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On Translations and Teaching

May 5, 2007

It is a standard axiom in biblical studies that “all translation is interpretation.” However, this axiom does not go far enough. The choice of a translation — or even the decision not to use a translation — amounts to a theological and ideological statement that will provide the lens whereby you read the text of Scripture. In the end, as Bob Dylan famously said: you’ve got to serve somebody.

Most of us in the guild know this and try our best to avoid the trap by consulting everything — the MT, DSS, LXX, Peshitta, Vulgate, modern translations, you name it. But this is not the an option for most of those we teach. While we have the time — and duty — to try and get above and below the ideology of a specific textual tradition, our students have neither the time nor the resources to do the same. Further, those going into the ministry absolutely must align themselves with a certain textual tradition in order to do their work. (If a pastor or rabbi is spending have their time explaining why they think a word is translated wrong or is a later gloss, they aren’t really doing their job.) Hence, I’m finding myself writing on translations.

Two distinct circumstances have focussed my thoughts on Bible translations this past week. The first was Kevin A. Wilson’s post Analysis of the ESV and the subsequent comment by Patrick George McCullough on that post. According to Wilson’s analysis software, the ESV is closer to the NRSV and the RSV than it is to most other translations. That is to say, it is a readable “word-for-word” translation. In the comments, McCullough holds that in his experience the ESV is truer to the Greek text. For full disclosure I, on the other hand, found the ESV to be not as true to the Hebrew text at key points. I’ll return to this theme later.

The second circumstance that has caused me to reevaluate translations this week was news from Eastern University. I have been given a green light to adjunct an introduction to Old Testament/Hebrew Bible course this fall. In addition to scurrying about finding or producing requisite documents to close the deal on this job, I am also having to consider seriously how to teach the Bible at my alma mater. One of the first questions in this regard is what translation I will require the students to use, if I require a translation at all.

For the purpose of finding a translation or group of translations for an intro OT class at the college level the main principles seem to be (in no particular order) readability, ideological consistency with the moray of the institution and accuracy to the original texts. First, the text needs to be understandable. It makes no sense to give folks a translation that is unintelligible (IOW: no KJV!). Second, if you are teaching at a school with an inclusive language policy, the Bible shouldn’t get a pass because it’s the Bible. There are simply too many gender neutral translations on the market to make this excuse. Finally, the translation needs to be accurate. This is probably the biggie since Pilot’s words “What is truth?” start to tug at our ears. Also, it can even start to encroach on the other two principles. Let’s examine further.

For those working in the OT/HB, ideological re-appropriation and mistranslation are par for the course. Good test texts are Isa 8:14; Pss 2:12; 22:16; and Dan 9:25. The issues in these verses are obvious, but for an example let’s look at Ps 2:12a.

  • MT: נשקו בר פן יאנף ותאבדו דרך כי יבער כמעט אפו אשרי כל חוסי בו
  • NIV: Kiss the Son, lest he be angry
    and you be destroyed in your way,
    for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
  • TNIV: Kiss his son, or he will be angry
    and you and your ways will be destroyed,
    for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
  • NASB: Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way,
    For His wrath may soon be kindled
    How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!
  • HCSB: Pay homage to the Son, or He will be angry,
    and you will perish in your rebellion,
    for His anger may ignite at any moment.
    All those who take refuge in Him are happy.
  • ESV: Kiss the Son,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
  • NLT: Submit to God’s royal son, or he will become angry,
    and you will be destroyed in the midst of all your activities—
    for his anger flares up in an instant.
    But what joy for all who take refuge in him!
  • RSV: kiss his feet,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way;
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
  • NRSV: kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
  • NET: Give sincere homage!Otherwise he will be angry,
    and you will die because of your behavior,
    when his anger quickly ignites.
    How blessed are all who take shelter in him!

Now, it becomes obvious that some of these translations are different than others. The NIV, NASB, HCSB, NLT and ESV all see the Aramaic בר “son” rather than the Hebrew בר “foot.” Why see a stray Aramaicism in an otherwise standard Hebrew psalm? Easy: they want the psalm to be about Jesus. Obviously Heb 1 takes this messianic psalm of a Davidic king as pertaining to the Messiah (note the caps), but that doesn’t give the translators the leeway for linguistic flights of fancy. Notice how far that some translations take this: capitalizing “Son” and “He,” and even adding “his” and/or “royal” before “son, “adding even more levels of interpretation upon an already poor translation choice. Please note: I am not saying that Hebrews is wrong in saying that Ps 2 pertains to Jesus; I am saying these translators are wrong in how they read the Hebrew.

