Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Torah translations: Red-Stuff

OK, Bible-critics, which of these two approaches to Bible translation do you prefer (Genesis 25:30–31)?

Esav said to Yaakov:
Pray give me a gulp of the red-stuff, that red-stuff,
for I am so weary!
Therefore they called his name: Edom/Red-One.
Yaakov said:
Sell me your firstborn-right here-and-now.

Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”

The second is the NRSV that we all know and love — but where is the first from? Is it even English? But it is distinctive — and compelling — and surprisingly tough (“Sell me your firstborn-right here-and-now!”)

The first translation is from Everett Fox’s translation of the Torah (Pentateuch), and this post is the first in a mini-series of three guest posts from “Anonymous” looking at three unconventional Jewish translations. The first two are formal translations, the third is an attempt to translate a “Rabbinic Bible.” Perhaps you will like or dislike these translations, but I think you’ll agree that they raise interesting questions about translations:

I’ll consider three translations in this mini-series:

All of Scripture may be inspired, but certain portions of Scripture are held in especially high regard. Jesus and his Apostles would certainly have been familiar with the traditional belief that God directly transmitted the Torah to Moses, and even today the Torah (or “teaching”) were given directly by God to Moses. Jews today hold the Torah to be the core of the Bible, and it is hardly surprising that it has received the greatest attention of translators. (The earliest writings [Letter of Aristeas, Josephus]of the “70 translators” who translated the bible into Greek — the Septuagint — mention that it was the Torah that was translated by the “70 translators”; the origin of the rest of the Septuagint remains murky.)

But at the same time, the Torah is the most ancient part of the Bible, and its language is the strangest. When one listens to the Hebrew of the Torah (it is chanted in the morning on holidays, Saturdays, Mondays, and Thursdays in the synagogue) one can’t but help notice the strong cadences in the Hebrew. And when one reads the Hebrew, one is struck by certain characteristics: word-play, repetition, constant use of “and” (in the form of the v’ prefix), portmanteau words, alliteration, and unusual grammar. These characteristics transform the quality of the spoken Hebrew from pedestrian to sublime.

By and large, conventional modern translations ignore these issues (although they usually point out some of the word-play in footnotes.) They focus their attention on what the meaning of the text (although, it must be said, in many cases the meaning of the Hebrew is elusive.)

But earlier translators felt obliged to capture it in their translations. The Tyndale tradition, culminating in the King James Version, was written in a Hebraic-English that was different than the English used by contemporaries. As is often pointed on this blog, the King James Version is strange — not only because it uses archaic language — but the sentence structure is different than conventional English, the idiom is different than conventional English. At the same time, one can’t but help be struck how good the King James Version sounds when it is recited — perhaps we may not always understand the language, but the rhythm and consonance is clear to all.

In this mini-series, I’ll consider the efforts of Fox, Alter, and Carasik to capture important Hebrew characteristics:
  • Fox was influenced by an important pair of German Bible translators (Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig) and attempts to provide a highly literal translation of the Hebrew at the level of words — and produces text that seems to stretch the English language in the way that poetry stretches the English.

  • Alter was influenced by the KJV translators and attempts to provide a translation that follows closely the rhythm and sound-effects of Hebrew while still being recognizable as English.

  • Carasik attempts to capture the cacophony of arguments found on a page of the “Rabbinic Bible” with medieval commentators arguing amongst themselves in terse, highly connected and cross-referenced annotations.
Buber and Rosenzweig

To understand Fox’s approach, it is necessary to step back and understand a bit about German Bible translation. Two German philosopher, Martin Buber (of “I and Thou” fame) and Franz Roseznweig felt it necessary to translate the Bible in a way that reflected its origins in an ancient society. They reasoned that a Bible that was millennia-old and read like a 20th century piece of literature could hardly transmit the feel of the original text. Their goal was to produce a translation that read just as the original text did — capturing the many literary and theological elements often lost in translation. This went far beyond a mere interlinear translation — Buber and Rosenzweig aimed to capture the entire experience of reading the text in the original Hebrew, in all its strangeness. They felt free to make up new neologisms and take German to its furtherest limits. Their work began in before the First World War, but it was not completed until after the Second World War — and the loss of most German Jews. Still their translation Die Schrift remains influential among (primarily Gentile) German readers and remains in print both in paper and electronically.

Everett Fox, who teaches at Clark University, was deeply influenced by Buber and Rosenzweig’s approach and has translated the Torah and Samuel into English in an approach that mirrors in English what Buber and Rosenzweig achieved in German. Fox writes:

The premise of almost all Bible translations, past and present, is that the “meaning” of the text should be conveyed in as clear and comfortable a manner as possible in one’s own language. Yet the truth is that the Bible was not written in English in the twentieth or even the seventeenth century; it is ancient, sometimes obscure, and speaks in a way quite different from ours. Accordingly, I have sought here primarily to echo the style of the original, believing that the Bible is best approached, at least at the beginning, on its own terms. So I have presented the text in English dress but with a Hebraic voice.

