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The Most Excellent of Songs (The Challenge of Translating Metaphors)

14th February 2011

Ah, Valentine’s Day has arrived and love is in the air. And when I think of love I think of the sexiest book in the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs (perhaps better referred to as the Most Excellent of Songs, understanding ‏שׁיר השׁירים as a superlative construction).

Despite the long and proud history of allegorical interpretations of the Song as depicting the love between Yahweh and Israel or Christ and the church, virtually all modern commentators maintain that the Song of Songs is a book of poetry celebrating human erotic love (a variety of sub-genres have also been suggested, such as a marriage song, drama, or even a sacred marriage text). This interpretation is supported by discoveries of similar love poetry in the ancient Near East, particularly Egypt.

There are many challenges in translating the Song of Songs. There is an extraordinarily large number of hapax legomena (words that only occur once) in the Song as well as many other rare words and forms. But perhaps the most difficult challenge when translating the book is how to render the innumerable metaphors and smilies found within its verses (for a visual example of how not to understand the metaphorical language, see my post “Love Poetry for Biblical Literalists.”)

As I discussed in a previous post (“Dogs, Urine, and Bible Translations: On the Importance of Translating Connotative Meaning“), modern translations tend to be either “formal” (word for word) or “dynamic” (sense for sense). It is actually more accurate to say that modern translations will all fall somewhere on the continuum between the two translation options. The tension between the two translation methods can be especially noticed in the way translations render metaphors and smilies, since more dynamic translations will unpack the metaphors far more than formal translations.

Compare, for instance, the following two translations of Song of Songs 4:1-14, one from the New Revised Standard Translation (a formal translation) and the other from the New Living Translation (a more dynamic translation).

1How beautiful you are, my love,
how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
2Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved.
3Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like
halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil.
4Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers,
all of them shields of warriors.
5Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.
6Until the day breathes and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
and the hill of frankincense.
7You are altogether beautiful, my love;
there is no flaw in you.
1How beautiful you are, my beloved,
how beautiful!
Your eyes behind your veil are like doves.
Your hair falls in waves, like a flock of goats
frisking down the slopes of Gilead.
2Your teeth are as white as sheep,
newly shorn and washed.
They are perfectly matched;
not one is missing.
3Your lips are like a ribbon of scarlet.
Oh, how beautiful your mouth!
Your cheeks behind your veil are like
pomegranate halves
– lovely and delicious.
4Your neck is as stately as the tower of David,
jeweled with the shields
of a thousand heroes.
5Your breasts are like twin fawns of a gazelle,
feeding among the lilies.
6Before the dawn comes and the shadows flee away,
I will go to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of frankincense.
7You are so beautiful, my beloved,
so perfect in every part.

Notice how the NLT tries to make the meaning of the metaphors more understandable. Thus, instead of her hair being simply compared to a flock of goats, the point of the comparison is elaborated: her hair “falls in waves, like a flock of goats frisking down the slopes of Gilead” (4:1). Similarly, the point of the comparison between her teeth and the flock of newly washed ewes is made explicit: her teeth “are as white as sheep, newly shorn and washed” (4:2). The same stands true for the comparison between her neck and the tower of David: “Your neck is as stately as the tower of David” (4:4).

The problem with a more dynamic translation is that many more interpretive questions have to be answered before translating. Consequently, dynamic translations are by their very nature much more interpretive than formal ones. Some of the comparisons are straightforward enough, such as her lips being like a “scarlet thread” or the ordered whiteness of her teeth being compared to the rows of newly washed and shorn sheep. It is more of a problem, however, when the nature of the comparison — whether metaphor or simile — is not entirely clear. Take, for example, the comparison between the lover’s hair and the flock of goats. The NLT understands the comparison as primarily concerned with its flowing movement. But what if the metaphor is complex? Perhaps the comparison has in view both her hair’s flowing movement as well as its black colour? The NLT recognizes this at times and renders a two dimensional comparison accurately, such as the comparison between the woman’s cheeks (or temples?) and pomegranate slices: “Your cheeks behind your veil are like pomegranate halves — lovely and delicious” (4:3).

The NLT, however, is not consistent in following through on its translation method. Sometimes metaphors are left “untranslated.” While this may be due to the fact the point of the comparison is unclear and they feel more comfortable leaving it vague, or perhaps it could be because the translators want to leave some more explicit comparisons vague. For example, the comparison between the woman’s breasts and the fawns is left vague. Commentators disagree on what the precise nature of the comparison is. Some argue the comparison is between the softness, beauty, and grace of the dorcus gazelle which invites petting and affectionate touching. Others point out that gazelles were a delicacy served at Solomon’s table (1 Kings 4:23) and were delicious to eat. Othmar Keel, on the other hand, understands the comparison as a complex metaphor that relates to the beauty and grace of the gazelle as well as evoking iconographic images of gazelles and lotus plants, suggesting renewal and vitality — and especially emphasizing her breasts as “dispensers of life and joy” (The Song of Songs [CC; Fortress, 1994] 150-151).

