“The English translation of the Bible,” remarked the 17-century antiquary John Selden, “is the best translation in the world, and renders the sense of the original best. . . . The translation in King James’s time took an excellent way. That part of the Bible was given to him who was most excellent in such a tongue (as the Apocrypha to Andrew Downes) and then they met together, and one read the translation the rest holding in their hand some Bible either of the learned tongues or French, Spanish, Italian, etc.: if they found any fault they spake; if not, he read on.”
Selden was talking about the King James or Authorized Version (AV) of 1611, one of the glories of English literature as well as a work of remarkable scholarship. But scholarship advances, new knowledge corrects old, and stylistic habits become antiquated. In May 1946 a group of Scottish churchmen recommended “that a translation of the Bible be made in the language of the present day, inasmuch as the language of the Authorized Version, already archaic when it was made, had now become even more definitely archaic and less generally understood.” The ultimate result of this was the New English Bible, the combined work of British scholars of many different Christian denominations, of which the New Testament was published in 1961 and the Old Testament and Apocrypha are now published (together with the New Testament in a single volume).1
The translators of the New English Bible (NEB) worked in a way not dissimilar to that of the AV translators. We can compare with Selden’s account the account given in the preface to NEB: “The translating panels adopted the following procedure. An individual was invited to submit a draft translation of a particular book, or group of books. Normally he would be a member of the panel concerned. Very occasionally a draft translation was invited from a scholar outside the panel, who was known to have worked specially on the book in question. The draft was circulated in typescript to members of the panel for their consideration. They then met together and discussed the draft round a table, verse by verse, sentence by sentence. Each member brought his view about the meaning of the original to the judgment of his fellows, and discussion went on until they reached a common mind.”
But there was one important difference between the AV translators and those of NEB. The latter, one might almost say, added the style later. “The resultant draft,” their preface continues, “was now remitted to the panel of literary advisers. They scrutinized it, once again, verse by verse, sentence by sentence, and took pains to secure, as best they could, the tone and level of language appropriate to the different kinds of writing to be found in the Bible.” This curious assembly-line procedure, with the scholars doing their bit and then passing the product on to the stylists, is a startling illustration of the progress of specialization in humanistic studies since 1611. The procedure was probably necessary: the striking differences in literary quality among different books of the Anchor Bible show that while some experts in the meaning of the original languages of the Bible have the gift of embodying their knowledge in lucid, vigorous, and idiomatic English (the late E. A. Speiser’s Genesis is a case in point), others do not. Further, in deliberately abandoning the tradition of English biblical prose that began with William Tyndale in 1525, and committing themselves to “the language of the present day,” the NEB translators posed a dilemma for themselves, for a considerable amount of the material in the Bible had its source in an outlook and a view of the nature of language wholly unlike anything in the present day; and the literary experts were required to help resolve this dilemma.
The dilemma was not, of course, wholly resolved, and in the nature of things could not be. Quite apart from differences in sensibility and Weltanschauung between the original authors of the Bible and ourselves—not to mention lesser but often significant differences among some of those original authors themselves, for the Bible is a whole library of books produced over a period of over a thousand years—biblical Hebrew and New Testament Greek pose some pretty intractable problems for the translator into modern English. These problems can be in some degree resolved if everything can be subsumed in a traditional liturgical English style. Such a style emerged in England in the 16th century, and the NEB translators are quite right in claiming that the language of AV was archaic even in its own day. But though archaic it was not dead: it was a living language, the accustomed language of religious discourse, accepted and constantly used as such. AV was itself a revision of the preceding English version and deliberately retained the traditional biblical style that had been established by earlier translators. NEB is an entirely new translation, implicitly offered as the Authorized Version of our time. Its aim is to express to the modern reader what the Bible means in language that is clear, accurate, and contemporary.
