God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Isaiah Translation Challenge: Verse 1

This is the first verse of the “Isaiah Translation Challenge.” Post your translations, questions, and thoughts as comments.

The Text

Here’s a rough literal translation of Isaiah 54:1:

Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth.//
Shout joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached.//
For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.//
— says the Lord//

Overview

Isaiah 54:1 opens with two words in stark contrast: A command to “rejoice” followed immediately by “barren woman.” Rejoicing — perhaps “shouting for joy” — represents one extreme of the emotional spectrum, while “barren woman” embodies the other. In antiquity, there was perhaps no greater sorrow than to be barren. So even though Isaiah opens with a command — “rejoice, O barren woman” — he also practically assaults the reader with a question, namely, “what reason could the most dismayed member of society have to celebrate?”

Then Isaiah drives home the point in typical poetic fashion. He adds “who has not given birth” to modify “barren woman.” Though redundant, that phrase emphasizes the barren woman’s pain. Next — again in typical biblical poetic fashion — Isaiah repeats his theme with different words: “Shout for joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached [with childbirth].”

Having twice commanded the barren, childless woman to be happy, Isaiah explains why: For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.”

Verse 1 ends by attributing the poetry to God.

The Poetry

Because Hebrew is a gendered language, Isaiah can use feminine language where in English we need the word “woman,” so Isaiah’s command “rejoice” includes the information that he is addressing a girl or a woman. Additionally, adjectives in Hebrew can refer to people (similar to the way we say “an American,” which means “an American person”). So for the English “barren woman,” Isaiah only needs one word, the feminine adjective “barren.” Isaiah is thus able to express, “rejoice, O barren woman” with only two words.

Continuing the economy of language, Isaiah omits “who” in the clause “who has not given birth,” using only the two words “not birthed.” (This is not common biblical Hebrew, but neither is it unattested.)

So the English “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth” requires but four words in Hebrew: “rejoice barren not birthed.”

Those four words are followed by five: “Shout joy and-celebrate not ached.” And here Isaiah introduces a subtle nuance. Instead of using the last two words (“not ached”) to modify the object of his imperative (as he did with “not given birth”) here those words are the object. In other words, in the first line Isaiah addresses “a barren woman who has not given birth” while here he addresses “one who has not ached.” This kind of slight deviation from the expected is part of what makes for great art.

Isaiah next takes advantage of Hebrew’s flexible word order. Instead of addressing the “children of the desolate woman” first, he says, “for more numerous are the children of the desolate woman than the children of the married woman.” And, again because of the gendered nature of Hebrew, Isaiah makes do with far fewer words: “for more-numerous children-of desolate than-children-of married.” (Complex details of Hebrew let Isaiah do away with the words “more” and “of” completely.)

Finally, as in our English, Isaiah puts “the Lord” after the verb “says,” so that God comes last in the verse.

In terms of the words, we don’t know the exact nuances of the words for “rejoice,” “celebrate,” etc. We do know that the imperative in the first line (“rejoice”) is the verbal form of the noun (“joy”) in the second. And our verb “ached” is probably more generally “was ill.”

In terms of imagery, the text starts with a specific woman and her pain in the first two phrases and then progresses to a general situation in the third, as if to say: “you, a specific unhappy person, should be happy, because people like you will be happy.”

Published Translations

The NRSV gives us, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD.”

This obviously fails in many ways. The archaic “O” is out of place. “Barren” and “bear” sound similar in a way that the Hebrew akarah (“barren”) and yalada (“bore”) do not. The English phrase has twice as many words as the Hebrew. The next line is unclear until the very last word, which tells the reader that the line is about a woman. And the line contains more than twice the number of words as the Hebrew. Additionally, “shout” doesn’t seem like a happy word. The English phrase “the children of X will be more than the children of Y” borders on the ungrammatical. “Her that is married” is hardly poetic.

The NAB is similarly problematic: “Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear, break forth in jubilant song, you who were not in labor, For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband, says the LORD.”

It takes the NAB six words to introduce the two-word contrast between “rejoice” and “barren.” The translation misses the connection between “rejoice” and “joy,” by using the unrelated “raise a glad cry” and “jubilant song.” “Were not in labor” isn’t quite the point; it’s not just that the woman wasn’t in labor but rather that she’s never been in labor. The phrase “deserted wife” has no founding in the original Hebrew, which just refers to a female who is desolate, not necessarily a wife.