All this points back to my current quandary. If we use Ps 2:12 as an accurate sample (which to my mind, it might be), then the best translations for those of us in OT/HB are the RSV, NRSV and NET. Unfortunately, of these only the NRSV uses gender neutral language. Which really leaves me only one choice for teaching this fall. While I am not happy to have my choices so reduced, it is at least a comfort that this is the same translation I was told to buy when taking intro to OT at Eastern back in the day.

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31 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2007 12:44 pm

    Jim, thanks for this post. It is above average for academic integrity in blog posts. I’m going to link to it from the Better Bibles Blog.

  2. jimgetz permalink*
    May 5, 2007 12:59 pm

    Wayne, thanks for commenting. Your Better Bible Blogs has an astounding amount of resources on it! Very nice.

  3. May 5, 2007 4:05 pm

    Thanks for the link, Jim! And this is a very thought-provoking post.

    In the comments, McCullough holds that in his experience the ESV is truer to the Greek text. For full disclosure I, on the other hand, found the ESV to be not as true to the Hebrew text at key points.

    I feel that I should note that this is something I’ve only been doing quite recently, perhaps the past month or so. I haven’t been looking into theologically controversial passages, but just checking to see what they do with grammar and syntax.

    Also, since I’m working primarily with the Greek NT and you’ve reflected so nicely on a particular example in the OT/HB, I wonder if our evaluation of a translation should be different for the OT/HB than it is for the NT. The example you bring up is one of reading back into the Hebrew text a New Testament perspective. We obviously read back into the NT text our various theological perspectives from Christian history, but it’s not quite the same. Jesus really is the center of the theology in the NT, but Jesus is interpreted as being proclaimed within the OT. The latter may leave more room for disingenuous translation temptations, such as found in Ps 2:12.

    I’d also like to say that it is too bad that the TNIV, though much improved over the NIV, still holds on to some of the same theological biases. Another example from the OT/HB that I think of is Gen 2:19:

    NRSV: So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air . . .

    NIV: Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air.

    TNIV:Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky.

    The NIV and TNIV try to harmonize Gen 1 and 2, while the NRSV lets them stay separate. [The ESV, by the way, does translate it only as "formed," with a footnote stating "Or had formed".]

    It would have been nice to have the TNIV as an even better rival to the NRSV in the world of gender inclusive translations.

  4. jimgetz permalink*
    May 5, 2007 4:50 pm

    Pat, always fun to find a fellow Fullerite.

    I’ve also notices a certain unevenness between the OT and NT translation in the TNIV. When the TNIV NT was first released, I was quite impressed. It seemed like a good, gender inclusive dynamic equivalent translation.

    But, the OT has been quite disappointing. Not only did they not fix the problems in the NIV, in quite a few places they made it worse! (sorry to Wayne and others on the TNIV Truth blog.) It’s strange to find such disproportion in a contemporary translation.

  5. May 5, 2007 6:58 pm

    I loved this post. You might check out my little post on how Jesus taught me to paralyze the devil, what a peace generating thing that is.
    http://www.thingsgodtaughtme.wordpress.com

  6. May 8, 2007 12:56 am

    But, the OT has been quite disappointing. Not only did they not fix the problems in the NIV, in quite a few places they made it worse! (sorry to Wayne and others on the TNIV Truth blog.)

    No problem, Jim. I don’t work for Zondervan or the TNIV committee. I’ve just been deeply grieved at how the TNIV and its translators have been villified by fellow Christians (who sincerely believe what they say, of course). At the TNIV Truth blog we just want to try to tell the truth about the TNIV. We want to correct so much misinformation which has been disseminated about the TNIV. I regularly send email to the TNIV committee suggesting revisions which I believe would improve their translation. I like constructive criticism.

