There is something intuitively appealing about a translation that takes the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible and translates each one into English. But the premise behind such an approach is flawed, because words work together differently in different languages.
Here’s a simple example from Genesis 29:19: vayomer lavan tov titi ota lach mititi ota l’ish acher.
The Hebrew starts off vayomer lavan, which is quite clearly, “Laban said.” What did Laban say?
The next word in Hebrew is also easy: tov means “good.” What is good?
The next word is a bit more complicated, but still uncontroversial. The Hebrew titi is from the verb stem tet (“give”), and it means “my giving.” Then the Hebrew gets easy again: ota is “her” and lach is “to you.” So far we have, “my giving her to you is good” — a translation that is simple and straightforward, but wrong.
Even though that’s what the words mean, it’s not what the phrase means.
What’s going on is, also, uncontroversial. The next phrase in Hebrew is mititi ota l’ish acher, literally “from my giving her to another man.” The key factor here is knowing that Hebrew uses “from” to indicate comparison, or what is technically called “degree.” In English, we usually do this by changing the adjective, either with “more” and “most” or with the suffixes “-er” and “-est.”
For example, in the English “he is happier (than her)” the adjective “happier” expresses a comparison of happiness. Interestingly, it’s possible that “he is not happy,” but he’s still “happier than her.” That’s how degree works.
In Hebrew, the word would be just “happy” in both cases.
English indicates degree by changing the adjective. Hebrew uses “from” elsewhere in the sentence.
When we see mititi (“from my giving”) in the second part of the Hebrew sentence, that’s our clue that this sentence is a comparison. The way we indicate this comparison in English is with “better.” And, of course, that’s what every translation has: “it’s better that I give her to you than to some other man” (NIV).
The point is that Hebrew has one way of indicating degree and English has another. It’s a mistake to translate the words of Hebrew into English. Rather, the goal of the translator, in this case, is to translate the comparison. More generally, the goal of the translator is to figure out what the original words do, and then find a way of doing the same thing in English.
Some people think that the goal of “adding words in English” is just to make what would otherwise be nonsensical (“it is good, my giving her to you, from my giving her to another man”) into something that makes sense. But that’s not quite right. Rather, the goal is to make the English mean the same thing as the Hebrew.
Similarly, some people think that the “from” in the second part of the Hebrew sentence means that “we should translate tov as ‘better.’ ” But, again, that’s not quite right. We’re not translating tov. We’re translating the phrase.
We find another case of the same grammatical issue (degree) in Genesis 4:13: gadol avoni minso, literally, “big my crime from-bear,” with the obvious translation “my crime is too great to bear.” Again, we add the words “too” and “to” not just to make a coherent English sentence, but to make the right coherent English sentence, one that matches the Hebrew.
Last week’s freak snowstorm that blanketed the vibrant fall foliage with snow was truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I think it was even worth being without power for a week.
Isaiah 54:7 — part of the incredibly uplifting poetry of Isaiah 54 — has two parallel phrases, both starting with the Hebrew b-. First we find b- attached to rega (“moment”), and then next attached to rachamim (“mercy” or “love” or “compassion”). The effect is to underscore the contrast between God abandoning for a moment and taking back in mercy.
Yet every translation I know destroys the parallel structure, as, for example, the NRSV: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (my emphasis). In other words, for b’rega the translations have “for [a moment],” but “with [compassion]” for “b’rachamim.”
It’s true that the Hebrew prefix b- can mean both “for” and “with,” among many other possibilities. (It’s a bit like the ablative case — an observation which is likely to help only the people who already knew that.) But here, the whole point is to contrast two phrases that start the same way. So while the translations get the general point of the line, they butcher the poetic effect.
The contrast is further underscored through the Hebrew modifiers katon (“small”) after rega and gadol (“big”) after rachamim. (This is the “brief” and “great” in the NRSV translation.)
So here’s the challenge: Can you think of a way to express Isaiah’s thoughts here while also keeping the important poetic structure? (My best shot is in the comments.)