The result looks and sounds very different from what we are accustomed to encountering as the Bible, whether in the much-loved grandeur of the King James Version or the clarity and easy fluency of the many recent attempts. There are no old friends here; Eve will not, as in old paintings, give Adam an apple (nor will she be called “Eve”), nor will Moses speak of himself as “a stranger in a strange land,” as beautiful as that sounds. Instead, the reader will encounter a text which challenges him or her to rethink what these ancient books are and what they mean, and will hopefully be encouraged to become an active listener rather than a passive receiver.

For Everett Fox, to read is to read aloud. Most literature in Greek and Roman times was read aloud — and even in the last decade of the fourth century, Augustine himself was surprised when he one day he came across a sage who read silently. Thus, the Bible is an oral (or aural) document.

Fox and Hebrew

Consider Genesis 32:21–22 (in Hebrew numbering; English number 32:20–21)

For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him . . . . [TNIV]

It looks like an unremarkable passage in English. But in the Hebrew, something special is going on. The word panim is constantly repeated (note that in Hebrew, the p sound sometimes is pronounced as ph). Panim means face, although it appears in multiple idioms. Fox translates it thus (Hebrew added in brackets):

For he said to himself:
I will wipe (the anger from) his face
with the gift that goes ahead of my face; [le-phanai]
afterward, when I see his face, [phanav]
perhaps he will lift up my face! [phanai]
The gift crossed over ahead of his face . . . . [al panav]

Now arguably, such an interpretation pushes into the unnatural side of English, but it also illuminates an aspect of the Hebrew that is otherwise lost to the reader. Fox’s translation proves to be one that repays careful study — it is tricky reading, to be sure, but so is the Hebrew. Translations such as the TNIV capture the idea of the the text, but translate away the oral/aural aspect of the text.

And why does this matter? Well, let’s read a bit further (32:31) when Jacob wrestles with mysterious stranger:

Yaakov called the name of the place: Peniel/Face of God,
for: I have seen God,
face to face
and my life has been saved.
We see a thematic link with the previous text. And it foreshadows his success in the dramatic human confrontation that is to come (33:10), when Jacob meets Esau:

For I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God,
and you have been gracious to me.

Fox writes: “It could be said that in a psychological sense the meetings with divine and human adversaries are a unity, the representation of one human process in two narrative episodes. This is accomplished by the repetition of the word panim in the text. The above interpretation depends entirely on sound. Once that focus is dropped, either through the silent reading of the text or a standard translation, the inner connections are simply lost and the reader is robbed of the opportunity to make these connections for himself. Clearly there is a difference between translating what the text means and translating what it says.”

Fox’s English

Return to the quote which began this post:

Esav said to Yaakov:
Pray give me a gulp of the red-stuff, that red-stuff,
for I am so weary!
Therefore they called his name: Edom/Red-One.
Yaakov said:
Sell me your firstborn-right here-and-now.

This passage illustrates a number of features of Fox’s translation. First, note that names are presented in transliterated Hebrew rather than traditional English rendering — Yaakov and Esav, not Jacob and Esau (Fox does indicate traditional English names in his notes). Second, single Hebrew words that require multiple English words are indicated by a dash: red-stuff, Red-One, firstborn-right, here-and-now. Third, repetitions in the Hebrew are indicated in the English: the red-stuff, that red-stuff. Fourth, word play is indicated directly in the text: Edom/Red-One.

The familiar text of the Bible thus explodes with puns

Is that why his name was called Yaakov/Heel-Sneak? For he has now sneaked against me twice. [Genesis 27:36]

She [Rahel] became pregnant and bore a son.
She said:

God has removed/
my reproach!
So she called his name: Yosef,

May [GOD*] add/
?yosef another son to me! [Genesis 30:23–24]

(NB: where I write [GOD*] Fox writes out the Tetragrammaton in English initials) although at times one wonders why only some meanings are translated:

As they returned, they came to En Mishpat/Judgment Spring—
that is now Kadesh,
and struck all the territory of the Amalekites and also the Amorites, who were settled in Hatzatzon-Tamar.
[Genesis 14:7]

Kadesh and Hatzatzon-Tamar have interesting meanings — why not translate them?

The text is also full of interesting repetitions

The man [Yosef] warned, yes, warned us
saying: You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you
[Genesis 43:3]

(NB: Note the reappearance here of the face/confrontation motif)

But he [Pharaoh] said:
Lax you are, lax,
[Exodus 5:17]

Fox’s translation is not without faults. His notes sometimes contain errors and he sometimes introduces anachronisms in his translation (e.g., his use of half-coin in weight in Genesis 24:22 — of course, coins would not be introduced for another millennium). Moreover, Fox’s line breaks introduce a characteristic not found in the original text and he generally does not attempt to reproduce Biblical cadence or alliteration.

