God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Do you talk this way at home?

I recently observed master teacher and musician Kenny Green telling children about the Jewish month of Adar.

“Once Adar begins, we increase our happiness,” he explained, using the usual terminology. Then he added with a self-mocking grin, “yes, I talk that way at home, too.”

There’s a Hebrew verb hirbah that means generally “to do/have/make a lot.”

For example, in Genesis 3:16, God punishes women by hirbahing their pain in childbirth; the usual translation is “multiply” or “increase,” though it’s not clear that there was originally any pain to be multiplied or increased. I think the point is closer to “you will have severe pain” than to “you will have more pain.”

In Genesis 34:12 we find the imperative in the context of “hirbah to me greatly the dowry and gift — I will give it.” I think the point here is, “no matter how high you make the dowry….”

In Psalm 78(77):38, the verb appears before an expression that probably means “to show restraint,” and there the NRSV translates, “often [God] restrained his anger.”

The core meaning of the verb is what “multiply,” “increase,” “make high,” “frequently,” etc. have in common. We don’t have anything like this in English.

The Rabbis used the verb in expressions like, marbeh tz’daka, marbeh shalom, commonly translated “the more charity, the more peace” or even less felicitously, “the one who increases charity increases peace.” “Charity leads to peace” is the point. (Marbeh is the present tense of hirbah.)

This brings us to the tradition of the month of Adar. “From the time Adar enters, we marbeh in happiness.”

It’s a pretty simply concept. “Adar is the time of happiness.” Or, perhaps more poetically, “Happiness abounds in Adar.” A reasonable translation of the Rabbi’s statement might be, “From the time Adar begins happiness abounds.”

By contrast, the usual translation (“we increase our happiness”) is barely English, and a variation, “we have an increase in our happiness,” seems more reminiscent of a sterile scientific experiment than of joy.

Kenny Green correctly noted that his own customary speech made sense only to people who already knew what he was saying.

More generally, I think Bible translations frequently end up as incomprehensible English, but because some people already know what the translation is supposed to mean, they don’t realize that their translation doesn’t say it.

One easy way to see this is to use the grammar of the translation in a new, secular context.

For example, “once July enters, we increase our free time.” It’s barely English.

Similarly, going back to John 3:16, “I so do my homework…” doesn’t mean “this is how I do my homework.”

I think Kenny’s approach can be a useful guide in translation. After you’ve worked through the ancient vocabulary and grammar, and after you’ve crafted an English rendition that you think captures the original, a reasonable question might be, “do you talk this way at home?”

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February 4, 2010 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. It looks like Kenny Green captured that moment well–he used traditional vocabulary but then he bridged the gap between the stiff traditional language by acknowledging what became unnatural in translation. It’s too bad a self-deprecating grin can’t find it’s way into written Bible translation–it might do a lot for the traditional-versus-natural tension that pops up so often.

    Comment by Mitchell Powell | February 4, 2010 | Reply

  2. Marbeh is the present tense of hirbah – would you please elaborate on this? How is it that Hebrew uses taf and mem to form other forms from verbs? (I haven’t got there yet in my letter by letter approach to Ruth) English does it with -ize and -tion etc. Dictionaries in Hebrew are in a random order when it comes to looking up a form of a word.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | February 4, 2010 | Reply

  3. I just thought of a way that mem is used – is the piel participle used as a present tense?

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | February 4, 2010 | Reply

  4. Bob and others: Five binyanim (“verbal paradigms”) use a prefix mem to indicate present tense, also called the participle. Piel is one of them, so is hiph’il which we see here.

    The root is Resh.Bet.Heh, and because the final letter is weak, the connections between the past and the present are less obvious than they otherwise might be. For example, the past/present pair hiktin and maktin sound somewhat similar, but hirbah and marbeh have almost nothing in common in English.

    I usually cite Hebrew verbs in the 3rd-person, singular, past tense form (and Greek verbs in the present tense 1st-person singular active indicative) for convenience, but every so often another form seems desirable.

    Hebrew dictionaries traditionally alphabetize verbs by their roots, which means you have to know an enomormous amount of grammar just to look up a word. In this case, if you wanted to figure out what marbeh means, you’d look under Resh.

    If you wanted to know what mabit means, you’d look under Nun.

    I can understand why it would appear random.

    Comment by Joel H. | February 5, 2010 | Reply

    • P.s.: There’s something wrong with you if you agree with me that the phrase “1st-person singular active indicative” could have anything to do with convenience.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 5, 2010 | Reply

  5. I gathered that you meant [what I call] the participle there; I’m lucky that r-b-h is one of the not-so-“many” roots I know. Perhaps you could find an interesting passage to comment on where time element is up for grabs. Surely there’s plenty in the Prophets.

    Although I am so squarely focused on Greek, reading your blog and Bob’s makes me more excited about catching up in Hebrew.

    P.S. International Septuagint Day is the 9th. I’m reading the book of Joel, and maybe I’ll go through Micah or part of Tobit also. Just thought I’d share that.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | February 5, 2010 | Reply

  6. The day you posted this, I had just read from Ecclesiastes: “The fool multiplies words.” Isn’t this the same Hebrew word?

    Comment by John | February 5, 2010 | Reply

    • Yes. It’s the same hiph’il verb from the root r.b.h.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 5, 2010 | Reply

  7. Thank you

    Comment by George Shew | August 23, 2016 | Reply


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