Finally, translators also have to deal with euphemistic language in the Song. Most translations — whether formal or more dynamic — tend to leave the euphemistic language of the Song intact. For example, the references to her “garden” and “channels” in 4:12 and 13 are taken by many as referring to her vulva and vagina, as is her “navel” in 7:2. You don’t find that in many translations!

The question I have is whether it is better to offer a more interpretive dynamic translation when the meaning may be clear, or is it better to produce a more formal rendering and leave the questionable passage more vague? It would seem that more dynamic translations are not quite as consistent with their translation method as formal translations — and that is a good thing.

At any rate, have a great Valentine’s Day! Read through the Song of Songs with someone you love today — unless of course you are under 30 years of age!

(As an aside, I have often been puzzled by more conservative scholars who argue for Solomonic authorship of the Song and maintain that it is a celebration of human erotic love within the context of a monogamous marriage relationship. Was not Solomon known for his many wives and concubines (1Kings 11)? I don’t see how he could be held up as a modern paragon of monogamous love and faithfulness)

[Republished from 2006]

Posted in Song of Songs, Translation Theory, Valentine's Day | 3 Comments »

The Mysterious Appearance of “Satan” in English Translations of the Book of Job

26th March 2008

scotty_in_hell.jpgThe appearance of “Satan” in virtually all English translations of the book of Job befuddles me since it is very clear that Satan was never in the book of Job to begin with! While almost every English translation of the book of Job will refer to “Satan” in the first couple chapters of the book, there is scholarly consensus that this is certainly not what the Hebrew original is referring to!

In the prose prologue to the book of Job we are introduced to “the satan” (‏השטן‎) who is among the “sons of Elohim” (‏בני האלהים‎) (1:6). It is pretty clear that this passage isn’t referring to “Satan” (i.e., the king of demons) since the Hebrew noun “satan” has a definite article. The biblical text refers to “the satan”, not “Satan.” Personal names in Hebrew (as in English) do not take the definite article. I don’t go around referring to myself as “The Tyler” — and if I did, people would think I was weirder than they already think I am.

In the Hebrew Bible, the noun “satan” (‏שטן‎) occurs 27x in the Hebrew Bible, fourteen of which are found in the first two chapters of the book of Job. Of the remaining thirteen times, seven instances occur with clear reference to a human adversary. Take, for example these passages from the NRSV:

But David said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should today become an adversary [satan] to me? Shall anyone be put to death in Israel this day? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel?” (2Sam 19:22)

But now the Lord my God has given me [Solomon] rest on every side; there is neither adversary [satan] nor misfortune (1Kings 5:4).

Then the Lord raised up an adversary [satan] against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite; he was of the royal house in Edom (1Kings 11:14).

Other examples of satan referring to human adversaries include 1 Sam 29:4; 1Kgs 11:23, 25; and Ps 109:6. The other five occurrences appear to refer to some sort of celestial or angelic adversary. The “Angel of Yahweh” (‏מלאך יהוה‎) is referred to as “an adversary” (satan) to Balaam in Num 22:22 and 23, while the book of Zechariah mentions “an adversary” that accuses the High Priest Jonathan in the presence of the angel of Yahweh (Zech 3:1, 2 [2x]). Like the passages in Job, virtually all English translations render “the satan” (‏השטן‎) in Zechariah as “Satan” (see KJV, RSV, KRSV, NIV, NASB, etc.) even though the articular noun is not being used as a personal name. The one exception to this longstanding traditional translation is found in the NJPS where it translates “ha-satan” in Zechariah as “the Accuser” and in Job as “the Adversary.” The usage of the related verb stn (‏שטן‎), “be hostile to, accuse,” parallels the noun, though of its six occurrences, only one refers to the work of a celestial being (Zech 3:1); the others are actions attributed to human adversaries (Pss 38:21; 71:13; 109:4, 20, 29).

The only passage in the entire Hebrew Bible where satan may refer to “Satan” as the fallen leader of demonic forces is 1 Chronicles 21:1, where satan (significantly without the definite article) incites King David to take an ill-fated census. This passage is also an interpretive crux historiographically, since it parallels 2Sam 24:1 where Yahweh incited David to take the census. Evidently, the Chronicler had theological problems with Yahweh inciting the census and then punishing David for taking it, and therefore made the change in his text for theological reasons (alternatively, the Chronicler’s Hebrew text of 2Samuel may have already contained the change, since the evidence of 4QSam-a suggests the Chronicler may have had a different text). While I still lean towards the traditional understanding of this passage as referring to “Satan,” I should note that most recent commentators have moved away from this understanding and have proposed a human adversary or an angelic adversary akin to Job and Zechariah.

When we turn to the book of Job, then, we do not find the full-blown figure of Satan. Instead, we find a celestial being who is part of Yahweh’s divine council, i.e., one of the “sons of Elohim”, who functions in the book of Job as a heavenly adversary. More specifically, in the book of Job, the satan fills the role of a prosecuting attorney. In this respect, the NJPS translation as “the Adversary” is perhaps the best possible.

