poor style, since the entire thought is repeated with slight variation in any case and since God is capitalized, indicating uniqueness.

But worse, if you do not use "God" and you also do not capitalize "he" in the second line you have a problem: does "he" mean "God", or does it mean "male" in the third line of v. 27, or does it mean the "man" mentioned in v. 26?

You've introduced a triple ambiguity where the original text was clear.

 
At Fri Mar 02, 08:07:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Anon.,

Thanks for commenting. We have differing linguistic intuitions about ambiguities in English translations of 1:27. As a *descriptive* (rather than prescriptive) linguist, I can't question your intuitions, I can only record them. I can explain mine, but I can't claim that they are shared by others, until I field test to find out what others intuit from the translation.

FWIW, numerous cognitive science tests have shown that native English speakers typically take the nearest possible referent to be the antecedent of a potentially ambiguous pronoun.

I understand adam of v. 26 to refer collectively to the human race, rather than to the male person named Adam. This aligns with the NET footnote:

"The Hebrew word is £ßdA' (’adam), which can sometimes refer to man, as opposed to woman. The term refers here to humankind, comprised of male and female. The singular is clearly collective (see the plural verb, “[that] they may rule” in v. 26b) and the referent is defined specifically as “male and female” in v. 27. Usage elsewhere in Gen 1–11 supports this as well. In 5:2 we read: “Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and called their name ‘humankind’ (£ßdA').” The noun also refers to humankind in 6:1, 5–7 and in 9:5–6."

Interestingly, I hear an ambiguity in the first line of the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:27:

"So God created man in his own image"

For me "his" is ambiguous since it could refer either to "God" or "man".

Well, we now have an interesting empirical question, and we'll have to open the floor for data on the linguistic intuitions of others to see if there might be help there to better understand the different interpretations we have of possible ambiguities in my suggested translation of v. 27.

Shalom!

 
At Fri Mar 02, 11:20:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

I agree that there is an ambiguity in "God created man in his own image" which is one reason to favor capitalization of the pronoun. (I realize this creates other issues, though.) However, even if some ambiguities are inevitable, I would favor removing those that can be removed.

 
At Fri Mar 02, 12:13:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

However, even if some ambiguities are inevitable,

I don't think any are, unless they are deliberately there in the original, such as in a pun or other play on words. Of course, some ambiguities we utter are unintended, and that presents a dilemma for translators. Does one translate intended meaning or meaning of actual utterances? This one is debated by translation scholars.

I would favor removing those that can be removed.

I agree.

 
At Fri Mar 02, 05:57:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

I am interested on your sources that say Genesis 1 has poetry in it (I'm only up to verse Gen 1:15 in my translation for my Hebrew class [we just started Gen. 1 last week], but it sure seems like narrative to me, compared with stuff I've translated in Deuteronomy...).

Thanks,
Nathan

 
At Fri Mar 02, 07:13:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I am interested on your sources that say Genesis 1 has poetry in it (I'm only up to verse Gen 1:15 in my translation for my Hebrew class [we just started Gen. 1 last week], but it sure seems like narrative to me, compared with stuff I've translated in Deuteronomy...).

Nathan, I wasn't quoting any source, although I have fairly often heard Hebrew scholars refer to the poetry of the creation account. It's true that the Hebrew of Gen. 1 is not poetic in the same way that much of the Psalms are. But there is much more patterning, even poetic kind of patterning in Gen. 1 than in simply pure narrative. I'm not at all addressing the issue of the historicity of Gen. 1, simply genre. The language of Gen. 1 is elevated, more dramatic than pure narrative.

I hope others can address this question also. It's worthy of a bigger discussion.

Thanks for your good question.

 
At Sat Mar 03, 01:23:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Perhaps Wayne was basing his opinion on the fact that many Bible translators, including those of NIV, NRSV, NLT and TNIV, have judged that Genesis 1:27 is poetry, but most of the rest of the chapter is not.

