Friday, June 17, 2011

Proverbs 14 Part III (clarifying translation)

Clarifying Translation

This is Part III of a series of blogposts on Proverbs 14.  In comments around Part II, Kristen and Bob asked some really good questions about the Hebrew text of Proverbs 14:12.  Similarly, Suzanne has entered a conversation at BBB to make some important points about clarity in the Greek text of Exodus 6 and about clarifying translation in general.  So I'd like to us to consider those comments and continue here with some observations about clarifying translation in general.  And how might "clarifying translation" apply to three verses of Proverbs 14?  What's the role of the translation and of the translator?
Kristen speculatesPerhaps the NIV 2011 was incorrect in leaving out that the word "iysh" does appear here [in Proverbs 14:12] -- but since it does not appear to mean "male human" but simply "human," they are correct in taking out the possible misunderstanding based on gender.

Bob stateson the emendation suggested by Tur Sinai. I enjoyed reading Tur Sinai's book on Job way back when, but I did notice that there seemed to be suggestions for textual emendation on every page! (or at least on lots of them). I am not secure enough in Hebrew to suggest emendations. And I think that one ought to be sparing at rewriting what we have received.

Suzanne saysOne can also see the odd functional translation in the LXX. Moses was described as saying ἐγὼ δὲ ἄλογός εἰμι [and] ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἰσχνόφωνός εἰμι[.]  Is there perhaps a cultural reason why this metaphor [in the Hebrew of "lips" being "un-circumcised"] was not translated [in Exodus 6:12 and 6:30]? Perhaps there are times when strangeness does indicate that the metaphor should be abandoned.
Let's take these in turn.

Kristen is allowing that the NIV 2011 translators are actually being clearer and more accurate in the gender than the NIV translators of the 1984 version were.  She's only looking at the Hebrew, and that's clearly enough.  I'm not sure whether the NIV translators are also translating the Greek Septuagint in Proverbs; but it's more than clear that the original translators of Proverbs from Hebrew into Greek decided on the word for "humans, plural, both males and females."  That word is ἀνθρώποις [anthropois] and is used in contrast to the words for God, gods and goddesses.  So for readers like the male spokesmen for the SBC to publicly denounce the NIV 2011 translation as either inaccurate or unclear with respect to gender neutrality says more, I think, about these men and their bent than it does about the clarity of the Hebrew Bible.  The LXX and the NIV 2011 translators are able to convey the universality of the proverb, as applicable to all people, not only to males but also to females.  (In another blogpost, we may get into the fact that, in Proverbs 14, the Hebraic Hellene translators from the Hebrew have in certain verses have really restricted the translation and have confined the meaning to men only, to males and not to females.  For example, in verses 7, 10, 30, 33 there are the words ἀνδρὶ, ἀνδρὸς, and ἀνὴρ [andri, andros, aner] that are not at all gender neutral or gender universal.)

Bob has worked on translating the book of Job and has done his homework by reading Tur Sinai's book on Job.  Clearly, Robert Alter has read the book too and seems much convinced of the value of Sinai's suggestions of textual emendations in the Hebrew in places.  I myself haven't (yet) read Sinai's work, but the only thing I can add here is that Alter turns also to the Septuagint again and again.  He does this not just for the wisdom books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth), and Job but also for the Psalms, for books of the history of the kings of Israel, and for the five books of Moses.  His note on Proverbs 14:12 doesn't make a reference to the LXX; but the Septuagint translators have themselves made the text a little less awkward, perhaps, when they write first of ὁδὸς [hodos] for "way" in the first line and then make its parallel an active verbal action -- or ἔρχεται [erchetai] for "moving, going, etc." -- in the second line to end the proverb.