The development of “the satan” into “Satan,” i.e., the evil arch-enemy of God, seems to have occurred primarily after the Hebrew Bible, perhaps under the influence of Persian Zoroastrianism (although this is debated). Whatever the influence, when we turn to Second Temple Jewish literature such as 1 Enoch or the DSS, we find a far more developed angelology/demonology. This is continued into the New Testament where you find a full-blown (albeit not systematic) angelology and demonology.

What I find interesting is why virtually every modern English translation continues to render “the satan” in the book of Job as “Satan,” despite the fact it has a long historical pedigree (facilitated no doubt by the LXX, Targums, and Vulgate, among others). True, the NRSV (as well as a few other English translations) has a footnote providing an alternative understanding (“the Accuser; Heb ha-satan“), shouldn’t it really be the other way around? While it doesn’t surprise me that the more conservative Christian translations have kept the traditional rendering as “Satan,” it does surprise me that translations such as the NRSV has perpetuated such a traditional understanding.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the figure of “the satan” in the book of Job is not sinister; he does question the motives behind Job’s fear of Yahweh, but he is not the “Satan” found in the New Testament. There is significant theological development from the time of the Old Testament through the Second Temple period to the New Testament and beyond. But in our translations of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament I think it is very important to translate (as mush is possible) the original meaning of the text, rather than a later theological interpretations/developments (and yes, I recognize all of the pitfalls surrounding the language of “original meaning,” but I think you know what I mean). In the same way translations shouldn’t import the notion of the Trinity into the Hebrew Bible, nor should they import a more developed demonology into the Old Testament.

If this post as piqued your interest, you may be interested in some of the following books:

  • Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons by Sydney H. T. Page (Baker, 1994; Buy from or ). [This is a well-researched and well-balanced biblical-theological examination from a somewhat conservative Christian perspective from my colleague at Taylor Seminary]
  • An Adversary in Heaven: Satan in the Hebrew Bible by Peggy L. Day (Harvard Semitic Monographs; Scholars Press, 1998; Buy from or [This is an academic study of the satan in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.]
  • The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth by Neil Forsyth (Princeton University Press, 1989; Buy from or [This is an engaging academic look at the development of the figure of Satan in connection with the ANE combat myth]
  • Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible edited by Karel van der Toorn, et al (2nd edition; Eerdmans, 1999; Buy from or [This is a comprehensive academic reference dictionary that will give more more than you ever wanted to know about angels, demons, and deities]

For recommended commentaries on the book of Job, see my Old Testament Commentary Survey. If you are interested in the further development of the figure of Satan, see Phil Harland’s excellent series of posts on the “History of Satan.”

Posted in Old Testament, The Book of Job, Translation Theory, Wisdom | 23 Comments »

Bad Sermon: “Him that pisseth against the wall”

7th March 2008

Check out this sermon on the phrase “him that pisseth against the wall” from the KJV of 1 Kings 14:10. The phrase also occurs in 1Sam 25:22, 25:34; 1Kings 16:11, 21:21, and 2Kings 9:8. The rendering by the KJV, while perhaps vulgar to modern ears, is a word for word translation of the Hebrew.

While I — along with this preacher — lament modern translations that simply render the Hebrew idiom with the English term “male” I do so for very different reasons. In absolute contrast with the meaning of the passage, the ludicrous message the preacher takes from the phrase is that “real men” pee standing up (and I would add, should never lift the toilet seat!). If this preacher would have cracked the cover of even the most useless Bible Commentary, he would have discovered that the expression is contemptuously comparing males to dogs who “piss against the wall.” Thus,  I don’t think modern translations bring out the connotative meaning of the original Hebrew by the non-vulgar translation as “male.”  See my post Dogs, Urine, and Bible Translations (On the Importance of Translating Connotative Meaning).

Well, enough preamble, here is the sermon in all its glory:

(HT to Bob Derrenbacker)

Posted in 1Samuel, Bible, Hebrew, Old Testament, Translation Theory | 7 Comments »

Alter on the Psalms

26th September 2007

alter-psalms.jpgSlate has an interesting article by Robert Alter, entitled “Psalm Springs: How I translated the Bible’s most poetic book,” in which discusses his just-released translation of the Psalter:

The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
by Robert Alter
W. W. Norton, 2007
Buy from or

The article is quite interesting — especially when Alter talks about his translation technique, which could be characterized as very formal (for a discussion of types of translation techniques, see here and here). That is, Alter not only wants his English translation to convey the meaning of the original Hebrew text, he also wants it to convey its structure and form. Thus, if the Hebrew line is composed of three words, then he would try to reproduce that compactness in his translation.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

… The sundry English translations, from Renaissance to contemporary, have in certain ways obscured key strengths of the Psalms. My dissatisfaction with them led me to attempt my own translation.