  7. May 8, 2007 7:30 am

    Consider also the REB, which has a strong track record with the OT:

    worship the Lord with reverence; tremble, and pay glad homage to the king, for fear the Lord may become angry and you may be struck down in mid-course; for his anger flares up in a moment. Happy are all who find refuge in him!

  8. jimgetz permalink*
    May 8, 2007 8:56 am

    Wayne,

    I can completely understand your desire to counteract the villifying of the TNIV translation and translators. I distinctly remember the “Stealth Bible” cover of World Magazine back in 1997. It always amazes me how so many folks who think they understand languages miss the fundamental point that languages are always changing (sigh). I’m glad I did not offend, and for the record: I don’t think the TNIV translators are evil in the slightest.

    Rick,
    I hadn’t considered the NEB. It’s not a translation that I often run across — I can’t even find a complete copy of it online. From the bits and pieces I can find on the net, I do have a problem with their translation of Gen 1, which could possibly be a bad sign. But, I will definitely track down a copy at my library and give it test drive.

  9. Eric Rowe permalink
    May 8, 2007 9:19 am

    First of all, for the sake of full disclosure, you should probably mention that the Old Greek of Ps 2 translates בר as παιδιας, which could be the result of reading בר to mean “son” or perhaps “purity” (both of which relate to παιδιας somewhat indirectly). The other versions, including the Targum seem to do something similar. But there are no feet to be found. So it’s not just the result of Christianizing.

    Second, the word בר does mean son. Aramaisms happen in the Bible. And we can’t rule one out just because we worry that somebody might interpret it messianically. Proverbs 31:2 also uses בר for son.

    Third, when does בר ever mean “feet” in Hebrew? It can mean “pure” or “grain”. But not “feet”, as far as I can tell. There is a conjectural emendation in BHS to change it to לרגליו. Perhaps that’s what you meant?

    But this leaves us with the reality that all of the versions that use the word “son” are sticking to the unchanged Masoretic text and translating it in an appropriate way, given the meanings available for the word, including the Aramaic meaning. The ones that say “feet” are translating something that is not in any Hebrew manuscripts, nor was it the reading accepted by the ancient Greek or Targum translators. We could also follow the NET (I think JPS too) and interpret it adverbially, so as to mean “with purity/sincerity”. But בר in the sense of “pure” is an adjective (cf. Ps 19:9) not an adverb, and a noun like “son” (or feet) would fit the syntax here as the object of the verb much more easily than an adjective read as an adverb.

    So why go with the “feet” translation?

  10. jimgetz permalink*
    May 8, 2007 10:43 am

    Eric,

    Thanks for the response. IMO you can take בר as “feet” or “pure” but not “son.” Again, I’m not saying that you can’t have Aramisisms in biblical texts. However, why pose a variance of בני in v.7 and then בר in v. 12? Why a change lexical change within 5 verses?

    As is well know, using the Greek for meanings in the Ketuvim can be a bit… sketchy. You are already dealing with a level of interpretation. Not to mention the fact that the Greek is not always using the same textual tradition as comes down to us in the MT.

    Just to be clear the Targum isn’t translating בר as “son” in v.12, it is taking it as purity. If you want to take בר as “pure,” that’s fine. The word “pure” comes from NWS brr and has no relation to the word for son. I wonder if the NEB is thinking ברר when it translates “with reverence.”

    Further taking either legit meaning of בר adverbially isn’t a problem, both because of the nature of poetry and the use of adverbial accusatives in semitic.

    Once again, my big concern is that it isn’t “son” and definitely not “the Son.” But, I am wondering how you you affirm the use of “son” based on the texts you cite.

  11. Eric Rowe permalink
    May 8, 2007 11:21 am

    Jim said, “IMO you can take בר as “feet” or “pure” but not “son.””

    How in the world can you take it to mean “feet”? Can you please provide evidence for that?

  12. Eric Rowe permalink
    May 8, 2007 11:26 am

    Jim also said, “Further taking either legit meaning of בר adverbially isn’t a problem, both because of the nature of poetry and the use of adverbial accusatives in semitic.”

