Translating Mistakes in the Text
From time to time, we have what seem to be mistakes in the traditional text of the Bible, frequently the results of apparent errors on the part of a scribe. How should these be translated?
Here are three examples.
Leviticus 20:10 (dittography)
In Leviticus 20:10, we find the phrase “a man who commits adultery with the wife of” repeated, almost certainly inadvertently. So the Hebrew text reads, literally:
a man who commits adultery with the wife of
a man who commits adultery with the wife of
[in that case the adulterer and adulteress shall be put to death.]
Three translation options seem to present themselves:
1. Translate the text as it is, repetition and all.
2. “Fix” the text by ignoring the repetition.
3. “Fix” the text by making sense of the repetition.
Most translations take the second route. The ESV, NRSV, and The Message, for example, translate the repeated phrase only once. (The ESV and NRSV note the Hebrew duplication in a footnote.)
I don’t know of any version that follows the first strategy exactly, but the KJV comes pretty close: “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” If we disregard the italics, the duplicated phrases are almost identical. But even so, the KJV doesn’t reproduce the effect of having the same phrase twice.
The remaining translations try to make sense of the duplication, much as the KJV did. For instance, the NIV gives us, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor — …,” as if the second phrase is an explanation of the first.
The merits of Option 2 are pretty clear: Just because a scribe made a mistake doesn’t mean we should introduce a mistake into English.
I can understand Option 1 as well: We should translate the text, not emend it.
But it’s hard for me to understand why Option 3 is a good idea. Rather, it seems like a mistake born of misunderstanding the nature of the original text.
Deuteronomy 31:1 (parablepsis)
We find a different challenge in Deuteronomy 31:1. That verse starts in Hebrew, “Moses went [vayelech] and spoke…” The problem is that Moses didn’t go anywhere. In fact, it’s pretty clear that he’s exactly where he was in the previous verse.
It seems that the original text was not “Moses went” but rather “Moses finished.” While those two verbs seem unrelated in English, in Hebrew the first (without vowels) is V-Y-L-K, while the second is V-Y-K-L. Except for the order of the final two letters, they’re the same. Furthermore, we find V-Y-K-L (“finished”) in the Dead Sea Scrolls (“DSS”), and the Septuagint translates sunteleo, “finished.”
Again, we have three basic options: translate the text as is, ignore the mistake, or make sense of the mistake.
The KJV, among others, takes the first approach. (This is hardly surprising. Until the discovery of the DSS, it wasn’t clear that this was a mistake. Many people thought the Septuagint had it wrong. And, in fact, I suppose it’s possible that the Septuagint and DSS are both wrong.)
Other translations, such as the NAB and NRSV, simply translate “finished” here, as though the Hebrew read V-Y-K-L.
And other translations yet try to reconcile the text, with such options as, “So Moses continued to speak” (ESV).
Again, I understand the first two approaches better than the third.
Psalm 93:4 (haplography)
A third example comes from the poetry in Psalm 93:4. The Hebrew is, literally, “more than the sounds of much water mighty sea-breakers mighty on high is Adonai” — which doesn’t make much sense.
The Hebrew grammar here is complicated, but three basic points will help: The Hebrew letter mem (“M”) is used at the end of a word to indicate plurals. It is used at the beginning of a word to indicate nouns. And, also at the beginning of a word, it means “more than.”
So the plural of “mighty” (adir) is adirim. The word “breaker” starts with a mem: mishbar. And the first word of Psalm 93:4, mikolot comes from mi- (“more than”) plus kolot (“sounds”).
Accordingly, the way to say “mightier than sea-breakers,” if “mightier” is plural, is adirim mi-mish’b’rei yam, or, without vowels or spaces, A-D-Y-R-Y-M-M-M-Sh-B-R-Y-Y-M. However, the traditional text gives us A-D-Y-R-Y-M-M-Sh-B-R-Y-Y-M.
In short, if we add a third mem (back?) into the text, we get the much more sensible, “God is mightier than the sound of the water, mightier than the sea breakers.”
Here, every translation I know adopts what we’ve been calling the second strategy, fixing the text by ignoring the mistake.
Summary and Questions
Even though these three — and other — scribal errors are in principal the same, we find that translations deal with them differently.
1. Do you think a translation should fix erroneous text? If so, when?
2. When a translation does fix the text, should it also indicate what the uncorrected text means?
3. What value might there be to printing the uncorrected Hebrew (or Greek) next to the corrected English?
June 22, 2011 - Posted by Joel H. | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | Bible, Bible translation, Dead Sea Scrolls, Deuteronomy 31:1, dittography, DSS, ESV, haplography, KJV, Leviticus 20:10, NRSV, parablepsis, Psalm 93:4, scribal errors, The Message, translation
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God Didn’t Say That (@GodDidntSayThat) is an online forum for discussing the Bible and its translations, mistranslations, interpretations, and misinterpretations.
Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (@JoelMHoffman) is the chief translator for the ten-volume series My People’s Prayer Book, author of And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, and editor of The Unabridged Bible. Writing under “J.M. Hoffman,” he is author of the thriller series The Warwick Files. He holds a PhD in theoretical linguistics and has taught at Brandeis University and HUC-JIR in New York City. He presents widely to churches, synagogues, and other groups. more…
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