Torah Translations: The Golden Collar
This evening, May 22, begins Shavuos, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai — the 6th of Sivan on the 2448th year since creation according to the the Biblical calendar. Happy 3319th birthday! In Hebrew, Torah (“teachings”) derives from the root y-r-h: “to shoot” (an arrow). The term Torah thus has an etymological link with that which “hits the mark.”
Which of these two approaches to Bible translation do you feel hits the mark (Genesis 41:42)?
And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand and had him clothed in fine linen clothes and placed the golden collar round his neck.
Removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; he arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck.
The second is from the NRSV — but where is the first from? It is different in a number of ways the word order is slightly odd, all those “ands” create a slightly hypnotic effect (in fact, the whole verse is in rhythm — read it aloud!) and where did that golden collar come from?
The first translation is from Robert Alter’s translation of the Torah (Pentateuch), and this post is the second in a mini-series of three guest posts from “Anonymous” looking at three unconventional Jewish translations. In case you missed the first post in the series, I’m looking at three Jewish translations that raise interesting questions about translation:
Now before I start to explore Alter’s translation, I want to disclose that I know Robert Alter, and thus this review may not be as objective as it could be — please take that into consideration when reading this review. Also, I have borrowed extensively from Alter’s introduction and commentary in crafting this review.
This is the first time that this verse has been translated with “golden collar” to the best of my knowledge — I checked and the ASV, Darby, ESV, Fox, GNT, HCSB, KJV, The Message, NET, NAB, NCV, NIV, NJB, NJPS, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV, and TNIV translate it as “gold chain.” (The NASB translates it as “gold necklace,” YLT translates it as “chain of gold.”) The problem, of course, is that Egyptian bas reliefs (like this one) don’t show gold chains — as probably most of you have seen in museums or books, they show gold collars. And the Hebrew word here is not the normal one for “chain”; its root means “to plait,” “to cushion,” “to pad.” So one wonders, how could all of the previous translators have gotten this so wrong? Some of them must have seen those Egyptian pictures (or at least Egyptian-costumed trick-or-treaters at Halloween.) But they all got it wrong. Why? I think it is safe to say that as much as translators have engaged in fresh thinking, they have also stolen from each other a great deal.
But what’s going on with the rhythm and all those “and”s? Perhaps it is useful to first introduce the translator to you. Robert Alter is a Professor of Comparative Literature (and also of Hebrew Literature) at UC Berkeley. He has written two books that have influenced me deeply and I regard as fundamental in learning to read the Bible as literature: The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry. (Perhaps sometime I will be invited to review these books for this blog — but for now, let me simply say that these are the best introductory books I know on how to read the Bible.) And together with Cambridge University Professor Frank Kermode, Robert Alter edited the standard textbook for university Bible as Literature classes, The Literary Guide to the Bible — which for those who wish to read the Bible as a literary document (as opposed to a historical-critical reading) is a must read. Robert Alter, I would propose, is well suited to read the Hebrew.
The final essay in Alter and Kermode’s anthology is by Gerald Hammond, and it surveys literary features of English Bible translations to source material. (Hammond presents his analysis in much greater detail in his excellent The Making of the English Bible — a book which also merits review in this blog.) This work has obviously colored Alter’s views. Alter puts the case directly:
Broadly speaking, one may say that in the case of modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James Version, a shaky sense of Hebrew. . . . It is an old and in some ways unfair cliche to say that translation is always a betrayal, but modern English versions of the Bible provide unfortunately persuasive evidence for that uncompromising generalization. At first thought, it is rather puzzling that this should be the case. In purely quantitative terms, we live in a great age of Bible translation. . . . One might have expected that this recent flurry of translation activity, informed by the newly focused awareness of the meanings of biblical Hebrew, would have produced at least some English versions that would be both vividly precise and closer to the feel of the original than any of the older translations. Instead, the modern English version — especially in their treatment of Hebrew narrative prose — have placed readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive experience of the Bible in the original language. . . . Some observers have sought to explain the inadequacy of modern Bible translations in terms of the general decline of the English language. It is certainly true that there are far fewer people these days with a cultivated sensitivity to the expressive resources of the language, the nuances of lexical values, the force of metaphor and rhythm; and one is certainly much less likely to find such people on a committee of ecclesiastical or scholarly experts than one would have in the first decade of the seventeenth century.
But, Alter asks, what about the brilliant stylists we have seen recently of Homer, Sophocles, and Dante? Alter suggests that the problem lies with the focus on philological studies:
I intend no churlish disrespect to philology. On the contrary, without it, our reading of the Bible, or indeed of any older text, is no better than walking through a great museum on a very gloomy day with all the lights turned out. To read the Bible over the shoulder of a great philological critic, like Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092–1167), one of the earliest and still eminently worth studying is to see many important things in fine focus for the first time. There is, however, a crucial difference between philology as a tool for understanding literary texts and philology as an end in itself, for literature and philology work with extremely different conceptions of what constitutes knowledge . . . .
For the philologist, the great goal is the achievement of clarity. It is scarcely necessary to say that in all sorts of important, but also delimited, ways clarity is indispensable in a translators wrestling with the original text . . . . It is truly helpful, for example, to know that the biblical nahal most commonly indicates not any sort of brook, creek, or stream but the kind of freshet, called a wadi in both Arabic and modern Hebrew, that floods a dry desert gulch during the rainy months and vanishes in the heat of the summer. Suddenly, Job’s “my brothers have betrayed like nahal” (Job 6:14) becomes a striking poetic image, where before it might have been a minor puzzlement.
But Alter then says that philologists go too far. They attempt to “disambiguate” the text. The problem is that the Hebrew bible is truly literature — and it “cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audiences guessing about motives and connections, and, above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice and image against one another in an endless interplay that resists neat resolution.”