The Message — a version I seldom cite here — starts off with promise, but deteriorates rapidly into vapid prose: “`Sing, barren woman, who has never had a baby. Fill the air with song, you who’ve never experienced childbirth! You’re ending up with far more children than all those childbearing woman.’ GOD says so!”

The Words

For those who want, here are the Hebrew words of the original. Translations are after the slash. Comments are in (parentheses). English words needed to make sense of the Hebrew are in [braces].

roNI/Rejoice (feminine imperative) akaRA/barren woman [who has] lo/not yaLAda/given birth

pitzCHI/Shout (feminine imperative) riNAH/joy v-tzahaLI/and-celebrate [the one who has] lo/not CHAlah/been ill.

ki/for [more] raBIM/numerous [are] b’nai/children-of shomeiMAH/desolate (feminine) mi-b’nai/than-children-of v’uLAH/married (or “espoused”)

aMAR/said (or says) adoNAI/the Lord.

Questions

1. Does the English translation need to mirror the economy of language in the Hebrew?

2. Does the English translation need to preserve the parallel endings “not given birth” in the first line and “not ached” in the second? Does it have to preserve the subtle distinction between the two, noted above?

3. Does barrenness today represent what it used to? If not, is there a better way to express Isaiah’s contrast between rejoicing and sorrow?

Your Translation

So there it is. Post questions or your translation as a comment.

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February 2, 2015 - Posted by | translation challenge | , , , , ,

24 Comments »

  1. I’m really trying to get people to think outside the box here, because poetry usually demands it.

    Here are three draft translations that I’ve come up with. None is very good, but I think they all have elements that work. What do you think?

    A.

    Rejoice, childless, barren woman!
    Sing for joy and celebrate, inexperienced woman.
    For great shall be the children born to forlorn women,
    Greater than to the married.
    — says Adonai

    [Notes:

    The first line, like the Hebrew, has but four words.

    Instead of “inexperienced” in the second line, I really want another word that ends with -less. But “painless” means “not causing pain” and we need “not experiencing pain.” For “inexperienced” I could use “nulliparous,” but that’s such an odd, rare word that I don’t think it works here.]

    B.

    Let the barren, childless woman rejoice.
    And the woman who has never known labor sing for joy and celebrate.
    For the children born to spurned women shall outnumber
    Those born to married women.
    — says the LORD

    [Notes: Does it matter that I’ve reversed the order inside the lines?]

    C.

    Rejoice in your barrenness, childless woman
    Sing joyfully and celebrate though you’ve never endured labor.
    For more numerous than the children of married women
    Are the children of rejected woman.
    — says GOD

    Comment by Joel H. | February 2, 2015 | Reply

  2. Your translation has a huge glaring error: “the LORD” is not what the text says in the Hebrew; it says Yehovah.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 2, 2015 | Reply

    • While “the LORD” is not perfect, the issue of the tetragrammaton is, as you know, complex. But in my opinion “Yehovah” — like “Yahweh” and “Jehovah” — has less to recommend it than “the LORD.” All three of those are based on misunderstandings of ancient Hebrew. At the very least, most people know what “the LORD” means.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 3, 2015 | Reply

    • LORD is not so much an error as a convention. It is a long standing convention apparently in use in the Septuagint everywhere, though I recall an image showing yod-heh-vav-heh in archaic Hebrew in the Greek translation.

      The convention fails for several reasons each with consequences. First, the LORD never acts as a proper name in translation. Second when YHVH of Hosts is used or YHVH God of hosts etc, the convention has to change to capitalize GOD or the like. This I find confusing and I feel that the reader loses the unifying train of reference. For example the use of YHVH and God in the Psalms is completely obscured. Third YHVH is then confused with adonai when adonai is used directly as designation for God.

      The failure to act grammatically as a proper name causes the whole translation to be distant rather than intimate. Then intimacy is lost in the reading of adjacent verbs as well. I initially used Hebrew letters ִיחוח in all my English work. This retains the foreignness of the name but preserves its intimacy. It was important to not include the vowels in deference to those who make no pronunciation of the Name. Nonetheless it also gets in the way of fluent reading. So I have reverted to the name as used by the Jerusalem Bible of 1962. It works actually very well with the music when translated, since it can be, nay must be sung as a sequence of vowels with no consonants.

      Comment by bobmacdonald | February 3, 2015 | Reply

  3. This could be a reference to Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah. I don’t understand Hebrew but the rough translation seems in line with that.

