God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: On the Sons of Gods

From the about page comes this question:

Here is something I ignored when I translated Job and I don’t think I should have. In chapter 1 we get the b’nei ha-elohim. In chapter 38 we get the b’nei elohim without the definite article. I am thinking that the first should be the children (or sons) of the gods or of the mighty, and the second the children of God? This is without looking up Tur Sinai and all the other references I used that are since back in the library — so I ask you instead (thanks).

Don’t thank me yet, since calling this “Q&A” might be a stretch. I don’t have much of an answer.

The difference between ha-elohim and elohim seems like it has to be important, but I’ve yet to find a satisfactory explanation of the two. I do know that the simplistic approach of using “the” in English for ha- here doesn’t work. These may be dialectal variants, they might be the same thing, or they might differ in ways we haven’t figured out yet.

In general I think it’s a good idea to use different English for different Hebrew, but in this case, I don’t think we have that option. “Children of the gods” versus “children of God” is likely to be wrong, as is “children of the mighty.”

Though both ha-elohim and elohim are common, we find b’nei ha-elohim only in Genesis 6 and twice in Job, and b’nei elohim only in Job 38:7.

So an important related question is who these god children are. The Jewish Study Bible (which I highly recommend) has this to say:

[Job 1:]6. The divine beings presented themselves before the Lord: Similar meetings of the Lord enthroned on His heavenly throne and all the heavenly host standing before Him on either side are reported by the prophet Micah son of Imlah in 1 Kings 22.19-23, by the prophet Isaiah in Isa. ch 6, and in Ps. 82 and Dan. 7.9-10. The members of the heavenly court, here and in Ps. 82 called divine beings (here lit. “sons of the gods”; in Ps. 82.2 lit. “gods”) are called in 1 Kings ch 22 “the heavenly host”; in Job 4.18 they are called “servants” and “angels”; in 15:15 they are called “holy ones” and “the heavens,” while in 25:5 they are identified with the moon and stars, who, with the sun, are called “the whole heavenly host” in Deut. 4.19. Typically, these divine beings, though they have great power, may not act independently of God. [My emphasis.]

The LXX translates “angels of the God” in Job 1 and 2, and “my angels” in Job 38.

With all of this in mind, I think both phrases refer to the same group. (Maybe the b’nai here is like the word b’nai in b’nai yisrael, and these are the Lordites.)

At any rate, my suggestion is to pick a phrase that’s likely to be accurate, capitalize it, and hope for the best.


November 15, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 3 Comments

Thinking About Translation In Just One Language

It’s often pointed out that actually knowing more than one language is helpful for intuiting how translation works. But I think many of the same intuitions can come from thinking about just one language. Here are two examples from English:

1. Jim West recently wrote that “Bob Cargill has penned” something. What role does “pen” play in that phrase? In a language that can’t make nouns into verbs the way English does, should the translation be the equivalent of “wrote with a pen” or just “wrote”? What about “dialed [a phone]”? What about “top of the hour” for a society that has no physical clocks (or just digital ones!)?

Jim qualified his opening line: “Bob Cargill has penned (I know, it’s an anachronism since he typed and didn’t pen at all)….” In that broader context, is “pen” a crucial element of the phrase that needs to be translated?

2. “Sofa” and “couch” mean almost exactly the same thing. But a “couch potato” isn’t a “sofa potato.” (For non-English speakers: A “couch potato” is someone who’s lazy, especially someone who lazes on a couch or sofa, and especially someone who does so to watch television.) What goes wrong if “sofa” and “couch” get mixed up? How can we know when the two words are interchangeable and when they’re not?

November 15, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?

Clayboy has a short post in which he describes an experiment he ran. He told an audience, “I like to ask my fellow men to stand.” Only the men stood.

This is pretty convincing evidence that, at least where he was, “men” doesn’t mean “men and women.”

I wonder if there is any context in which the women would have stood, too.

November 15, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , | 9 Comments