More specifically, it can be argued that Fox’s translation has gone outside the reaches of English, and produced a text that is too alien to the modern reader. The strangeness of the text perhaps interferes with the simple understanding of the text. Still, Fox’s work is a tour-de-force on its own grounds — giving the English reader the closest taste to Hebrew that she is likely to encounter without learning the language. He allows the reader to discover connections that otherwise would be hidden, and unveils aspects of the original text that have not previously been shown in English translation.

Fox’s work is not a translation for beginners and maybe not even a translation for intermediate students of the Bible. I could not recommend to a reader who only was willing to consult a single translation. But for the serious student, Fox gives something that is not available anywhere else.

In my next installment, I’ll consider how UC Berkeley literature professor Robert Alter used a quite different approach — more subtle but also radical — to make his own translation of the Pentateuch.


At Tue Apr 10, 08:20:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thank you Anonymous,

It is great to get a closer look at these translations and epecially to have the focus shift to the Hebrew scriptures.

At Tue Apr 10, 01:56:00 PM, Blogger nikos said...

BEAUTIFUL! These are the kinds of translation issues that I, as a Biblical Hebrew student, am most concerned about. Many of the examples given in this entry speak for themselves, no more examples need be given. Nevertheless, such examples are far from being rare -- on the contrary, one might say that nearly every few lines of a narrative in Hebrew (especially in the rich narratives in Genesis) contain such stark contrasts between the "good-english-man's" way-of-talking-rendering of the translation (I'd like to call this: sanitized rendering), AND the far more interesting, potent, and REAL LIFE feel of the original Hebrew.

As in the first example given (Gn 25), the one seems to bring you into their tent, as you listen to a REAL life conversation between two brothers. The other comes along and makes sure that it all could be read by a church elder with nearly all emotion stripped from his voice (of course the translations don't go this far, but, for the point...). This is a dirty shame! Moses was a far better, and more interesting, story teller. It seems that the goal has almost been to take the DRAMA out of the story-narrative.

Much of what I'm am saying here is a reflection of what you already said above Wayne, like: ("
By and large, conventional modern translations ignore these issues (although they usually point out some of the word-play in footnotes.) They focus their attention on what the meaning of the text .... But earlier translators felt obliged to capture it in their translations. ").

One summary point of what's at issue here (but not entirely) is the failure to render SYNTACTICAL meaning. That is, even though we are saying that these English translations focused on meaning rather than capture the (in my words) real-life feel and drama of the original, A good case can be made that failure to render blatantly made syntactical choices by the author/story-teller -- IS TO FAIL in rendering the meaning! I won't make this any longer with a bunch of examples, but considering the first quote of Gn 25:30-31, there is no doubt that Fox's translation is FAR CLOSER to the Hebrew meaning. And yet, the drama HARDLY comes out in the 'sanctioned' (boring) version (no offense anyone, outside of this one point I have very much to say in praise, with gratitude, for the great works of the big translations). Even the word choice is much closer, 'give me a gulp' is definitely closer to the Hebrew. But what excuse can the NAS, the NIV, the NRSV, etc, have for not even rendering the double expression?!?! (The NET version at least doubles it, but even then (as just a very slight complaint), they still make it more 'polite' english: "Feed me some of the red stuff – yes , this red stuff –" ... notice how much more polite and proper this is by including "yes," than Fox's much better rendering: "Pray give me a gulp of the red-stuff, that red-stuff!, "!!!

This is a good example illustrating that just because someone pines for more 'literal' translations, does not have to mean more archaic. The literal text actually IS much more dramatic, already, we just have to stop trying to 'sanitize' it.

I said I would not give examples, but it just comes to my mind that one of my champion examples of such issues is actually only a few verses after the passage we've been looking at: Gen 25:34.

NAS has: Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

I this example, I don't know if the main translations can have done any better, (without going well past their given limits), but the fact is, this passage is absolutely LOADED with syntactical meaning. What is phenomenal is that there are FIVE vav-consecutives in a row in the Hebrew, without even a single word between each one of them. This is extremely unussual, the author is intending to make a very strong point, but that is only slightly evident in the translations, (as seen in NAS's above).

Again, I don't know how a translator could actually render the power of this syntax without going almost periphrastic -- but here is my attempt at something that at least gets the point across of what the syntax is saying:

"But as for Jacob, for his part, he did then give Esau bread, and lentil stew. [[So what do you think Esau did, do you think he mourned, do you think he felt any regret? Well, I'll tell you what HE did:} HE thus ATE, and he DRANK, .... and he GOT UP, and HE LEFT! And HE, [Ahhh!,] [that] Esau DESPISED his birthright as such!
(Caps should be read with emphasis, dots indicate one should pause, this is certainly how I would read the Hebrew words! The masoretic accents put a strong emphsis on DRANK, and on LEFT, its up and down, ... He ATE and he Drank! (pause), and he got UP, and he LEFT! (pause), and he, that Esau, [thus] DESPISED HIS birthright.