    Yes, adverbial accusatives are common enough. But בר does not mean “purity” as an abstract noun. It means “pure” as an adjective. To use it as an adverbial accusative, you first have to interpret it syntactically as a substantive adjective. But then its meaning would be “pure one” not “purity”. Thus, a translation of “Kiss the pure one” would be agreeable to the syntax, but not “Kiss with reverence” or “Give sincere homage”. And again, “Kiss the son,” is also well within reason, certainly moreso than anything involving feet.

  13. Eric Rowe permalink
    May 8, 2007 11:49 am

    “As is well know, using the Greek for meanings in the Ketuvim can be a bit… sketchy. ”

    Just a picky detail (I’m probably being too nerdy now). Psalms are part of the Ketuvim in the MT. But at the time they were translated into Greek, and for centuries after, they were usually considered among the Nevi’im (or so says the modern consensus among experts).

  14. jimgetz permalink*
    May 8, 2007 11:58 am

    Eric,

    I’m still not seeing this.

    Thus, a translation of “Kiss the pure one” would be agreeable to the syntax, but not “Kiss with reverence” or “Give sincere homage”. And again, “Kiss the son,” is also well within reason, certainly moreso than anything involving feet.

    Well, even old BDB allows for an adverbial use of בר in this text. An adverbial accusative of an substantive adjective would be translate “purely,” no? As to whether you would simply haven a substantive in the psalm, “Kiss the pure one” is an intriguing translation, given the temporary sacralization of kings at Ugarit. However, I would think that this kind of a personalization would require a participial form (once again, on analogy to Ugaritic).

    I still can’t go with “son” here. It makes no sense.

    I think what this whole discussion is doing is pushing me closer to the NEB (though I still have issues with how they translate Gen 1).

  15. Eric Rowe permalink
    May 8, 2007 1:38 pm

    “Son” does make sense if it’s messianic. Christians through the centuries have had no trouble making sense of it that way. My guess is that pre-Christian Jews had no trouble reading it that way either, which may explain why the MT has it if it really isn’t original as some suggest (mind you I don’t suggest that, but the BHS editors seem to).

    You say “even old BDB allows for an adverbial use of בר in this text” as if BDB is some archaic fundy book that you would expect to follow Christianizing translations. At any rate, I don’t deny the possibility of an adverbial use of the adjective. But to do that you still have to read the adjective with its acceptable substantive meaning of “pure one” not “purity” in the abstract, as some (maybe including BDB) want to.

    However, my main question is how can you justify the “feet” translation. I’m still waiting to see your evidence that בר can mean feet.

  16. jimgetz permalink*
    May 8, 2007 2:44 pm

    Eric,
    The use of בן in v.7 and the understanding of the Targums are enough to make me assert “son” is a poor translation of בר. The psalm is obviously messianic — it deals with an anointed son of David.

    As far as the BDB, it is not a fundamentalist lexicon, nor did I imply that in my comment. It is an out-of-date lexicon. It was written and edited in the early days of Assyriology (before von Soden and CAD) and before the discoveries of Ugarit and the DSS (not to mention Mari, Nuzi, the Hittites, Hurrians, and other surrounding cultures). The BDB was still forced to understand biblical Hebrew based on analogy to Classical Arabic (hence the organization by roots). With older, more contemporary texts, there has been a fundamental rethinking of every aspect of Hebrew grammar since BDB was written.

    The “feet” reconstruction and translation was the best guess for most of the twentieth century. (IOW: I’m a research library in my day job, we both seem to know the arguments, move along.)

    Could “purely” be a better option? Sure. I’m willing to live with that ambiguity when I’m teaching freshman intro to the Bible. Either is a better option than positing a stray Aramaic word.

    I still am not sure if I would posit a straight substantive here: “kiss a pure (one)”(?). I would expect some notice of ritual purification of the king earlier in the psalm — unless the adoption of the monarch by the deity served as an apotheosis that automatically induced a pure state. But, I don’t find that automatic an understanding of ritual sacralization in contemporary cultures.

  17. Eric Rowe permalink
    May 8, 2007 2:57 pm

    Actually, I honestly don’t know the arguments for the reading “feet”. I only know what I saw in the BHS footnote, which does not include anything evidence that would support the reading. But even that footnote isn’t claiming that בר can mean feet. To follow the NRSV here is to follow a Hebrew text that is completely made up as far as I can tell. The versions that say “son” at least translate what is actually there. Whether this reading fits our idea of what the original context of this Psalm ought to have been according to a reconstructed history of Israelite religion we might invent is another story.