    Comment by lostresearchers | February 2, 2015 | Reply

    • “Stay tuned,” as they say, to see the genius of the poetic reference unfold.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 3, 2015 | Reply

  4. Oddly the woman in Rev 12, which I think represents faithful Jews, is said to experience labor.

    Does Isaiah ever explain how the woman has children without pain?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 2, 2015 | Reply

    • Again, “stay tuned.” We’ll get to the Isaiah’s amazing imagery.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 3, 2015 | Reply

  5. Here’s my first verse
    Shout for joy, O barren who has not given birth.
    Erupt in a shout of joy and be bright, she who has not writhed in birth,
    for many more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married, says Yahweh.

    I retain the archaic vocative. I rarely do this, but in this case it is needed for the rhythm of speaking the English. One could use a displaced ‘you’ from the imperative, but I think the O is OK.

    writhing in birth – I had not thought of this as a mental longing or ache. I have this word in my translations with half a dozen phrases, mostly related to enduring the birth process, but also writhe, dance, and the homonym sand.

    be bright – this is a relatively rare root צהל, occurring only 8 times in the TNK. I like your celebrate. I have only two verses I have translated with this word so far, here and Psalm 104:15, wine to make glad a mortal heart, faces bright with oil, and bread a mortal heart confirms.

    I agree with you that it is important to get similar sounding items in the Hebrew to be similar sounding in English if possible. So I see the repeated root רנן as one of the marks of the poet’s phrase and I choose not to tamper with it if I can avoid such moves.

    1. English is a largely disconnected language when using pronouns and helping verbs. Hebrew is largely enclitic, things stick together. Mostly, English uses more syllables than Hebrew, but often this is not the case. I have underlayed the music for dozens of chapters of the Hebrew using rules from Haik-Vantoura’s interpretation of the accents. The results surprised me – often as I suspected, I had long recitations in English, but sometimes and often enough, I had sections where there were too few syllables for the notes.

    I expect it depends on your intent whether a terse translation is important. I have not yet characterized my work – sometimes it reads awkward, but other times I am quite colloquial.

    2. in poetry, parallelism is important, but I think the repeated sounds are equally if not more important. Parallels – the same or a contrasting thought in different words,
    repetition – the same word or word group is repeated.

    3. barrenness is less of an issue today but it still leads to a value that many cultures share. The issues of procreation are obviously of serious consequence. They relate to our social mores, our treatment of each other re male and female, our sexuality, our hope for the future, and the real trouble with raising children – not a trivial task.

    Comment by bobmacdonald | February 2, 2015 | Reply

  6. PS – I have a post on this verse from last year including the music here.

    Comment by bobmacdonald | February 2, 2015 | Reply

  7. The translations are all OK. What is more interesting, as elsewhere, is the interpretation. Verse 14 says “In righteousness you shall be established”, so the ‘desolate’ woman and the ‘married’ woman are euphemisms for the soul who is without the Lord and the soul who is with the Lord, respectively. The ‘children’ is symbolic of desire. This can be seen in Isaiah 57:5 where the devotees “slay their children” — not commonly recognized as a good thing, a very good thing indeed to the Mystic practitioner. The Gospel of Judas has this “slaying the children” phrase also, which got me intrigued, until I found the Isaiah reference. No doubt now about one of the most cryptic passages in the most cryptic of all texts, the Gospel of Judas, about the self-sacrifice of Judas — as stand-in for James the Just, successor to Jesus (Judas has a vision of being stoned to death *by fellow disciples*, as was James the Just). This is the most important find in history and should be in every biblical discussion until it is a mainstream topic. Sorry to hijack your excellent thread. But there it is…

    Comment by Robert Wahler | February 2, 2015 | Reply

    • Be patient. We’ll get to the broader metaphor and the interpretations.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 3, 2015 | Reply

  8. I think you will read of this same woman in the book of Revelations and find that it is symbology representing Israel. Jesus spoke of the last days and said woe unto them that are with child……We are not to marry out of season but to be watching for our bridegroom to appear…. Just as those that go whoring after the Antichrist commit whoredoms….If you are to be exspoused and the groom has been gone for some time and comes to find you with child…..what does that say?

    Comment by Johnny Hill | February 3, 2015 | Reply

  9. From my friend and colleague David L. Klein:

    Rejoice, barren one, who has not birthed
    Break out in joy, shout glee, she who who has not labored.
    For, says Yahh,
    The children of the desolate outnumber them of the married woman

    Comment by Joel H. | February 6, 2015 | Reply

    • I haven’t seen that rendering of the Tetragrammeton before. Do you know where this comes from?