But the phrase “what the Bible means” can itself mean different things. In some cases, for example, where there has been a long oral tradition before a story surfaced into writing, what a story originally meant had already changed significantly by the time it was put into the form now available to us. Theodor Gaster’s Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament, which I discussed in these columns,2 provides abundant evidence for that. Parts of the Bible have meant different things to different people at different stages of its development, and different things again to members of different religions and sects in the centuries since the canon was established. In some cases there is really no such thing as an “original” meaning of a biblical phrase. “In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth” is the opening of the Bible in the King James version of 1611, and it has been followed by many other translations since. In terms of strict philology, this is not what this phrase “means.” Speiser renders it: “When God set about to create heaven and earth. . . .” NEB has: “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, . . .” thus recognizing, as does Speiser, that the Hebrew word bereshit is in the “construct” form, meaning “in the beginning of.” But then again, what sort of a beginning is it? Monsignor Ronald Knox, in his highly literary translation from the Vulgate text, renders this first sentence of Genesis as “God, at the beginning of time, created heaven and earth”; but the Latin in principio, which he is here translating, might conceivably mean (in terms of the etymology of principium) something like “in the first place,” “as a matter of fundamental importance.” It is interesting that the Hebrew word translated as “beginning,” like the Latin principium, derives from a root meaning “head” or “chief,” whereas the Aramaic translation, the Targum, renders bereshit as bekadmin, which really does have a predominantly temporal sense. Clearly, by the time the Aramaic translation was made, bereshit was taken to mean “in the (chronological) beginning.” The Hebrew equivalent of the Aramaic kadmin is kedem (as in chadesh yamenu kekedem, “renew our days as of old”), but no such word is found in the opening of the Hebrew book of Genesis.
One can, of course, play games forever with single words, and such games have enormous fascination. But my point is a serious one. The Bible—the Old Testament, at any rate—is a stratified work, consisting of many layers each of which may represent a different kind of “meaning.” Parts of it were already regarded, by those who put the books into the form we know, as antique, and written in an antique style. The extraordinary song of triumph and revenge which Lamech sings to his wives in Genesis 4:23 is a primitive song that stands out from its context in both language and rhythms: surely it requires translating into a highly stylized and archaic English. Similarly, the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 stands out in the Hebrew as written in a different kind of language from its context, and the translator should make some attempt to “distance” it by style. The NEB translators do not attempt to do this; it is in fact no part of their intention. Though they do attempt to produce “the tone and level of language appropriate to the different kinds of writing to be found in the Bible,” they never allow any deviation from the language of the present day. So in NEB Moses sings:
I will sing to the Lord, for he has risen up in triumph;
The horse and his rider he has hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my refuge and my defense,
he has shown himself my deliverer.
He is my God, and I will glorify him;
he is my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
This is not significantly different from AV:
I will sing unto the Lord: for he hath triumphed gloriously,
The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the Sea.
The Lord is my strength and song,
And he is become my salvation:
He is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation,
My father’s God, and I will exalt him.
There are only two really different readings: the puzzling zimrat is rendered “defense,” not “song,” on calculated philological grounds, and similarly the difficult anvehu is rendered “I will glorify him” and not “I will prepare him an habitation” (where the word is connected with naveh, “habitation,” as in the Targum and suggested by Rashi). “Hath” becomes “has” to avoid archaism. But shouldn’t this stanza be archaic, as it doubtless was to the original redactor? An even clearer case is the Song of Deborah in Judges 5:2-31. This is one of the oldest parts of the Old Testament, an ancient song transmitted orally for generations until it was written down, in a text certainly corrupt in parts, by a redactor to whom it was clearly an archaic poem. The NEB translators manage to capture something of its rhythms, but the language is duly gleichgeschaltet, turned, like everything else, into “the language of the present day.”
Of course the actual contents of the Bible impose differences of style on the translation: different kinds of narrative, song, prophetic verse, and gnomic utterance are made quite clear. But something is lost in being consistently modern, just as something was lost in AV by being consistently “biblical.” The AV translators found many different kinds of liturgical biblical style to correspond to the differences in the original, but they had no sense of differences in strata. The NEB translators certainly had such a sense, but out of policy refrained from embodying it in their language. In some ways scholarship makes for uniformity. If we recover what we think some ancient fragment really means, we are tempted to render it in very non-ancient language in order to demonstrate how completely we understand it. But suppose the sense of ancientness is part of the meaning? It couldn’t be part of the original meaning, it may be argued; its first author must have written in a language that was modern to him. There are two answers to this: one, even if he did, his work may have been included in the work we have as a deliberate example of an older or a more formal style (like the Battle of Maldon in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle); and two, an author may have deliberately written in an antique formal style for ritual or other cultural purposes. Homeric Greek was antique to the redactor of the Homeric poems, and the best way to render in English the way it sounded to the classical Greeks who read it (and perhaps even to those who first heard it orally recited) is more like the now despised translations of Butcher and Lang, and Lang, Leaf, and Myers than like those of W. H. D. Rouse.
