Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Words Have Meaning

Any translator of any text can tell you that picking an appropriate English word for a word from another language can be a nightmare. It is usually the case that more than one English word can share some connotations with a particular word from another language. Specifically, that is the case when rendering Biblical Hebrew and Greek into English.

The English Revised Version attempted to solve that problem by always rendering a particular Hebrew/Greek word by the same English word. Anyone who has read that version knows that that is not really a solution. On the other hand, rendering for the sense can cause problems as well. For example, in Genesis 4:1, the KJV reads, "And Adam knew Eve his wife." The New American Standard reads, "Now the man had relations with his wife." Both of these renderings are accurate. But the NAS obscures something in the original that the KJV retains. In the opening chapters of Genesis, the word "know" (Hebrew yada') and its variants are important, and each of its occurrences are rendered by some form of the word "know" in the KJV. However, the NAS loses that by rendering the verb yada' by "had relations." Technically, it is accurate, but something is nonetheless lost.

Such losses become more significant when the English rendering is not even technically accurate. On Genesis 43:3, Robert Alter comments, "'The man' refers elliptically to the phrase the brothers previously used in their report to their father . . . Their repeated use of this designation aptly dramatizes their ignorance of Joseph's identity. In the second half of this chapter, there is pointed interplay between the references to the brothers as 'the men' . . . and to Joseph's majordomo as 'the man.'"

To be continued.

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