      I see some hits on Google including a conversation between you and several others on b-Hebrew. It has both positives and negatives in English. Positives: it works as a name and is easily distinguished from Yah as well as showing up the relationship with words like Halleluyah and other names with Yah as suffix. Negatives: it is a kind of cry and may be confused with Yahoo. 😐

      Grammar – should they outnumber ‘those’ rather than ‘them’?

      Still – all these versions are indicative of the scope and flexibility of the problem – how can it the edifice be structurally contained and somewhat stable? There are many times when I see the sheets of the tent blowing in the wind and I expect it to collapse on me any moment … and I recall the first time I read the servant songs 45 years ago when our tent got blown over by a gale on Prince Edward Island. You could say this is a metaphor for how easy it is for me to confuse things.

      looking forward to where we go next…

      Comment by bobmacdonald | February 6, 2015 | Reply

  10. […] moving” style of the original biblical author. That’s the purpose of the on-line “Isaiah Translation Challenge“, to bring different people with different backgrounds together with the purpose of […]

    Pingback by Are you a poet? You can translate... the Bible! - TermCoord Terminology Coordination UnitTermCoord Terminology Coordination Unit | February 17, 2015 | Reply

  11. Here’s my take on Isaiah 54: A story:

    It was dark, an hour before dawn, the cold desert air hung still and quiet. Bani pulled hard on the coverings, they were coarse and unforgiving.
    There was noise in the bed next to her. The three young boys huddled together trying to keep warm. They were young, innocent, boys from a lost tribe of wanderers. She slowly got up, loneliness surrounded her. She longed to have children of her own. As she stood, trying to move in the darkness, she gently lifted her own blanket and placed it over the three sleeping shapes. Their breaths were long and even.

    The day would begin and evolve the way so many had done. The animals were restless and needed tending. The other voices were low, voices of men praying, pausing then praying again. She look back on the sleeping boys. Everything was familiar yet nothing comfortable. She had been taken in, almost as a slave, treated with kindness, yet no man in the tiny village would seek her out in the daylight.

    She quietly walked to the basin and with a simple ease dipped the cloth into the cool morning water and gave it a gentle squeeze. She started with her arms, moving the cloth slowly. Bani loosened her garments, dipped the cloth again, squeezed, cleaned her waist and her breasts. A slight shiver went through her body. After she finished her legs and thighs she tightend her clothes and stood quietly. She seldom gave pause to thought of shame or guilt or the feeling of being alone.

    She had not left Egypt like many of them. The younger ones only knew of Egypt in story and song. The three boys she raised, who still lay sleeping, were not like them, They were found by shepherds hovering like frightened birds in a snare, abandoned, spared the sword or the rock. They were forgiven for their faults.

    Three more had arrived yesterday, needy, thirsty, blown by the dry desert winds. They did not know the history of Jacob, or the warth of Babylon. They had not heard about the story of the great chariots destroyed by the parted waters or how the waters had once covered every living thing. They did not even know of the death of Joshua. For them it changed nothing. For they were formed in in womb of an unknown mother, under the eyes of an unknown God. They had no hope , they had no promise. Their eyes were too young to be opened. They had been saved and forsake all at once.

    Now there were six. The keeper of the house brought them, walking them slowly, a small stick in his hand. The boys were cautious, frighened, looking down, staying close, baked by the desert sun.

    ” How will we do this, make room for three more?” She would have to sleep on the floor, they would need a low mud wall to keep the animals away. It would seem strange at first, like being here. The workers came, the boys moved stones, the women whispered about the six boys and the women.

    They widened the far end of the building, built a partition made of split ceder rails and mud. A large table that could seat six was made of half hewed logs. One of the new boys was a weaver. Bani learned to spin and as the years went by people would come from other villages to see the hangings. After Passover, those who made the six day journey returned with cloth amd glorious threads, the likes of which no one had ever seen.

    They came as boys but slowly left as men. All but two left. They all had become accepted. They now knew the customs, spoke the laguage. The two that stayed eventually moved across the small quiet out of the way town. Sometimes they would come, bring their children and sit and tell wonderful stories until dark. The children sat at the wooden table and listened to stories about the old women and the hangings on the wall s and the ones that were sold at the markets.

    The armies stopped crossing nearby. The town was safe and the old women was left along in a house to big for her. As she watched them walk slowly into the desert darkness. Bani remembered the events of her exile, the years spent in the village and threads shining like silver and gold when the sun was just right. She never knew the virtues of giving birth but felt the touch of death.