Another example of an inset song which comes from a different stratum is David’s lament over Jonathan in II Samuel 1. We are all familiar with the opening of the King James version:
The beauty of Israel is slaine upon thy high
How are the mightie fallen!
NEB renders these lines:
O prince of Israel, laid low in death!
How are the men of war fallen!
The difference here is philological rather than stylistic. Tsvi means ornament or splendor; but it is also the word for a gazelle or hart, itself a symbol of strength and beauty and therefore possibly meaning something like “noble warrior” in some ancient Semitic languages: hence the rather dubious rendering, “prince.” “Slaine upon thy high places” is rendered “laid low in death” by a simple emendation; “mightie” becomes “men of war,” presumably because it is considered a more accurate rendering of giborim, but the difference here is one of emphasis rather than of meaning.
When NEB comes to translate the identical Hebrew phrase, when it is repeated at the end of the song, the rendering is different:
Fallen, fallen are the men of war.
Presumably, a high elegaic note was felt necessary here, though it was not found necessary in rendering the phrase the first time. The final verse is, in fact, rather effective:
Fallen, fallen are the men of war;
and their armour left on the field.
This is less rhetorical, but more quietly moving, than King James:
How are the mightie fallen,
And the weapons of warre perished!
I suspect that one of NEB’s “literary advisers” thought up that “fallen, fallen”; it is a deliberate sacrifice of literal accuracy to style. But it is an isolated, if by itself successful, stylistic maneuver. It does violence to the structural effect of having the same exclamatory phrase at the beginning of the poem, in the penultimate stanza (if we accept NEB’s formal arrangement), and in the coda. And its Victorian elegiac tone does not suggest the incorporation of a genuine ancient lament into a historical narrative. I come back to this question of strata or layers in so many of the books of the Old Testament: they represent the great unaccepted challenge to translators.
Translators have their easiest time with straight narrative in a simple folk idiom, such as the superb story of Joseph, most of which is attributed to the hand that scholars call J . The style here is simple, eloquent, and uniform; there are no inserted older layers; and though the language can move from the primitive “and then . . . and then” sequential narrative to the eloquence of Judah’s final plea before Joseph (Genesis 44:18-34), the voice of the narrator is the same voice. All the translator has to do is to render the Hebrew in an unpretentious, straightforward way. The AV translators did so, but in language consciously archaic, so that we have the feeling of reading an ancient folktale. But it comes out at least as well in a simple modern English, for this is really a timeless style.
Here is the opening of the story in the language of AV (Genesis 37:2-5):
Ioseph being seventeene yeeres old, was feeding the flocke with his brethren, and the lad was with the sonnes of Bilhah, and with the sonnes of Zilpah, his fathers wives: and Ioseph brought unto his father their evill report. Now Israel loved Ioseph more than all his children, because he was the sonne of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more then all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speake peacably unto him.
And here is NEB:
When Joseph was a boy of seventeen, he used to accompany his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, when they were in charge of the flock; and he brought their father a bad report of them. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was a child of his old age, and he made him a long, sleeved robe. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any other of them, they hated him and could not say a kind word to him.
Let us add, for comparison, Speiser’s translation in the Anchor Bible Genesis:
At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended flocks with his brothers. He was assisting the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah; and Joseph brought his father bad reports about them. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he made him an ornamented tunic. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his other sons [the Masoretic text has “brothers” here, but some manuscripts, as well as the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint, read “other sons”], they came to hate him so much that they could not say a kind word to him.
The folk tone comes through equally well in each version. The stylistic differences among the versions are largely the result of different ways of coping with the paucity of conjunctions in Hebrew. Enormous use is made of the simple prefix ve-, usually translated “and” but in fact capable of meaning “but” or “however” or “now” or “then.” A great deal of tact is necessary in handling this simple little syllable. That, and (used much less often) ki, “for,” “because,” carry the nuances of the narrative. The moving simplicity of verse 3 is achieved largely by the bare transitions from ve to ki and back to ve. And Israel loved Joseph best because he was the son of his old age and he made him a special kind of coat. The simple logic of an elderly widower’s emotions (we remember that Rachel, Joseph’s mother, died in giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin—an important fact in the structure of the story as a whole) is in that movement of conjunctions.