  18. Eric Rowe permalink
    May 8, 2007 3:19 pm

    FWIW, after your mention of BDB. I checked and as I read it, they opt for the reading “son”. They only list the adverbial reading as an option others have accepted.
    But since BDB is perhaps obsolete here, as you suggest they tend to be, I checked HALOT. And they also opt for the reading “son”.
    So it would seem that the translations that go that route are in at least decent company.

  19. Eric Rowe permalink
    May 8, 2007 3:31 pm

    Also, בר as “pure” doesn’t generally mean ritual purity, at least not in the examples I’ve skimmed over in the course of this discussion. So I wouldn’t see any kind of apotheosis or ritual purification even if I did read it that way. But the truth is, to read בר as a substantive, “son” and “pure one” are our only options. And to read it adverbially, it just would not mean “purely.” I really don’t see a way to get an adverbial meaning out of the range of usage for בר attested in the Bible. I understand the mechanism your suggesting–nouns can be used adverbially, and adjectives can be used substantivally, so an adjective could be used adverbially as an adverbial accusative of the meaning it has when its used substantivally. But since the substantival meaning of בר can only be “pure one” and never “purity,” I just don’t see how an adverbial accusative can make sense.

  20. jimgetz permalink*
    May 8, 2007 4:19 pm

    Eric,

    Also, בר as “pure” doesn’t generally mean ritual purity, at least not in the examples I’ve skimmed over in the course of this discussion.

    You’re right, so far as the Priestly traditions care. They use טהר. However, for those who want to posit Ps.2 is early, Ugaritic evidence can come in to play where brr occupies a similar semantic range as קדש in the HB.

    But since the substantival meaning of בר can only be “pure one” and never “purity,” I just don’t see how an adverbial accusative can make sense.

    That’s why folks reconstruct the text ;-)

    It surprises me that HALOT would opt for “son,” but I still don’t think it works.

  21. Eric Rowe permalink
    May 8, 2007 5:05 pm

    Thanks for the good discussion btw. I found our blog via the better Bibles blog. I left a couple other comments on theirs on the issue, but addressing it more generally than here.

    At the very least, I think that weighing all the data, it’s best not to say that the reading of “son” is simply Christianizing the text. It’s a translation that takes the text as it is written and translates it in a syntactically normal way. As you say, the options all have problems, and “That’s why folks reconstruct the text.” We wouldn’t see the versions that say “feet” if it were all that easy to understand בר as an adverb meaning “with sincerity”.

    I also don’t quite look at it the way you do when you say that בר for “son” would be a “stray Aramaic word.” We find Aramaic vocabulary all over the OT, just like we find Latin vocabulary all over our own English writing. I wouldn’t say that my use of the word “vocabulary” just now was a stray Latin word. As a student of the cognate literature of the OT, do you also say that Persian, and Akkadian vocabulary found in the Bible are stray words? Is בר in Prov 31:2 isa stray Aramaic word? And if all the Aramaic vocabulary that we find in supposedly Hebrew works is a bunch of stray Aramaic words, then we’ll get into real trouble when we progress later and later in the Hebrew language, where the Aramaic vocabulary piles up considerably more. If the author of Psalm 2 did mean בר in the same sense in which he had just used בנ, then in his mind he was merely using two synonymous words, not inexplicably changing languages.

  22. May 31, 2007 3:49 pm

    I don’t want to wait till the end of Summer :( , I want it now. Who with me?
    save your time and join me. ;)

Trackbacks

  1. Blue Cord » Another Biblioblog
  2. Higgaion » Accuracy in translation: Psalm 2:12
  3. Ketuvim: the Writings of James R. Getz Jr. On Translation and Teaching Part II «
  4. Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Psalm 2:11-12 - A Text Critical Crux Interpretum
  5. Higgaion » Accuracy in translation: Tyler Williams on Psalm 2:12
  6. Higgaion » Psalm 2:12, once again
  7. Metacatholic » Blog Archive » Traditioned translation
  8. Ketuvim: the Writings of James R. Getz Jr. Biblical Studies Carnival 18 over at Deinde «

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