    Comment by Daniel Parulis | March 21, 2015 | Reply

  12. Rejoice, O barren woman who has not birthed//
    Shout and jubilate, O woman who has not felt pangs//
    Far greater in number the desolate’s children than the married’s.//
    — says the LORD//

    I’m not sure about that third line–I was trying to condense it some. But I like my version of the first two lines a lot. Maybe they suck, though.

    Comment by Emerson | July 23, 2015 | Reply

    • Actually, I just re-read that part you wrote about this:

      ==
      So the English “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth” requires but four words in Hebrew: “rejoice barren not birthed.”

      Those four words are followed by five: “Shout joy and-celebrate not ached.” And here Isaiah introduces a subtle nuance. Instead of using the last two words (“not ached”) to modify the object of his imperative (as he did with “not given birth”) here those words are the object. In other words, in the first line Isaiah addresses “a barren woman who has not given birth” while here he addresses “one who has not ached.” This kind of slight deviation from the expected is part of what makes for great art.
      ==

      And I think I can condense my first lines down more and reflect what Isaiah is doing.

      Rejoice, barren and birthed-less
      Shout and jubilate, (you/barren) pangless (/labor-less)

      So in the first line he is describing her as birthed-less, but in the second he is addressing her as “pangless” as if it is her name or her being. I originally thought of condensing the first line to “Rejoice, barren birth-less (or birthed-less),” which would be him addressing her as “birthless,” and then of doing something similar to the second line, but then I re-read that part of your post and decided I could use that strategy on the second line and modify my strategy with the first. I included the possibility of “you” to make it clear that the woman is not celebrating because of her panglessness, and I included the possibility of adding a second “barren” to the text to set off that this was an adjective and a noun-ish adjective, not an adjective and an adjective (as in the first line).

      What do you think? I’ve looked at the words so many times that they have lost all meaning. And reading them aloud isn’t helping because now I’m hyper-examining and can’t trust my own judgment.

      Comment by Emerson | July 23, 2015 | Reply

      • ISTM that the KJV owns the corner on retaining much of the formal equivalency in lofty English. It’s shortcomings generally fall into the category of:

        * requiring the reader to do the unpacking of the dense original
        * heavy usage of archaic words

        Many, like myself, don’t mind doing the heavy lifting on unpacking by meditation and study and don’t mind the archaic wording most of the time. My current favorite modern translation, the ISV does a great job of unpacking with modern word choices and sacrificing as little as possible of formal equivalence.

        Would it be safe to say that your priority was to match the number of words and syllables and the “shape” of the text as closely as possible rather than to unpack better or to use a more modern vocabulary?

        My general suggestion is to be willing to deviate from the form in Hebrew (which is very spare) enough to avoid archaic words liked “panged” and uncommon usages liked “birthed”. “Labor pains” and “gave birth” are the way people speak in English these days.

        Do you agree?

        Comment by WoundedEgo | July 24, 2015

  13. “Cheer up, you childless girl;
    Be happy you have not felt the pain of labor.
    For more sons are born of an abandoned woman
    than of a married housewife.”

    In my translation, I wanted to stay away from the ‘Sarah syndrome’: seeing ‘barren’ as a childless – marrried – woman passed childbearing age. In my view, Isaiah says that the girl/woman is childless because her husband left her. And he left her for a good reason, although it may seem otherwise. Therefore, this childless state is morally (spiritually?) preferred over having children (which is only a material satisfaction). Hence the ‘housewife’ connotation.

    At a higher level, I would say that – as in many other places in the OT – the relationship between God and the Jewish people is portrayed as a marriage. God appears to have abandoned his wife (in the Babylon exile), but this is better than producing godless babies in a Gentile socieity.

    Comment by Bob de Jong | August 20, 2015 | Reply

    • I very much liked your translation with the exception of the word choice “housewife”.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | August 25, 2015 | Reply

      • Thanks WoundedEgo. I understand that ‘housewife’ may come as a bit of a shock. But I think the Hebrew supports it. The word ba’al that is used here with the meaning of ‘marry’ also means to rule, to govern. In Isaiah, the same word ba’al is used to describe the rule of a king. In Isaiah’s days, there would be no confusion: marriage was not a partnership of equals, but the woman submitted to the ‘rule’ of the husband.
        Today, we do not feel this sense of submission when we say ‘married wife’, instead it has connotations of togetherness and love. But Isaiah uses the word ba’al also to indicate ‘rule’, not ‘marriage’. Therefore, I think that housewife (with its connotation of doing chores etc.) reflects ba’al better than ‘married woman’.

        Comment by Bob de Jong | September 13, 2015

      • Okay, thanks.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | September 16, 2015


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