It is interesting that the translators of all the three versions quoted above render the first ve of this sentence as “now.” It is not so much a poverty in Hebrew vocabulary that requires this simple prefix to be translated in many different ways; it is rather the flexibility of the prefix itself. In this respect Hebrew is very unlike Greek, which abounds in particles that define with remarkable precision the logical relationship between one clause and the next and thus pose an impossible problem for the translator in rendering their meaning accurately and idiomatically into a language that has no such profusion of particles. Men and de are relatively easy, but all those other enclitic particles in Greek—te, ge and their like—and such conjunctions as oun, alla (and all’ oun), gar, evidence a sense of logical relationship between clauses and sentences that Hebrew does not possess. In Hebrew the basic relationship (at least in stories of the Joseph type) is temporal; a sequence is likely to be a consequence. Jacob loved Joseph best and he made him a special coat is in Hebrew almost the same as saying that Jacob loved Joseph best therefore he made him a special coat. Time unfolds purpose, which is implicit in action. In ancient Hebrew thought this applies to characters in stories and in history as it applies to God.
Monsignor Knox, in his remarkable translation from the Vulgate, deliberately moves away from the syntactical simplicity of the Hebrew (from which he is not translating directly) to provide sophisticated links between clauses and sentences which give a quite different rhythm to this prose and a tone that is very unlike that of the simple folktale that we have in the original:
By now, Joseph was sixteen years old, and helped his brethren to feed their flocks, young though he was. He worked with the sons of his father’s wives, Bala and Zelpha; and against these brothers of his he told his father ill tales. Among his children, Jacob loved Joseph best, as old men love the sons old age has brought them; and he dressed him in a coat that was all embroidery.
Phrases such as “by now,” “young though he was,” “as old men love the sons old age has brought them” provide a very modern touch—not modern in the sense that the NEB translators were trying to be modern, but modern in the sense that this use of temporal, concessive, and explanatory clauses does not belong to primitive narrative and represents a kind of narrative prose that develops late in any culture.
The paucity of conjunctions in biblical Hebrew is paralleled by the paucity of exclamations. Exclamations of grief in Hebrew cannot compare with the luxuriant cries of woe which fill Greek tragedy. When Jacob thinks that his favorite son has been killed, he does not break out into a string of wild ejaculations. The moving restraint of the Hebrew comes out equally well in AV and in NEB:
And all his sonnes, and all his daughters rose up to comfort him: but he refused to be comforted: and he said, For I will goe downe into the grave unto my sonne, mourning: thus his father wept for him.
His sons and daughters all tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. He said, “I will go to my grave mourning for my son.” Thus Joseph’s father wept for him.
The style of the original is proof against distortion by any reasonably literal rendering: the Joseph story is indeed, from the point of view of translation, as near foolproof as anything in the Bible. Only Monsignor Knox, who translates Old Testament narrative, with great skill, in the style of George Moore in The Brook Kerith, has deliberately thrown away the advantages of the simplicity of the Hebrew; but that is because he translates from the Latin, and the Vulgate Latin is curiously dull and deadpan in its handling of narrative, thus in some degree justifying Monsignor’s Knox’s treatment of it.
The exclamations used by the writer of the Joseph story are virtually limited to two—hineh (“behold”) and na (“I pray you”)—with the former by far the more numerous. They must be translated differently in different circumstances, and at no point in the Joseph story should hineh be rendered by the traditional “behold.” Consider the way these two words are used in those verses in which Joseph excitedly tells of his dreams. He says to his brothers: shimu-na hachalom hazeh asher chalamti, which AV renders “Heare, I pray you, this dreame which I have dreamed.” NEB renders, more simply and directly and very effectively: “Listen to this dream I have had.” But in omitting altogether the force of the na, NEB loses something. Its function here (though of course not universally) is to convey excitement, almost like, “Hey! Listen to this dream I’ve had.”
The function of hineh in this section is similar. Joseph bubbles over with hineh after hineh in narrating his dream. AV renders: “For beholde, wee were binding sheaves in the field, and loe, my sheafe arose, and also stood upright; and behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheafe.” (“Behold” twice and “lo” once for the same word, hineh.) NEB translates: “We were in the field binding sheaves, and my sheaf rose on end and stood upright, and your sheaves gathered round and bowed low before my sheaf.” Each of the three times that hineh occurs, it is simply ignored. The result is a fine, plain sentence. But though it is true we don’t want “behold” or “lo,” surely we want something to indicate Joseph’s excitement? To my ear, hineh here means, “Look, it was like this.” I would venture to translate the sentence in some such way as: “Look, it was like this: we were binding sheaves in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose on end and stood up and your sheaves actually gathered round. . . .” This means translating hineh in three different ways in the course of a single sentence. “Suddenly” and “actually” are not literal translations of hineh, nor are they ideal equivalents; but they do perhaps give some idea of the sense of urgency and excitement that in the Hebrew they add to Joseph’s telling about his dreams. Similarly, when he can’t refrain from telling his second dream, he bursts out: hineh chalamti chalom od, which I would almost render: “Hey fellows, I’ve had another dream!”
