When Bible Translation Goes South
In Genesis 28:14, Jacob dreams that his descendants will spread out “to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south” (NRSV). Leaving aside the odd choice of English grammar here (what’s wrong with “west, east, north, and south”?), what’s interesting is that in Hebrew, the words for two of the directions reference places.
The word for “west” here (yamah) means “toward the sea.” And the word for “south” (negbah) means “toward the Negev (desert).”
It’s normally a mistake to rely too closely on internal structure when translating a word, so even though we have a word “seaward” in English, no translation that I know of uses it in place of the obvious “west.” For one thing, in many places, such as were I live, the sea is on the east, not the west. In fact, when I travel to Israel, which I do almost every year, I’m always confused anew by the “sea being on the wrong side.” I’ll be driving north, toward Haifa, with the Mediterranean on my left, and every bit of me will feel like I’m driving south.
I think this is more than jetlag at play, because the sea is prominent not just geographically but psychologically as well, especially in coastal regions. But if so, does this mean that we’ve lost something by removing the sea from the translation? Should we perhaps use “seaward” after all?
The same reasoning applies to “south” and the desert. Have we lost something important by removing the desert from our translations?
There are additional complications.
Hebrew has other words for “south,” including prominently “toward Yemen” (teimanah), as in Numbers 2:10. There we find “toward Yemen,” meaning “south,” as part of a long description of which Israelite tribes camp where. Sometimes both words — “toward the desert” and “toward Yemen” — occur together, as in Exodus 26:18. There the phrase “toward the Negev, toward Yemen” becomes the one word “south” in most English translations.
There are other words for “east,” too. The one we saw in Genesis 28:14 literally means “toward the beginning,” but we also find mizracha, which (probably) uses the sunrise for reckoning.
The reason all of this is important, I think, is that reference points matter.
In the U.S., “the south” implies more than just geography — it’s also a culture, a way of life, and more. This is why people in Florida are fond of saying that the further north you go the further south you get. The northern part of Florida has more in common with “the south” than the southern part does.
Similarly, what might the difference have been between using “the desert” and “Yemen” as a reference? Was there a different feel to talking about geological formations versus political constructs? (In English, does “from the Atlantic to the Pacific” mean exactly the same thing as “from New York to Los Angeles”? Not for me.)
Finally, it’s worth noting that in English, the directions (at least in my dialect) always go in the same order: “north, south, east, and west.” That’s how to say “everywhere.” If we’re going to leave out all of the cultural implications, should we at least put the words into the right order in English?
All of which leaves us with a translation dilemma: What was implied by the various words used for direction, and how can we convey that in English?
What do you think?