This is the first verse of the “Isaiah Translation Challenge.” Post your translations, questions, and thoughts as comments.
Here’s a rough literal translation of Isaiah 54:1:
Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth.//
Shout joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached.//
For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.//
— says the Lord//
Isaiah 54:1 opens with two words in stark contrast: A command to “rejoice” followed immediately by “barren woman.” Rejoicing — perhaps “shouting for joy” — represents one extreme of the emotional spectrum, while “barren woman” embodies the other. In antiquity, there was perhaps no greater sorrow than to be barren. So even though Isaiah opens with a command — “rejoice, O barren woman” — he also practically assaults the reader with a question, namely, “what reason could the most dismayed member of society have to celebrate?”
Then Isaiah drives home the point in typical poetic fashion. He adds “who has not given birth” to modify “barren woman.” Though redundant, that phrase emphasizes the barren woman’s pain. Next — again in typical biblical poetic fashion — Isaiah repeats his theme with different words: “Shout for joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached [with childbirth].”
Having twice commanded the barren, childless woman to be happy, Isaiah explains why: For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.”
Verse 1 ends by attributing the poetry to God.
Because Hebrew is a gendered language, Isaiah can use feminine language where in English we need the word “woman,” so Isaiah’s command “rejoice” includes the information that he is addressing a girl or a woman. Additionally, adjectives in Hebrew can refer to people (similar to the way we say “an American,” which means “an American person”). So for the English “barren woman,” Isaiah only needs one word, the feminine adjective “barren.” Isaiah is thus able to express, “rejoice, O barren woman” with only two words.
Continuing the economy of language, Isaiah omits “who” in the clause “who has not given birth,” using only the two words “not birthed.” (This is not common biblical Hebrew, but neither is it unattested.)
So the English “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth” requires but four words in Hebrew: “rejoice barren not birthed.”
Those four words are followed by five: “Shout joy and-celebrate not ached.” And here Isaiah introduces a subtle nuance. Instead of using the last two words (“not ached”) to modify the object of his imperative (as he did with “not given birth”) here those words are the object. In other words, in the first line Isaiah addresses “a barren woman who has not given birth” while here he addresses “one who has not ached.” This kind of slight deviation from the expected is part of what makes for great art.
Isaiah next takes advantage of Hebrew’s flexible word order. Instead of addressing the “children of the desolate woman” first, he says, “for more numerous are the children of the desolate woman than the children of the married woman.” And, again because of the gendered nature of Hebrew, Isaiah makes do with far fewer words: “for more-numerous children-of desolate than-children-of married.” (Complex details of Hebrew let Isaiah do away with the words “more” and “of” completely.)
Finally, as in our English, Isaiah puts “the Lord” after the verb “says,” so that God comes last in the verse.
In terms of the words, we don’t know the exact nuances of the words for “rejoice,” “celebrate,” etc. We do know that the imperative in the first line (“rejoice”) is the verbal form of the noun (“joy”) in the second. And our verb “ached” is probably more generally “was ill.”
In terms of imagery, the text starts with a specific woman and her pain in the first two phrases and then progresses to a general situation in the third, as if to say: “you, a specific unhappy person, should be happy, because people like you will be happy.”
The NRSV gives us, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD.”
This obviously fails in many ways. The archaic “O” is out of place. “Barren” and “bear” sound similar in a way that the Hebrew akarah (“barren”) and yalada (“bore”) do not. The English phrase has twice as many words as the Hebrew. The next line is unclear until the very last word, which tells the reader that the line is about a woman. And the line contains more than twice the number of words as the Hebrew. Additionally, “shout” doesn’t seem like a happy word. The English phrase “the children of X will be more than the children of Y” borders on the ungrammatical. “Her that is married” is hardly poetic.
The NAB is similarly problematic: “Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear, break forth in jubilant song, you who were not in labor, For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband, says the LORD.”
It takes the NAB six words to introduce the two-word contrast between “rejoice” and “barren.” The translation misses the connection between “rejoice” and “joy,” by using the unrelated “raise a glad cry” and “jubilant song.” “Were not in labor” isn’t quite the point; it’s not just that the woman wasn’t in labor but rather that she’s never been in labor. The phrase “deserted wife” has no founding in the original Hebrew, which just refers to a female who is desolate, not necessarily a wife.
The Message — a version I seldom cite here — starts off with promise, but deteriorates rapidly into vapid prose: “`Sing, barren woman, who has never had a baby. Fill the air with song, you who’ve never experienced childbirth! You’re ending up with far more children than all those childbearing woman.’ GOD says so!”