Two aspects of the Hebrew poems have especially suffered in translation: their powerfully compact rhythms—which, after all, constitute much of the music of the poetry—and the terrific, physical concreteness of the language. The conciseness of biblical poetry derives from the structure of the ancient language: Pronouns are usually omitted because you can tell the pronoun subject from the way the verb is conjugated; possessive pronouns are simply suffixes attached to the nouns; and the verb to be is entirely dispensed with in the present tense. Sometimes, there is simply no way of reproducing this compression in English. In the Hebrew, “The Lord is my shepherd” is just two words, two accents (Yahweh ro’ i). But I, like the translators convened by King James, could see no other way of getting this into workable English.

In many lines, however, a little resourcefulness can produce rhythms resembling the Hebrew’s. The King James version of Psalm 30:9 reads: “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit?” (The 1611 translators used italics for words merely implied in the Hebrew.) From a rhythmic standpoint, this sounds more like prose than poetry. My version reads: “What profit in my blood,/ in my going down deathward?” This rhythm is virtually identical to the Hebrew, the second half of the line just one syllable more than the original. The alliteration of “down deathward” has no equivalent in the Hebrew, but it helps the rhythmic momentum and compensates for other places (including the first half of this line) where alliterations in the original could not be reproduced.

Let me offer one more example of an effort to emulate the music of the Hebrew. The opening line of Psalm 104, a paean to the grand panorama of creation, was translated in the King James version as “thou art clothed with honour and majesty.” This has a certain poised dignity, though there are too many words and syllables: The Hebrew original has three words, six syllables. And honour doesn’t capture the true significance of the Hebrew hod, which means either grandeur or glory. My version reads: “Glory and grandeur You don.” Here the strong alliteration mirrors a similar effect in the Hebrew (hod/hadar), and the syntactic inversion also follows the Hebrew, reproducing its emphasis on these two terms. Finally, I chose don as part of a general strategy to use single-syllabic words of Anglo-Saxon derivation, and to avoid the potential awkwardness and abstraction of Latinate terms (such as majesty or, elsewhere, transgression).

I have some issues with Alter’s translation technique — though perhaps not so much with his technique, but with his sense of superiority concerning it. I tend to view translation techniques as a tool which produces a variety of types of translations, each useful for different purposes. I have required Alter’s translation of Genesis for my course on the book of Genesis for the very purpose of getting students to read the text in a translation different than what they are used to — and I may use this new translation when I next have to teach the book of Psalms.

One feature of his translation which I find fascinating is the way in which he translates the Hebrew word nefesh (נפש), a word that is difficult to translate, but which has traditionally been rendered as “soul.” Here is what Alter says about his way of dealing with this word:

Although it may at first disconcert some pious readers, I have rigorously excluded the word soul from my version of Psalms. In the original biblical language, there is no split between body and soul and no notion of a soul surviving the body. Rather, nefesh means life-breath (one hears the breathing in the sound of the Hebrew word)—the God-given vital force that passes in through the nostrils and down into the lungs, animating the body. By extension, it means life. “My nefesh” is also an intensive way of saying “I” (which I sometimes translate as “my whole being” or “my being”). Because the throat is a passageway for the breath, this same word can also mean, by metonymy, throat or neck.

I think this is a wonderful idea considering the amount of confusion there is about the biblical teaching on the nature of the humanity. While there are a few passages in the Hebrew Bible that may give a glimpse of some sort of life after death, in the Hebrew Bible humanity is presented as a radical unity.

At any rate, I encourage you to take a look at the article in full and check out his translation for yourself, as well as his other translations of the Hebrew Bible:

  • The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (Norton, 2004; Buy from or
  • Genesis: Translation and Commentary (Norton, 1997; Buy from or
  • The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (Norton, 2000; Buy from or

(HT Tim Willson)

Posted in Bible, Old Testament, Psalms, Translation Theory | Comments Off

“Lord” in the NT and in Modern Translations

2nd February 2007

David Ker over at Lingamish has a series of posts on the Greek word kurios, “Lord” (κύÏ?ιος) in the New Testament. The first post introduces the series, while the second examines the relationship between the kurios and the slave. The third entry in the series provides some different definitions and English glosses of the term, while the fourth looks at the word’s cultural context.

That brings me to David’s fifth post where he is asking for our input. Specifically he is asking for readers to share examples of how kurios is translated in Bible translations around the world. So, if you know some other languages, I encourage you to head on over and share your knowledge!

Posted in Greek, New Testament, Translation Theory | Comments Off

Latest in the Bulletin of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (Vol 38)

27th December 2006

The latest Bulletin of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (Vol. 38, 2005) is out (I actually received the volume a while back, but have not had a chance to finish the post). This is an excellent issue, with many excellent articles for those interested in Septuagint studies as well as translation theory and biblical studies. Wevers’s article is worth a read, if only for his engaging account of this work on the Göttingen Pentateuch volumes.