(NEB does attempt the hineh here: “Listen: I have had another dream.”) It’s not his dreaming but his compulsive talking about it that angers his brothers. The Hebrew says, literally: “And they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.” (NEB: “and they hated him still more because of his dreams and what he said.”) The meaning is, “for his dreams and for talking about them.” Anybody can have dreams of glory, but to tell them in public, with an air of innocent delight, to one’s older brothers, is to ask for trouble. All this seems to me to be packed into that brief Hebrew phrase, al-chalomotav ve-al devarav. The simplicity of the narrative style of the Joseph story is not inconsistent with considerable subtlety of suggestion, and the problem is how to render this in translation. Knox does it in his characteristically discursive way: “So this talk about his dream fed the fires of their envious anger.” But surely this is altogether too “literary”?
It is not for the rendering of the narrative portions of the Bible that many readers will prefer the familiar AV to NEB. Here for the most part we are glad to shed the archaisms and find new renderings established by scholarship (e.g., we know now that ketonet pasim is not “a coat of many colors,” though it is far from certain whether it means NEB’s “long, sleeved robe”: the evidence of cuneiform inventories suggests “ornamented tunic”). But in the more poetic parts of the Bible some may feel that the NEB translators have lost the old poetry which has not been compensated for by a new accuracy.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall want nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
and leads me beside the waters of peace;
he renews life within me,
and for his name’s sake guides me in the right
Even though I walk through a valley dark as
I fear no evil, for thou art with me,
thy staff and thy crook are my comfort.
Many will prefer the familiar:
The Lord is my shepheard, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie downe in greene pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soule:
He leadeth me in the pathes of righteousness, for
his names sake.
Yea though I walke through the valley of the
shadowe of death,
I will feare no evill: for thou art with me,
Thy rod and thy staffe, they comfort me.3
To some the “-eth” verb endings provide the proper liturgical effect, and the Psalm ought to be in a somewhat archaic English. Again, we come to the question of layers of style. Were not some at least of the Psalms written in an idiom that appeared archaic and highly stylized to those who first collected them?
A translation which seeks wholly and only precise word-for-word literal accuracy is Father Mitchell Dahood’s in the Anchor Bible:
Yahweh is my shepherd,
I shall not lack.
In green meadows he will make me lie down;
Near tranquil waters will he guide me,
to refresh my being.
He will lead me into luxuriant pastures,
as befits his name.
Even though I should walk
in the midst of total darkness,
I shall fear no danger
since you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
behold, they will lead me.
This conveys the prosody of the Hebrew, as well as all that modern scholarship can discover about its meaning.4 And it has a quiet dignity of its own NEB does not seem all that much more accurate than AV, but it has lost some of its magic. Why “I shall want nothing” instead of the familiar “I shall not want,” which is exactly what the Hebrew says (or “I shall not lack,” as Dahood renders it)? Presumably, because it is more idiomatic modern English. Did one of the “literary advisers” suggest this? And what about “through a valley dark as death”? The Hebrew word tsalmut (deep darkness, terror) can be vocalized as tsalmavet (shadow of death), and this was done by the Masoretes though it is largely rejected by modern scholarship. So if you read tsalmavet you get the traditional phrase “the valley of the shadow of death,” and if you read tsalmut you get something like “the valley of terrible darkness.” But to render, as NEB does, “a valley dark as death” seems to be a deliberate falling between two stools, as though the translators were not willing to give up altogther the traditional “valley of the shadow of death” but knew that the Masoretic pointing that gave this reading was highly dubious. However, they may take a little comfort from Dahood’s cheerful observation that perhaps the word could after all be read as tsalmavet, “with mavet [death] serving the function of a superlative.” My point is that the NEB translators, in some of the poetic parts of the Old Testament, seem to hesitate among the claims of tradition, of philological accuracy, and of modern idiom. The last is their least flexible criterion, and again—the Bible being what it is—one wonders if this represented the right order of priorities.