For those who want, here are the Hebrew words of the original. Translations are after the slash. Comments are in (parentheses). English words needed to make sense of the Hebrew are in [braces].
roNI/Rejoice (feminine imperative) akaRA/barren woman [who has] lo/not yaLAda/given birth
pitzCHI/Shout (feminine imperative) riNAH/joy v-tzahaLI/and-celebrate [the one who has] lo/not CHAlah/been ill.
ki/for [more] raBIM/numerous [are] b’nai/children-of shomeiMAH/desolate (feminine) mi-b’nai/than-children-of v’uLAH/married (or “espoused”)
aMAR/said (or says) adoNAI/the Lord.
1. Does the English translation need to mirror the economy of language in the Hebrew?
2. Does the English translation need to preserve the parallel endings “not given birth” in the first line and “not ached” in the second? Does it have to preserve the subtle distinction between the two, noted above?
3. Does barrenness today represent what it used to? If not, is there a better way to express Isaiah’s contrast between rejoicing and sorrow?
So there it is. Post questions or your translation as a comment.
In the fall I promised an “Isaiah translation challenge” — a collective approach to understanding and translating the exquisite poetry of Isaiah 54. I’m pleased to announce that it’s here.
My next post is a detailed analysis of the text of Isaiah 54:1, written with an eye toward guiding poets and translators. I hope you’ll post your translation attempts in the comments there. (To help people focus on the original text, the comments will not appear right away.)
If you have a blog of your own, I’ll be grateful if you help spread the word so we can reach as many translators and poets as possible.
I’m looking forward to seeing the various translations!
As I recently explained on my blog for “The Unabridged Bible” (“Why did they Build the Tower of Babel?“), the Tower of Babel was waterproofed, the goal being to protect the people against a future flood from God.
The text even says so: “And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar” (Genesis 11:3, NRSV). But if you’re not an expert in ancient materials science you don’t know that bitumen was an ancient waterproofing substance.
So here’s the question: An ancient reader of the text would have known the role of bitumen, and the waterproofing is central to the narrative. Should the translation therefore help modern readers follow along? Perhaps the line should read, “They had brick for stone, and waterproofing bitumen for mortar.”
What do you think?
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree that crowds supporting Jesus carried weapons of some sort, usually translated “swords.” (Curiously, the Newsweek article omits Matthew.)
But Dr. Paula Fredriksen is quoted in the article as arguing that “the Greek word used in the Gospels that Martin interprets as sword really means something more akin to knife.”
She’s almost right. The word, machaira, means both “sword” and “knife.”
In Genesis 27:40, Abraham raises a “knife” against his bound son. In Hebrew, that’s ma’achelet and in Greek translation, machaira. Though etymology is notoriously unreliable, the root shared between the Hebrew words ma’achelet (“knife”?) and ochel (“food”) suggests some connection between the knife and food. But even if there is a connection, a ma’achelet is surely not a butter knife. It’s a sharp blade that’s deadly enough to slaughter with.
Furthermore, we also find machaira used to translate the Hebrew word cherev, “sword.”
Returning to the New Testament (which offers better evidence about Greek, because the Greek in the Septuagint is often a poor translation), we find that machaira is metaphorically the opposite of “peace,” in Matthew 10:34, for instance. And in John 18:10 — the passage about Jesus’s armed followers — one thing we know is that the weapon, a machaira, was carried in a sheath of some sort from which Simon Peter drew it.
Again, the machaira isn’t a butter knife, or (because it hadn’t yet been invented) a switchblade.
I think it’s misleading to say that the word doesn’t mean “sword.” It clearly does. The question is what kind. Perhaps we should call it a “dagger” in English, or perhaps there’s a better specific word, but it was certainly a violent weapon.
Jesus’s followers according to the Gospels were armed.
Translators and poets, get ready!
Now that I’ve submitted my second book manuscript to St. Martin’s Press, I’m looking forward to spending more time here. As part of my return, in the next little while I’m going to announce a project to translate Isaiah 54 collectively. Some of the most moving words ever penned, in my opinion, translations unfortunately run from banal to barely intelligible.
So get ready. Take a look at the text. Start studying the words. Familiarize yourself with the imagery. And think about the best way to convey Isaiah’s message in English.
I’ll post details here soon.
Ever wonder what happened to Adam and Eve after they left the Garden of Eden? There’s an answer, but it was cut from the Bible.
Curious about how Abraham discovered monotheism? That was cut too.
So was the once-popular Book of Enoch, written before the Book of Daniel and quoted in the New Testament.
Though they fell to the Bible’s cutting room floor, we still have the ancient texts that answer these and similar questions, filling in blanks in our current version of the Bible.