In addition, those interested in translation theory will want to read the articles by Aiken and Boyd-Taylor. Aitken has a very good summary of functional translation theory, while Boyd-Taylor has an interesting discussion of Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS). Both of these approaches offer more nuance than the typical discussions of “formal” versus “dynamic” translation theories based on Chomsky’s generative-transformative theory.

At any rate, here is the contents, with brief abstracts:

  • John William Wevers, “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint,â€? pp. 1-24.
    Wevers provides a collation of Qumran Pentateuch LXX documents (Rahlfs MSS 805, 801, 802, 803) and then contextualizes his evaluation of their significance in light of current text critical practices, beginning with Lagarde and ending with reflections on his own (fascinating) experience preparing the Göttingen Pentateuch volumes. He concludes that while the Qumran Greek texts of the Pentateuch are not significant text-critically, the Hebrew MSS from Qumran are truly significant.
  • Petra Verwijs, “The Septuagint in the Peshitta and Syr.-Hexpla Translations of Amos 1:3-2:16,â€? pp. 25-40.
    Verwijs examines the character and role of the LXX as reflected in the Syriac translations of the Peshitta and the Syr.-Hexpla, using Amos 1:3-2:16 as an example. After a thorough study of the texts and their translation technique, Verwijs concludes that the communities that produced the Peshitta and the Syr.-Hexapla employed the LXX, though in the case of the Peshitta the reflection of the LXX may be due to the translator’s recollection rather than access to an actual text.
  • Claude Cox, “Tying It All Together: The Use of Particles in Old Greek Job,â€? pp. 41-54.
    Cox describes the use of coordinating conjugations in OG Job. While Hebrew has relatively few sentence or clause connectors, Greek has many, and Cox finds that the OG translator incorporates many more coordinating conjunctions in his translation, particularly γάÏ? and δέ. This frequent use of coordinating conjunctions brings the text together into brief sections or paragraphs in a way that is not apparent in its Hebrew Vorlage.
  • James K. Aitken, “Rhetoric and Poetry in Greek Ecclesiastes,â€? pp. 55-77.
    While the OG translation of Ecclesiastes is characterized by a high degree of formal equivalence, Aitken underscores the presence of a number of rhetorical features in the translation, including variatio, polytoton, anaphora, parechesis, assonance, isocola, and homoeoteleuton. Thus, the translator was not “slavishly literal� but employed features consistent with Greek rhetorical style in order to produce a text that is both faithful to its Hebrew Vorlage and engaging for its Greek readers. Aitken concludes with a brief discussion of the merit of a functional translation theory that takes into consideration the type of text that is being translated, over against the generative-transformative model. Thus, LXX-Ecclesiastes may be better described as an “informative-expressive� translation than simply “literal.�
  • Cameron Boyd-Taylor, “Calque-culations — Loan Words and the Lexicon,â€? pp. 79-99.
    Boyd-Taylor brings the Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS) of Gideon Toury to bear on the study of semantic borrowing and calques in the Septuagint. DTS understands the act of translation as a product of and for the target audience in which the some aspects of the source text are invariably retained for a variety of reasons. Seen in this light, stereotyped equivalents are examples of habitual lexical interference or transfer. The calque, on the other hand, “presupposes the institutionalization of a stereotype, such that the transfer of function from the source item to its counterpart… becomes itself a convention of the target language� (pp. 84-85). To illustrate his discussion, Boyd-Taylor examines the usage of κοίτη to refer to sexual relations and concludes that it may plausibly be a calque in some configurations. All in all, he concludes that identifying calques “is a precarious business� (p. 99) and many so-called calques should be reexamined.
  • Takamitsu Muraoka, “Gleanings of a Septuagint Lexicographer,â€? pp. 101-108.
    Muraoka briefly reflects on the influence of Semitisms and textual criticism on LXX Lexicography. In regards to the former, he discusses three examples of lexical Semitisms in the LXX: ἀγχιστεÏ?ω “to do a kinsman’s office,â€? θυμόϛ “breath, venom,â€? and á½?μοιόω “to consent, to concur.â€? In regards to the latter, while it was policy to base A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint on the Göttingen LXX editions, Muraoka departed from this policy on occasion (one example he discusses is Num 11:13).

Posted in BIOSCS, IOSCS, Reviews & Notices, Translation Theory | Comments Off

The Strange New World of the Bible

9th August 2006

I believe that one of the greatest hindrances to the proper interpretation of the Bible is a false sense of familiarity. There are a number of things that contribute to this false sense of familiarity, including Bible translations that mistakenly modernize idioms and contexts (A translation should not make its readers think that they understand the Bible better than they actually do). While this may sound counter-productive, one of the first steps to properly interpreting the Bible is to create some historical distance between our world and (to echo Barth) the “strange new world within the Bible.” If we don’t take care to create this historical distance, then we will read our modern presuppositions into the biblical text. Gadamer notes: “If we fail to transpose ourselves into the historical horizon from which the traditionary text speaks, we will misunderstand the significance of what it has to say to us” (Truth and Method, 303). Similarly, “it is constantly necessary to guard against overhasily assimilating the past to our own expectations of meaning. Only then can we listen to tradition in a way that permits it to make its own meaning heard” (Truth and Method, 305).

