God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Who is the woman in Ruth?

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Here is a question — I have explored the usage of ish and ishah in Ruth (here) and I was surprised to see in 3.14:

vatakom b’terem yakir ish et-rei’eihu
vayomer al-yivada ki-va’a ha-isha ha-goren

and she rose before a man could recognize his friend
and he said — let it not be known that `the woman’ came to the threshing floor.”

This seems a strange use of the definite article! I wondered if it was a little joke between them.

I think he’s talking about her specifically, in which case “the woman” is what we’d expect. The other possibility is that “the woman” and “the man” are the heroes of the story, and this is a clever metareference, in which one character (the man) refers to another (the woman) in the way the narrator does; but I don’t think so.

I don’t agree with the rendering in the NIV (probably based on the identical KJV) that he doesn’t want it known that a women — any women — was there. I think he doesn’t want it known that she was there.

(Incidentally, I think the first part, “before a man could recognize his friend” is better translated, “before one person could recognize another” or even “before anyone could be recognized.” It seems like an indication of darkness to me — akin to “before you could see the hand in front of your face,” which doesn’t really have anything to do with hands or faces.)

December 6, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 1 Comment

On the Word breishit

Professor Ellen van Wolde’s recent article about Genesis has brought the debate about the word breishit to the fore again.

Some people don’t like the traditional understanding — “In the beginning” — because the Hebrew word is, literally, “in a beginning” or “in the beginning of.” (Simon Holloway recently provided a little more detail.)

Accordingly, some translations (such as the JPS) prefer, “When God began to create,” reading the Hebrew literally as “in the beginning of God’s creating.” Other commentators use this grammatical tidbit to argue against creation ex nihilo in Genesis.

But I think the reasoning is flawed.

We frequently see what we might call determiner mismatches in translation. That is, it’s common to find that one language requires a determiner (“the,” say) where another disallows it. For example, American English requires “the” in the phrase, “his illness put him in the hospital” while the British equivalent is “…in hospital.” Similarly, many dialects of Portuguese require a determiner before proper names (e.g., “the Paulo” instead of just “Paulo”).

In Genesis 5:2 we read that Enoch walked with ha-elohim, literally, “the God,” but every English translation I know renders the Hebrew simply as “God.”

In Deuteronomy 11:12, we find the phrase meireishit hashanah v’ad acharit shana, literally, “from the beginning of the year to an end of a year,” yet, again, the meaning is clear and translators seem content to correctly render the phrase as “the end….”

It seems to me that using English rules of grammar to understand the lack of a determiner in breshit is no different than using American rules of grammar to (mis)understand the British phrase “in hospital.”

October 18, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 19 Comments