God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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