One example will suffice for now (I have some ideas about further posts): the impact of the industrial revolution on our understanding of the world around us. This was brought home to me recently as I was reading Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh‘s excellent Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (2nd ed; Fortress Press, 2002; Buy from | Buy from Malina highlights some of the vast differences between our industrial world and the agrarian world of the Bible in order to remind us how great the transformation really was — here is a list of examples from Malina (pp. 6-8):

  • In agrarian societies more than 90 percent of the population was rural. In industrial societies more than 90 percent is urban.
  • In agrarian societies 90-95 percent of the population was engaged in what sociologists call the “primary” industries (farming and extracting raw materi­als). In the United States today it is 4.9 percent.
  • In agrarian societies 2-4 percent of the population was literate. In industrial societies 2-4 percent are not.
  • The birthrate in most agrarian societies was about forty per thousand per year. In the Unites States, as in most industrial societies, it is less than half that. Yet death rates have dropped even more dramatically than birthrates. We thus have the curious phenomenon of far fewer births and rapidly rising population.
  • Life expectancy in the city of Rome in the first century BCE was about twenty years at birth. If the perilous years of infancy were survived, it rose to about forty, one-half our present expectations.
  • In contrast to the huge cities we know today, the largest city in Europe in the fourteenth century, Venice, had a population of 78,000. London had 35,000. Vienna had 3,800. Though population figures for antiquity are notoriously dif­ficult to come by, recent estimates for Jerusalem are about 35,000. For Capernaum, 1,500. For Nazareth about 200.
  • The Department of Labor currently lists in excess of 20,000 occupations in the United States and hundreds more are added to the list annually. By contrast, the tax rolls for Paris (pop. 59,000) in the year 1313 list only 157.
  • Unlike the modern world, in agrarian societies 1-3 percent of the population usually owns one- to two-thirds of the arable land. Since 90 percent or more were peasants, the vast majority owned subsistence plots at best.
  • The size of the federal bureaucracy in the Unites States in 1816 was 5,000 employees. In 1971 it was 2,852,000 and growing rapidly. While there was a political, administrative, and military apparatus in antiquity, nothing remotely comparable to the modern governmental bureaucracy ever existed. Instead, goods and services were mediated by patrons who operated largely outside governmental control.
  • More than one-half of all families in agrarian societies were broken during the childbearing and child-rearing years by the death of one or both parents. In India at the turn of the twentieth century the figure was 71 percent. Thus widows and orphans were everywhere.
  • In agrarian societies the family was the unit of both production and consump­tion. Since the industrial revolution, family production or enterprise has nearly disappeared and the unit of production has become the individual worker. Nowadays the family is only a unit of consumption.
  • The largest “factories” in Roman antiquity did not exceed fifty workers. In the records of the medieval craft guilds from London, the largest employed eight­een. The industrial corporation, a modern invention, did not exist.
  • In 1850, the “prime movers” in the United States (i.e., steam engines in factories, sailing vessels, work animals, etc.) had a combined capacity of 8.5 million horsepower. By 1970 this had risen to 20 billion.
  • The cost of moving one ton of goods one mile (measured in U.S.:dollars in China at the beginning of the industrial revolution) was: Steamboat 2.4; Wheelbarrow 20.0; Rail 2.7; Pack donkey 24.0; Junk 12.0; Packhorse 30.0; Animal-drawn cart 13.0; Carrying by pole 48.0; Pack mule 17.0. It is little wonder that overland trade at any distance was insubstantial in antiquity.
  • Productive capacity in industrial societies exceeds that in the most advanced agrarian societies known by more than one hundredfold.
  • Given the shock and consternation caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the forced resignation of Richard M. Nixon, we sometimes forget that this sort of internal political upheaval is nothing like it was in the agrarian world. Of the 79 Roman emperors, 31 were murdered, 6 driven to suicide, and 4 were deposed by force. Moreover, such upheavals in antiquity were frequently accompanied by civil war and the enslavement of thousands.

This somewhat random list should remind us of the massive changes that occured as the result of the industrial revolution. To quote Malina: “It [the industrial revolution] has been a watershed unlike any the world has ever seen. Should we be surprised if major changes in our perception of the world have occurred as well? And should we be surprised if that in turn has had a fundamental impact on our ability to read and understand the Bible?”

We need to do as much as we can as readers and interpreters to recognize the gulf between our world and the “strange new world within the Bible” so as to ensure we properly read and interpret and understand the biblical text.

Posted in Hermeneutics, New Testament, Translation Theory | 3 Comments »

Love Poetry for Biblical Literalists

7th February 2006

Since Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, I figured I would provide some biblical love poetry for any young men who may be out there (I also figured since Jim West showed a picture of his ideal woman, I would too!). Whisper these words into the ears of your Valentine’s Day date and you will be guaranteed a second date! … Really!