Suzanne has been working on a translation in real life for real life purposes, purposes which require clarity in the translation.  She comments at BBB:  "I had to translate a brochure today that would enable people to turn up at their the training with both the right hardware and software. If I want them to have the software downloaded ahead of time, I had jolly well better say so in as clear a way possible."  And then she quotes the Septuagint as not bringing across the strange embodied female-male Hebrew metaphor of the man Moses using his lips to protest that his "lips" are "un-circumcised."  Suzanne has posted elsewhere on this metaphor here and here; note the genders assigned to lips and tongue and such.  (Likewise, elsewhere, I'd mentioned how the LXX translators, referring only to penis circumcision, rather straightforwardly and not metaphorically, "do use a literal translating into Hellene, but they also truncate the literal phrase.  In other words, περι-έτεμεν literally mirrors the first word of the Hebrew and ἀκρο-βυστίας mirrors the last word of the phrase. But the middle word [e.g., literally σάρκα, as in Genesis 17:11] is cut out."  And lest anyone doubt this is still a concern today, whether this needs clarify, there's the question now of what Natalie Portman will do with her baby boy.)

Now let's turn to three proverbs in Proverbs 14 where the Greek makes the difference.  It's not just that one language (i.e., this Hellene) is clearer than the other (i.e., this Hebrew); it's that the one is a translation of the other.  The translators are trying to do something for their readers.  They are trying to make clear.  And I think the clarity really benefits the bilingual reader.  If you're only a reader of Greek, then you do get much clarity but don't really have to struggle with the richness of the proverb.  If you're only a Hebrew reader, then you may not struggle at all, except the meanings might seem really strange anyway.  But if you can see both languages, then that's real clarity in a rich way.

So let's look at Proverbs 14:32 and 14:33 and 14:34.  But let's first see Robert Alter's respective footnotes on these three proverbs:
[Proverbs 14:32b:]   The Masoretic text says ‘in his death,’ bemoto, which is problematic theologically and perhaps grammatically as well. The translation [into English by me, Robert Alter, therefore] follows the Septuagint and the Syriac, which read betumo, ‘in his innocence,’ which is a simple transposition of consonants and thus an error a scribe could easily make, possibly induced by the motive of later piety. 

[Proverbs 14:33b:]  The Masoretic text lacks the "not," but this is surely a scribal error because it is hard to imagine that there would be a declaration in Proverbs that wisdom is known in the midst of fools. 

[Proverbs 14:34b:]  Following scholarly consensus and the Septuagint, this translation [of mine into English] replaces the Masoretic hesed, "kindness," with heser, "want."  The difference between the Hebrew graphemes for d and r is quite small.  The phrase "leads to" has been added in the translation for clarification of the Hebrew, which has no verb.
Notice that even the Common English Bible translators of Proverbs 14:33 have said in their footnote, "LXX; MT lacks not."

Okay, now look at the Hebrew and then the Hellene translation, which clarifies.  Since there is so much Hebrew and Greek to read in these three proverbs, I'm just going to invite you to read them side by side here.  Now, imagine that you're bilingual, that you can read both sides with more-or-less equal ease. Wouldn't you agree with Alter that the Greek clarifies the Hebrew?  But would you have to agree with him that the Hebrew botches the meanings, whether "theologically" or "grammatically" or in both ways corrupted (i.e., both wrong in what the proverb says about God and also what it says about the Hebrew)?

(And for anyone who cares about texts beyond the biblical proverbs, would you care to struggle with me over a particular set of lines by Hồ Xuân Hương, as translated by John Balaban from her Vietnamese into his clear English?  She's written a couple of lines -- which I'll try to show later in her Vietnamese written characters -- that go -- in contemporary Vietnamese letters now -- this way:
Ngân nỗi xuân đi xuân lại lại
Mảnh tinh san sẻ tí con con.
He translates her poetic proverb this way:
Sick with sadness, spring passes, spring returns,
A bit of love shared, just the littlest bit. 
So if you know Vietnamese, then do you see the interlation here?  I'm interested in clarity for bilingual readers, what Mikhail Epstein has called interation not just translation, or stereotexting.  I've called that side-by-side reading or translating, a(p)position.  It's what Alter and the Common English Bible have done with Proverbs 14:33 at least.  I wonder, if for proverbs, the whole idea of comparison, of parallels, is what makes it so profound, so clear, so wise.  What do you think?)