I just now did a Bible Works search on this syntax. Let this illustrate how strongly put the syntax is! In the entire Old Testament, there is only ONE other instance of FIVE vav consecutives used right in a row like this (2 Chronicles 28:15). This story teller was making a very emphatic point. (It sure helps to appreciate Hebrews 12:16 better). Well, sorry for the length of this, but I sure like to see that this issue is being discussed and brain stormed, so thanks for bringing it up in this blog Wayne.

At Tue Apr 10, 04:12:00 PM, Blogger Damian said...

Complimenti e Bravo Anonymous.
That was a wonderful post and I look forward to the next two. I actually followed the narrative with a copy of Die Schrift in hand. I must say, I think Die Schrift does a slightly better job than Fox's translation. I especially appreciated the point about the read-out-loudability of a translation. It's probably why I'm a fan of the Jerusalem Bible.

At Tue Apr 10, 07:58:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I thought it would be interesting to trace this development from Luther through to B-R.

First, Luther - unremarkable, in straightforward German as one would expect.

und sprach zu Jakob:
Laß mich kosten das rote Gericht; denn ich bin müde.
Daher heißt er Edom.
Aber Jakob sprach:
Verkaufe mir heute deine Erstgeburt.

I was more surprised at the Elberfelder/Darby Bible, very evocative and certainly marking a fhalf-way point between the two. B-R owes much to the E/D.

Und Esau sagte zu Jakob:
Laß mich doch schnell essen von dem Roten, dem Roten da,
denn ich bin erschöpft!
Darum gab man ihm den Namen Edom.
Da sagte Jakob:
Verkaufe mir heute dein Erstgeburtsrecht!

Heré is the Buber-Rosenzweig.

30 Essaw sprach zu Jaakob:
Laß mich doch schlingen von dem Roten, dem Roten da,
denn ich bin ermattet.
Darum ruft man ihn mit Namen Edom, Roter. Jaakob sprach:
Verkaufe mir gleich des Tags dein Erstlingtum.

So there is a transition. I was not aware before of the role played by the Elberfelder version in this process. Actually I havent really paid much attention to the Elberfelder Bible before this. B-R must have been familiar with it. This is very interesting.

At Tue Apr 10, 08:00:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

However, I note that B-R is a translation that uses fewer paratactic "ands" than almost any other version.

At Tue Apr 10, 08:56:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Elberfelder even has the inverted "da sagte Jacob". Doesn't that sound just like the Hebrew! You have inspired me to work on my Hebrew again, Anon. It's so lovely to compare the sounds of the words and phrases in the original with the translation. Excuse my repeated comments but I do enjoy language for its own sake. It is very good to have this linguistic tradition brought into English by Fox.

At Wed Apr 11, 04:55:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon, thanks for this, but I wish you didn't have to be anonymous. I note that Tim O'Reilly has called for a blogging code which would ban anonymous comments. I would like to see that code on this blog.

Well, I see that in fact already " This blog does not allow anonymous comments." You are in fact not technically anonymous, just a person with the pseudonym "anonymous" who has made his or her profile not available. I consider that to be an abuse of the Blogger system, and would not allow it on my own blog. I know that letters to newspapers, at least here in the UK, often have "Name and address supplied" written at the bottom. I would be happy with the situation if you could assure us that your real name and identity is known to the blog owner but is being kept confidential. But I am not at all happy to interact with someone who insists on complete anonymity.

At Wed Apr 11, 11:07:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter wrote:

I would be happy with the situation if you could assure us that your real name and identity is known to the blog owner but is being kept confidential.

Peter, I know the poster's real name and identity, and invited him to post on the Torah translations which is an area of expertise for him.

But I am not at all happy to interact with someone who insists on complete anonymity.

I understand that feeling, but, in this case, respect and honor Anon.'s desire to remain anonymous.

At Wed Apr 11, 02:18:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

OK, Wayne, I'm happier if you know his identity. After all there is a possibility that you could get into trouble if he wrote something inappropriate and you couldn't identify him. I'm thinking not so much of death threats (although that happened on one blog) as breach of copyright, for which you would probably be held responsible.

At Fri Apr 13, 08:05:00 AM, Blogger Nick Steffen said...

This might seem a bit off-topic, but what do you think about James Tabor's somewhat similar approach in his Original Bible Project (his Transparent English Bible)?

At Fri Apr 13, 08:25:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home