(Image from an old Wittenburg Door)

How beautiful you are, my love,
how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved.
Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in courses;
on it hang a thousand bucklers,
all of them shields of warriors.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
that feed among the lilies….
Your lips distill nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon
Your belly is a heap of wheat…
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon,
overlooking Damascus (Song 4:1-5, 11; 7:2, 4)

(OK, most of the metaphors are understandable, though it is interesting that more dynamic translations like the NLT unpack many of the metaphors in these verses, but they leave the breasts alone. Hmmm… so just how are breasts like fawns feeding among the lilies?)

Posted in Humour, Song of Songs, Translation Theory | 3 Comments »

Dogs, Urine, and Bible Translations (On the Importance of Translating Connotative Meaning)

22nd September 2005

Translation Theory 101

All translators agree that the task of translation is to communicate the meaning of the original source language in the target/receptor language (at least I haven’t met one who wanted to obscure the original meaning!). The debate revolves around what linguistic form should be used in translation. Two of the most popular alternatives — which represent two ends of a spectrum — are “formal” and “dynamic” translations. Here is a chart that identifies were many modern translations would fit on the spectrum (it is obviously not exhaustive and represents my ad hoc evaluation).

With formal (“word for word”) translations the syntax and word class of the original language tend to take precedence over that of the target language. Thus, nouns beget nouns, verbs beget verbs, etc. In contrast, dynamic (“sense for sense”) translations restructure the form of the original into the natural syntax and lexicon of the receptor language in a way that preserves the semantic meaning rather than the form of the source. Compare these examples (my dentist especially likes the first one):

  • “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me,” says the LORD (Amos 4:6 NRSV, JPS, NASB, KJV).
  • “Igave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD (Amos 4:6 NIV, NLT).
  • And he came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave; and Saul went in to cover his feet: and David and his men remained in the sides of the cave (1Sam 24:3 [Heb. v 4] KJV, NJB).
  • He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave. (1Sam 24:3 NIV, NRSV, NLT, NASB).

(See here for a discussion of the Hebrew idiom of “covering one’s feet”)

In ancient times, formal translation was dominant (e.g., the majority of the translators of the LXX), while in modern times dynamic translation tends to be favoured. The tension between the two methods is seen in any modern translation — whether of the Bible or not. I was reading a new translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and the translator highlighted the same tension between formal and dynamic translation. On the one hand the primary purpose was to make Tolstoy readable (dynamic), but she also wanted preserveseve some of Tolstoy’s abrupt style (formal). When it comes right down to it, it is quite rare for a translation to be entirely consistent. Formal translations will unpack some idioms and expressions in the source language using dynamic equivalence while leaving others, and some dynamic translations will employ their theory inconsistently, especially when it comes to a traditional passage.

Denotative and Connotative Meaning

Another significant — and difficult — aspect of translating from one language to another is rendering the connotative meaning of the original. “Connotative” refers to the emotive sense of a word (denotative meaning refers to the referential sense of a word). Connotative meaning recognizes that words have a history and have definite connotations in different cultural contexts. The trick is trying to represent these accurately in translation. A well-know example where most translations fail to convey the connotative meaning of the original is Jesus’ response to his mother at the wedding in Cana:

  • “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (John 2:4 NRSV, NASB, KJV)
  • “O woman, what have you to do with me?”(John 2:4 RSV)
  • “You must not tell me what to do, woman” (John 2:4 GNB)

In all of these cases it would seem to most English readers that Jesus is giving his Mom some attitude when he addresses her as “woman” (γυνή). In contrast, γυνή appears to be a term of endearment and affection in the first century (cf. Josephus, Ant. 17.74). I would think it would be better for translations to not even translate the word like the NLT, or at the very least add a modifier to help communicate the connotations of the term. This is what the NIV did in its translation: “Dear woman, why do you involve me?”

Dogs, Urine, and Connotative Meaning

OK, now we’re at the passage that I wanted to talk about all along. One Hebrew phrase that I think pretty much all modern translations fail miserably to convey its connotative force is found in 1 Samuel 25:22 and five other times in the Hebrew Bible. Compare the following translations:

  • “So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall” (KJV).
  • “May God do so to the enemies of David, and more also, if by morning I leave as much as one male of any who belong to him” (NASB, NIV, NRSV, NLT, BBE, NAB, NKJV, TEV, etc).

Virtually all modern English translations that I have checked render the Hebrew phrase משתין בקיר (lit. “urinate against the wall”) with “male.” Two exceptions are the ASV which has “man-child” and the NJB which renders the phrase with the rather obscure “manjack” (“manjack” appears to be an emphatic way of saying “all of them”). The phrase occurs with similar contexts of cursing and killing in 1Sam 25:34; 1Kings 14:10, 16:11, 21:21; and 2Kings 9:8.