 
At Sat Mar 03, 02:15:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Gen 1:27 is an example of rhythmic, poetic prose and is best formatted as if it were verse even if it is not verse in the strictest imaginable sense. It exploits several conventions of ancient Hebrew verse. In particular, it has an appositional style (connectives between clauses are not used; the clauses are merely juxtaposed); a tripartite structure in which each part repeats and at the same time builds on the preceding part; and an easily identifiable and repetitive (2+2) + (2+2) + (2+2) prosodic structure. The spreading out of a clause within each of the three parts to a length of four beats, however, sets it apart from ancient Hebrew verse in the strict sense. Classic Hebrew verse tends toward terseness such that one and sometimes two and even three clauses occupy no more than a unit two to three beats in duration.

The Hebrew Bible is written in a variety of sociolinguistic high registers. Quotidian ancient Hebrew and Aramaic are known to us almost exclusively from everyday letters and contracts in Hebrew and Aramaic revealed to us through archaeological finds. To be sure, one can catch some of it in the stylized colloquial dialogues of a book like Ruth.

At a minimum, a five-way distinction in register is possible in ancient Hebrew literature. Two narrative prose registers: (1) A rhythmic-verbal style, which shares a number of features with its most important cultural forbearers, ancient Semitic epic poetry as known to us from Ugaritic and Akkadian literature. Parade examples include the Abraham and Jacob narratives in Genesis, the Saul-David cycle in the books of Samuel, and the tales of Elijah and Elisha. These texts are characterized by a high frequency of short clauses conjoined by a simple ‘and,’ a low number of noun groups, especially complex ones, and a low number of subordinate clauses. (2) A complex-nominal style, characterized by the frequent use of hypotaxis (subordination, clauses embedded into clauses, etc.) and a high number of noun groups and complex noun groups. Parade examples include the historiography of 1 Kings 3-16, 2 Kings 11-25. Similar although distinguishable from the texts just cited: Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel. NB: a text like Genesis 1 does not neatly fit into this dichotomy, though its rhythmic-verbal propensities certainly shine in verse 27. In any case, Genesis 1 also contains examples of one of two attested direct discourse registers: (3) Colloquial speech, as in some of the direct discourse of the book of Ruth. (4) Formal speech, as in the divine commands of Genesis 1. Finally, about a third of the Hebrew Bible is in (5) verse. I would distinguish three subvarieties.

For more about varieties of ancient Hebrew verse, see my website. For more about prose styles, see the pioneering research of Frank Polak (list of articles in the Annotated Bibliography” found on the website), whose conclusions I summarize above.

How would I translate Gen 1:27? I’m not inclined to follow Wayne in reducing the original’s redundant style by omitting ‘in his image’ in 1:27 because said phrase serves to pick up on and redefine the preceding similar phrases in 1:26. The discourse strategy of the original is impaired by the omission. In general, I prefer Robert Alter’s rendering of Genesis to all others, but in my view he misses a couple of nuances in his translation of 1:26-27. I would translate:

And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of heaven and the cattle and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.”

And God formed the human in his image;
In the image of God he formed him.
He formed them male and female.

Space does not permit me to explain my avoidance of the Latinate expressions ‘create’ and ‘have dominion.’ Nor can I defend my choice to follow Ron Hendel here in terms of the text more likely to reflect the original in 1:26. But I’ve probably abused the patience of the readers of this blog long enough already. Everything you wanted to know about Genesis 1:26-27 but were afraid to ask. That might be the title of a nice post.

JohnFH
www.ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com

 
At Sat Mar 03, 02:24:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

John,

Thanks very much. I had read Alter's version and quoted from it earlier in the fall but I don't have a copy on hand right now.

As we have often stated here, there doesn't seem to be a limit to the space in our comment zone.

 
At Sat Mar 03, 02:32:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Suzanne said:

I had read Alter's version and quoted from it earlier in the fall but I don't have a copy on hand right now.