Bob MacDonald said...

It's an interesting but boring fix of this proverb - to change death to integrity or completeness. I wonder if I will ever have the patience to go through the proverbs.

Why would the integrity of the righteous only give him hope? Integrity is a theme in the psalms but so is the problem of being human and dealing with death. Hope comes through death because of psalm 116:5.

As to the amendment - does the reversal work? - integrity is not usually spelled with a mater, e.g. proverbs 20:7 בְּתֻמֹּו

Of course hope delivered by death is a common NT theme - but it is not hard to see it in TNK either.

Just too busy to respond further - but may later in the weekend -

Bob MacDonald said...

re 14:33 the proverb seems quite clear without emendation

in the heart of the perceptive wisdom rests
but in the midst of fools it is known

The action of fools makes wisdom evident by contrast - the hockey riots of last weekend are an adequate example. Many wise and perceptive folk have come out to clean up and even to apologize on behalf of those who caused the damage.

Bob MacDonald said...

I found for 14:34 the form of תְרֹֽומֵֽם as 3 impf f. of רום in my Hebrew-Latin concordance - with a 17 lines of possible glosses: efferre se in altum, elevare se, surgere, ... extoli; potentum fieri; altum esse; remotum esse! etc...

righteousness (good) must exalt - but what it makes the nation remote! Then kindness in a tribe is a sin-offering.

Oh well - I will never do as a translator - I can make a proverb mean the opposite of its obvious meaning.

J. K. Gayle said...

I can make a proverb mean the opposite of its obvious meaning.

Thanks so much for making meaning of the Hebrew of these three proverbs. We readers really are in a fix, aren't we? As the proverb or conventional wisdom here in Texas goes: "if it aint broke, don't fix it."

Alter is making some strong claims about the MT Hebrew and its theological, perhaps grammar, and definite lexical and literal or graphical errors!!!

Now John Hobbins is making bold claims about Alter's English, as if the newer language of translation is just as "bumpy" as the older language that Hebrew readers must read. (See this post and then this one). I forgot to post Alter's not-really-translation English; let's look:

33 "In a discerning heart wisdom rests / but is not know in the midst of fools."

34 "Righteousness raises a nation, / but offense leads to want among peoples."

35 "A king's pleasure is a discerning servant, / but his wrath is the shameful man."

Now compare that smooth not-really-strange-sounding, definitely not "bumpy-Hebrew"-sounding English of Robert Alter with the NLT(2).

"33 Wisdom is enshrined in an understanding heart;
wisdom is not* found among fools.

34 Godliness makes a nation great,
but sin is a disgrace to any people.

35 A king rejoices in wise servants
but is angry with those who disgrace him.

*14:33 As in Greek and Syriac versions; Hebrew lacks not."

I'm bringing up the NLT because John has protested that it, unlike Alter's translation of the Hebrew, is flat. John's exact words are that the NLT2 approaches being one of those “translations committed to clarity and naturalness of expression.” But John, forcing a dichotomy, sees Alter's translation as better, as different absolutely, as one of the “translations committed above all to reproducing the wording and register of the original, translating metaphors with metaphors, and sounding strange wherever the thought and language of the source text is strange relative to our cultural matrix.”

John makes his assertions about the NLT2 at the same post where Suzanne makes her brilliant observations about the LXX forgoing the Hebrew metaphor in Exodus 6. See the link in my post above. This is really my interest in this post. Whatever bumpy or unclear or erroneous thing is going on in the Hebrew MT, Robert Alter and Suzanne McCarthy are willing to acknowledge what the LXX translators have done to make the translated language clearer.

But your questions about the Hebrew, your questioning of Alter's read of it, must be asked, must be challenged, I think.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for this conversation. I would love to be more challenged! Perhaps in another way - I am linguistically challenged. Understandably, a five-year-old child playing on the street can be ignored. (In the hopes that someone else will run him over.)

I have put my little rant here. It's been an interesting week.