Many scholars think the term is a vulgar way to refer to male humans who may urinate in public whenever nature calls or young children who would be even less bashful (as the ASV evidently understood it). I think a better understanding is to see it as a derogatory comparison to male dogs who are more than eager to urinate against a wall (or anything else that is close). This appears to be one of the early understandings of the phrase (see the Talmud, Midrash on Samuel, Rashi, etc.) and a fairly popular modern one. Whether or not it is referring to males or comparing them to male dogs, it is clearly a contemptuous, vulgar, and pejorative way to refer to men. Translating it simply as “males” fails to convey the negative connotations of the original Hebrew.

The question remains, why would most modern translations not render this phrase in a way that brings out its connotative sense? I would suggest that this is a case of modern translations — both formal and dynamic — wimping out. You can’t have “urinate” in the Bible, much less “piss”! It’s the same concern for a false sense of propriety that softens the translation of ש×?גל×? in the Hebrew Bible or σκÏ?βαλα in the New Testament, among others. This is just one example of where modern translations soften the biblical text. I think that tendency blurs the distance between the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader which is a necessary precaution against mis-reading an ancient text. While this is more of a problem for dynamic translations, as can be seen from this example, it also is a problem for more formal translations.

Posted in Humour, Translation Theory | 4 Comments »

Tendenz and Translation: The Importance of Knowing the Character of a Manuscript for Textual Criticism

20th August 2005

One of the toughest jobs for textual critics is knowing the tendenz or proclivities of the manuscripts or versions they are using for textual reconstruction. This step requires an enormous amount of work that entails an intensive study of a manuscript. Often, I fear, this work is not done and variants are studies in isolation without a sufficient knowledge of the manuscripts themselves. One of the reasons it is not done is that it is a daunting task that few can accomplish. So when someone does this work, it is a great service to the scholarly community (We should thank God for the Kittels, Wevers, Alands, Metzgers of the world!).

This sort of painstaking text critical work has now been done on the Qumran Psalms Scroll (11QPsa). As I mentioned in a previous post, I am working through Ulrich Dahmen’s Psalmen- und Psalter-Rezeption im Fruehjudentum: Rekonstrucktion, Textbestand, Sturktur und Pragmatik der Psalmen Rolle 11QPsa aus Qumran (Brill, 2003; Buy from or

In this third chapter, Dahmen works through all of the variants between 11QPsa and the Masoretic Book of Psalms. From this analysis he draws a number of conclusions. First, he concludes that 11QPsa is clearly dependent on and secondary to the proto-Masoretic Psalter (Something which I have been arguing for many years). That is, almost all of the places where 11QPsa has an alternative reading compared to the MT Psalter, the reading in 11QPsa is later. What is more, Dahmen argues that when all of the variants are considered together (and this is the crucial step of gaining the big picture) some patterns begin to appear. While I will not bore you with the details (and Dahmen notes many details), the most important characteristic are the number of features which connect the scroll with the other texts and themes common to the Qumran community. This is one of the things that is meant when taking about a manuscript’s tendenz.

Knowing the tendenz of 11QPsa provides some critical purchase when making text-criticical decisions. What Dahmen’s research means in practical terms is that 11QPsa is of limited use for textual criticism of the MT book of Psalms. That doesn’t mean it is of no value. Dahmen highlights a couple places where 11QPsa preserves a better reading than the MT. The best example is with the missing nun verse in the acrostic Psalm 145 (an acrostic is a poem that is organized according to the alphabet). In the MT tradition the psalm is clearly missing a verse because its acrostic skips from mem to samech (between vv. 13-14). Well, before 11QPsa was discovered scholars knew something was up and often used the LXX to reconstruct the missing verse. When the Psalms Scroll was discovered, lo and behold, the nun verse was recovered. As it turns out, the two texts (LXX and 11QPsa) preserved similar readings:
πιστὸς κύριος ἐν τοῖς λόγοις αὐτοῦ καὶ ὅσιος ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ἔργοις αὐτοῦ
The Lord is faithful in all his words, and devout in all his deeds

× ×?מן ×?לוהי×? בדבריו וחסיד בכול מעשיו
God is faithful in his words, and gracious in all his deeds

You’ll notice a slight difference between the LXX use of “Lord” while 11QPsa employs “God.” A number of factors suggest that the LXX preserves the better reading. First, when looking at the rest of Psalm, it almost exclusively employs Yahweh. Second, one of the things that Dahmen uncovered in his analysis is that 11QPsa tends to substitute other terms for Yahweh. What evidently happened is that some time in the transmission of the Masoretic text of the book of Psalms, this verse dropped out. The LXX and 11QPsa both preserved the original line, though the LXX preserved the better text in regards to the name used for God.

The moral of this story is that before you can evaluate a textual variant, you need to know the tendenz of the text. Otherwise you’ll miss the forest for the trees.

Posted in Dead Sea Scrolls, Psalms, Reviews & Notices, Septuagint, Text Criticism, Translation Theory | Comments Off