In addition, these fascinating writings from antiquity offer surprisingly modern insight into the nature of our lives as they explore good and evil.
These are the topics of my latest book, The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible, which goes on sale today.
I hope you enjoy it.
Do you have a blog or other media outlet? Do you post book reviews? If so, my publisher has offered to send you an advance copy of my newest book, The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible. It’s available as a NetGalley (here) or an ARC.
Be in touch with Karlyn Hixson (Karlyn.Hixson@stmartins.com) directly at St. Martin’s Press to get your copy. I believe priority will go to people who can commit to posting a review during the last week of August or the first week of September.
For everyone else, if you pre-order the book by August 15, you get access to a special sneak peek which includes an extensive excerpt from my chapter about the second half of the Adam and Eve narrative, along with bonus notes and discussion questions.
(If you’ve noticed that I’ve barely posted here in a while, this is why. I’ve been completing The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor and working on another book, as well as building out my on-line resource to complement the book, “The Unabridged Bible.”)
Learn more about the book from the book’s website.
With attention focused on the Book of Esther as the Jewish holiday of Purim approaches, I decided to take a quick break from building “The Unabridged Bible” to address the violent details of the antagonist’s death in the story, because they are interesting in their own right, and are also a prefect demonstration of the two-fold challenge of Bible translation.
The issue is this: As part of the battle between Mordecai (the hero) and Haman (the villain), Haman plans Mordecai’s death in a particular fashion, but in the end the instrument of death is turned on Haman himself.
According to the NRSV, Haman’s wife suggested (verse 5:14) that “a gallows fifty cubits [seventy-five feet] high be made … to have Mordecai hanged on it.” But the JPS translation offers instead, “Let a stake be put up … to have Mordecai impaled on it.” Verse 7:10 details the plot reversal: the King’s men either “hanged Haman on the gallows” (NRSV) or “impaled Haman on the stake” (JPS).
So which is it? Was it a gallows or stake? And was Haman hanged or impaled?
There are two questions here, as there always are with matters of translation. The first is what the original Hebrew means. The second is how best to say that in English.
The Hebrew verb is talah, which means “to hang.” And the Hebrew noun is eitz, “tree” or “wood.” So it looks straightforward. It was a tall piece of wood, and what they did to Haman was hang him on it.
Surprisingly, though, the way to say that in English is not “hang Haman,” because even though the verb “hang” in general encompasses a wide variety of acts, it has a very narrow meaning in English in connection to killing someone: putting the person’s head through a loop of rope and hanging the rope, not the person, from some horizontal structure. (Imagine a comic. The caption is “she told me to hang the wash.” The drawing shows shirts in a noose.)
In other words, “Haman was hanged from a gallows” means that a vertical post was constructed to support a horizontal crossbar; a noose was hung from that crossbar; and Haman was suspended by the neck from that noose. There is almost no chance that this is what the text intended. (This specialized meaning of “hang” used to have its own past tense: “hanged,” as opposed to “hung.” Most people don’t preserve that distinction any more.)
But if not in stereotypical western-movie fashion, how was Haman suspended from the wooden post? Here, unfortunately, we don’t have a clear answer. One reasonable possibility is that he was impaled by the post. Another is that he was crucified in some fashion. We don’t know for sure. (The evidence comes in part from Greek translations, and in part from other Greek writing about the capital punishment practices of the Medes.)
So what do we do about a translation? “Hanged on a gallows” is clearly wrong. It wasn’t a gallows as we think of it, and he wasn’t hanged. “Impaled on a stake” might be right. Certainly “stake” is better than “gallows.” But “impaled” adds a detail that might not be right, and, even if it is, goes beyond what the text actually tells us.
My suggestion, then, is “they hung Haman on the stake.” At least to my ear, this conveys the original image of Haman being attached in some direct manner to a tall piece of wood from which he hung.
What do you think?
There’s something inexplicably exhilarating — at least for me — about reading actual ancient texts. I don’t mean transcriptions, but the texts themselves.
To help spread this joy, I’ve put a page of the glorious 6th-century Vienna Genesis manuscript of the Septuagint on The Unabridged Bible. In addition to the fabulous illustration, the Greek text of Genesis 39 is remarkably clear. If you know Greek, you can probably read a lot of it, even though it’s in all caps, with no spaces between the words.
For navigational help, I’ve added verse numbers, and, beneath the facsimile, I’ve put a complete transcription of the Greek, with diacritics. (It’s hard to imagine I didn’t mistype anything, though, so if you find a typo, please let me know.)
Comments are disabled here because this is off topic, but I’d love to hear from you in the comments section of the original post.