I am happy to say that my copy arrived in the mail today. It didn't take long to arrive. I have skimmed it some already.

Suzanne, I echo your thanks to John. (Thanks, John, for your informative post. Don't worry about comments like that being long.)

 
At Sat Mar 03, 03:13:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Quotidian ancient Hebrew and Aramaic are known to us almost exclusively from everyday letters and contracts in Hebrew and Aramaic revealed to us through archaeological finds.

John, what "everyday letters and contracts" in Hebrew have survived from the period before the Babylonian exile, during which most of the Hebrew Bible was probably written?

I ask because in comments on another posting Anonymous claimed that the Hebrew in the Bible is not vernacular, but I don't know of any real evidence for this, in other words that your "rhythmic-verbal style" is really clearly distinct from your "Quotidian ancient Hebrew".

 
At Sat Mar 03, 04:59:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Contracts, so far as I know, are not extant in Hebrew until much later than the time-frame you mention, but they are extant in Aramaic from the late 6th - 5th centuries BCE from ancient Egypt. They are chock full of vernacular expressions the likes of which would have been on the lips of Judeans in the days of Ezra, Nehemiah, and the authors of Chronicles, Esther, Qohelet, and Daniel, for whom Hebrew was a literary, not an everyday language.

For the time frame you mention, when, like you, I believe the bulk of the ancient Hebrew literature was composed, we have texts like the Arad and Lachish letters, the Mesad Hashavyahu (MH) inscription, and the Siloam inscription. Nice examples of vernacular Hebrew expressions, unparalleled in biblical literature, are found in Arad 18, for example. It is also instructive to compare MH with petitionary narratives in the Tanakh, and the Siloam inscription with accounts of the same event in Kings, Chronicles, and Ben Sira. Simon Parker’s volume is helpful in this regard, though I think he sometimes misunderstands the sense of the inscriptions because he treats them too much as if they were polished literary texts like those found in the Bible. They are not. Even the rules of grammar are a bit different.

Beyond that, my point would be that the distance between the rhythmic-verbal storytelling style of the narrative frame of the Saul-David cycle and the style in which local news is broadcast, mimicking the vernacular, in the direct discourse reported within the narrative frame, is considerable.

 
At Sun Mar 04, 05:10:00 AM, Blogger Jim Swindle said...

I'm uneasy with the whole idea of trying to make Hebrew poetry sound either like English poetry or like English prose. I believe the Lord chose to have much of the Bible written in a Hebrew poetic style that focused on rhythm of ideas instead of in a style (like much English poetry) that focuses on rhythm of sounds, such as rhyme, meter, alliteration. The Hebrew style can be translated into other languages much easier than the English can. What's more, the reader usually isn't required to understand the mechanics of Hebrew poetry in order to understand the meaning of the translated sentences. Understanding the poetic style (in my opinion) usually adds more to the enjoyment of the text than to the understanding of what it means in our lives.

 
At Fri Mar 09, 03:44:00 PM, Blogger Marvin Cotten said...

I see some others have made this observation, but while Gen 1 is stylized, I think it is far from clear that even this verse is poetry. Repetition of the exact same words in a different order is not exactly the typical form for parallelism.

 
At Fri Mar 09, 04:12:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

while Gen 1 is stylized, I think it is far from clear that even this verse is poetry. Repetition of the exact same words in a different order is not exactly the typical form for parallelism.

Yes, you are right, Marvin. I appreciate your comment and the same help from others. I was responding to the lyrical nature of Genesis 1. Some people have referred to it as something like a creation poem, but it's not poetry in the normal sense that we think of poetry, including Hebrew poetry.

I suspect that it is better to refer to it a elevated prose. Of course, there is a kind of poetry called prose poetry, and perhaps Genesis 1 would fit in that category.

In any case, I've learned from your comment and those of everyone else who has addressed this topic.

Isn't it good that we can all learn from each other via blogs?!

 
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