God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Should We Translate the Hebrew Word ‘Et’?

Bob MacDonald asks on the About page:

Here’s a question — what about that word et?

Here it is as preposition (Genesis 4:1): kaniti ish et YHWH, (“I acquired a man with the LORD”).

While I would not normally translate it when it is an object marker (it seems unnecessary most of the time it is used), I have read (Rabbi Steven Greenberg) that it is sometimes a word that is “read into.” As in (Exodus 20:12) kabed et avicha v’et imecha (“Honor your father and your mother”) or even the very first verse of the Bible.

What do you think? Is it OK to include grandparents, step-parents, adoptive parents in the father and mother — as if it were implied in the aleph-taf? Or as if the heavens and the earth included more than the whole visible universe.

There are two Hebrew words et. One means “with” (as in Genesis 4:1) and the other is a preposition that we don’t have in English. It (usually) marks a direct object that’s definite. So the Hebrew equivalent of “I saw Bill” would be “I saw et Bill.”

Bob’s is an interesting and important question because it highlights the inherent conflict in religious translation.

From a scientific point of view, the word et should not be translated. It’s a purely gramamtical word, and, as such, it should be used to understand the original Hebrew but it does not get represented directly in English. In this way, it’s similar to case endings in Greek. No one tries to mark nominative or accusative on the English translations of Greek nouns, for example.

From a religious point of view — and, in particular, from a Jewish religious point of view — every word has meaning. Indeed (traditionally in Judaism) every letter has meaning, as do the spaces between the letters. In this case, Rabbi Steven Greenberg notes that the word et starts with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph) and ends with the last (Tav). Therefore, he opines, the word brings connotations of “A to Z” (or Alpha to Omega, we might say) with it.

So in this context, “Honor et your father and et your mother” includes more than just your “father” and “mother,” because of the implied inclusiveness of the word et.

The translator has to choose which path to follow, the scientific one or the religious one.

My opinion is twofold.

First, I think translators should be clear about which route they are taking. I’ve seen a lot of confusion stemming from religious translations that are mistaken for scientific ones, and considerable disappointment from the reverse situation.

Secondly, my general preference is for a scientific translation that as accurately as possible conveys the original text. I think that’s the job of a translation, and — again, just my opinion — the proper starting point for Bible study.

So in this case, I wouldn’t try to translate et, because it’s not the job of a translation to make every possible exegetical word-play (and letter-play) possible in translation. In this particular case, I don’t see how it could be done, because the “translation” would require a two-letter word that starts with “A” and ends with “Z.” So even if translating et were desirable, I think it would still be impossible.

That you, Bob, for this clear example of the differences between scientific understanding and (one kind of) religious understanding of a text.

September 24, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 9 Comments