The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible . . . [because of ] a feeling that the Bible, because of its canonical status, has to be made accessible — indeed, transparent — to all. . . . [losing] sight of how the text intimates its meanings — the distinctive, artfully deployed features of ancient Hebrew prose and poetry that are the instruments for the articulation of all meaning, message, insight, and vision.
The one counterexample identified by Alter is Fox’s translation, but Alter says “his English has the great virtue of reminding us verse after verse of the strangeness of the Hebrew original, but it does so at the cost of often being not quite English and consequently of becoming a text for study rather than a fluently readable version that conveys the stylistic poise and power of the Hebrew.”
The Hebrew Bible delights in metaphor, and especially in metaphor with Bible parts. We have a few in English too (“a discerning eye”) but Biblical Hebrew has more. And these are used in strategic ways.
Consider the Hebrew zera “seed.” This can mean a seed in the agricultural sense, but it can also refer (metaphorically) to children, descendants, or even semen. Thus we see the power of Genesis 22:17
TNIV: I will surely bless you and make your descendants [zera] as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.
Alter: I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed [zera], as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea.
What does a great amount of seed look like? One would think of sand on the shore of the sea (here Alter tries to imitate the alliteration of the Hebrew asher al shafat) stars scattered densely in the heavens (think of a clear night in the country, far from the city lights). The metaphor makes sense in the Hebrew and Alter’s version, but something is lost in the TNIV.
Continuing to a highly biological example, from the story of Onan and Tamar (Genesis 38:9)
TNIV: But Onan knew that the child [zera] would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen [zera] on the ground to keep from providing offspring [zera] for his brother.
Alter: And Onan knew that the seed [zera] would not be his and so when he would come to bed with his brother’s wife, he would waste his seed [zera] on the ground, so to give no seed [zera] to his brother.
The TNIV’s version doesn’t actually make sense. It seems to say that Onan’s child would not be his offspring — whatever that means. The problem is that in Hebrew we have a nexus of ideas: biological, social, legal, cultural captured in zera. Although Tamar’s son would be of Onan’s zera (semen), the child would not be raised as Onan’s zera (child) and Onan decides to deny his dead brother zera (descendants). Thus, the horror of the event becomes clear to all — this is a denial of his brother’s descendants and thus works actively against the pledge to Abraham.
This passage illustrates other factors as well — it includes all the Hebrew vav’s “and” and has a clear complex rhythm, similar to that in the original. And while the TNIV suggests that perhaps Onan engaged in (pleasurable) self-abuse (“onanism”) to drain him and keep him from intercourse; Alter’s translation clearly indicate that this is a case of coitus interruptus — as Rashi vividly put it “threshing within, winnowing without.”
The most metaphorically extended body part in biblical Hebrew is the hand (although the head and foot also appear often). Now, in English “hand” can play a role in figurative expressions such as power, control, responsibility, trust — and Hebrew adds an additional meaning: commemorative monument. Consider the story of Joseph — he is cast away twice — first in a dry cistern, next in an Egyptian prison (but both are linked throughout the Hebrew bor). Reuben hearing his brothers’ murderous intentions, seeks to rescue Joseph “from their hands.” He implores his brothers, “Lay not a hand upon him”, just as in the other strand of the story, Judah says “Let not our hand be against him.”
The image of hands holding a garment recurs in Genesis 39 — when Joseph flees Potiphar's wife, “he left his garment in her hand” — and when she falsely accuses him of rape, we look at the two words waya`azov beyad, “he left in the hand of”. The summary of Joseph’s stewardship (Genesis 39:6): “And he left all that he had in Joseph's hands.”
When we translate “hand” as “trust” or “care” we lose the immediacy of the language.
Here is Genesis 7:13–14 in Hebrew — say it out loud:
Be`ETsem haYOM haZEH ba' NOach weSHEM-weCHAM waYEfet benei-NOach weESHet NOach ushLOshet neSHEi-vaNAW ‘iTAM ‘el hateVAH. HEmah wekhol-hachaYAH lemiNAH wekhol-labeheMAH lemiNAH wekhol-haREmes haroMES `al-ha’Aret lemiNEhu wekhol-ha`OF leimNEhu KOL tsiPOR kol kaNAF.
The Hebrew rhythm unfolds in groupings of three or four words marked by three or four stresses, usually with no more than one or two unstressed syllable between the stressed ones, and the sense of the words invites a slight pause between one grouping and the next. The overall effect is that of a grand solemn sweep, a sort of epic march, and the effect is reinforced by the use of of hemah instead of hem for “they” at the beginning of the second verse.
In the KJV
In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark; They, and every beast after its kind, all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind, and every fowl after his kind, every bird of every sort.
The rhythm of the first verse (up to “into the ark”) is nearly perfect — the KJV translators had the freedom to follow the Hebrew syntax and write “entered Noah” which would seem odd today. But the second verse is problematic — by repeating “after its kind” with a trochee and an iamb and its two stresses becomes inelegant compared with the Hebrew lemiNAH “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” is a long way of saying something that is compact in the Hebrew, and “every bird of every sort” falls flat as a final cadence (and is inaccurate to boot.) Here is Alter’s attempt to capture the Hebrew rhythm
That very day, Noah and Shem and Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons together with them, came into the ark, they as well as beasts of each kind and cattle of each kind and each kind of crawling thing that crawls on the earth and kind of bird, each winged thing.
A literary approach to the Bible
Alter’s translation is, after all, a literary approach to the Bible — his copious notes (this translation has longer annotations than most study Bibles) bring out many literary features which even experienced readers will have missed. This is an approach to the Bible that is simultaneously readable and also far more faithful to the original (both in terms of language and stylistic features) than most contemporary translations. It repays careful reading.