Some of the prophetic books of the Bible are, in parts at least, the most straightforward for the translator concerned with style and tone, for a prophet denouncing or comforting or predicting is clearly not involved with different layers of style: he is speaking as directly as he can to his contemporaries. Isaiah’s vision of universal peace comes across equally effectively in AV and NEB. NEB emends a reading and improves the natural history and also makes some philological corrections (“fatling” becomes “shall grow up”; the “asp” becomes a “cobra” and the “cockatrice’s den” a “viper’s nest”), but cannot really improve on AV. The translator’s job is simply to lay it on the line: the style creates itself:
The wolfe also shall dwell with the lambe, and the leopard shall lie downe with the kid: and the calfe and the yong lion, and the fatling together, and a litle child shall lead them. And the cow and the beare shall feed, their yong ones shall lie downe together: and the lion shall eat straw like the oxe. And the suckling childe shall play on the hole of the aspe, and the weaned childe shall put his hand on the cockatrice denne. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountaine: for the earth shall bee full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
That is the AV rendering of Isaiah 11:6-9. Here is NEB:
Then the wolf shall live with the sheep,
and the leopard lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall grow up
and a little child shall lead them;
the cow and the bear shall be friends,
and their young shall lie down together.
The lion shall eat straw like cattle;
the infant shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the young child dance over the viper’s nest.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy
for as the waters fill the sea,
so shall the land be filled with the knowledge
of the Lord.
The picture of the young child dancing over the viper’s nest will probably appeal to most modern readers more than that of the weaned child putting his hand on the cockatrice’s den, though the latter, with its mixture of natural and heraldic suggestion, has a certain charm. “The cow and the bear shall be friends” has a splendid Winnie-the-Pooh sort of directness, it being possible to read “be friends” instead of “shall feed” because of the identical nature of the Hebrew words for “to like, to associate with,” and “feed a flock” (raa in each case). But why does NEB change the order in the last sentence, to read “for as the waters fill the sea, so shall the land be filled with the knowledge of the Lord”? The AV order, which is precisely that of the Hebrew, is both more eloquent and more accurate: “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” The reversal of the original order in NEB was presumably made by the “literary advisers” on stylistic grounds. I can see no justification for it: it does violence to the movement and rhythms of the original and substitutes for the subtle rhetoric of the Hebrew, where the simile comes after the major affirmation to provide both an emphasis and a dying fall, a coarser rhetorical movement with the obvious climax of “knowledge of the Lord.”
Nevertheless, NEB does well with prophetic speech on the whole, effectively rendering its urgency and its desperate reaching to communicate. There are, of course, points where it is more accurate than AV, but it is surprising how little difference to the general effect the points of accuracy make. This is not true of all books of the Bible. In that fascinating and sometimes puzzling book Job, for example, some of the most often quoted passages that have become proverbial in the 1611 version are now known to have been totally misunderstood. Thus, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day, upon the earth” (Job 19:25), becomes, in NEB, “But in my heart I know that my vindicator lives and that he will rise last to speak in court”—this draws attention to the legal terminology in which much of Job’s argument with God is couched: Job’s main point is that he has been punished for crimes about which he has not been told and about which he knows nothing, and he demands to know what the charge is so that his attorney can make a proper defense—and in his heart he knows that the defending attorney will eventually have a chance to speak. New renderings such as this reveal theological and doctrinal implications to no less an extent than the Bible translations of the 16th century revealed new meanings in formerly mistranslated texts on which enormous superstructures of theological inference had been raised. In Jewish as in medieval Christian tradition, and to an even greater extent in the former, inference from the biblical text produced vast bodies of doctrine and of precept, so that any suggestion by modern scholars that the traditional reading of the text is simply wrong has implications far beyond the realm of philology or textual criticism. How far a modern Bible translator should try to build into his translation some sense of what the text has meant to generations of readers as well as giving his conception of its “real” or “original” meaning is a question more easily posed than answered. And even if we say that this should be done, there is the further question as to whether it is feasible. Nevertheless, to make the point once again, the ideal translator should have some understanding of the ambiguity of such terms as “real” or “original” in this context.
The sophisticated upper-class melancholy of Ecclesiastes calls for special techniques on the part of the translator. The proverbial element can easily be paraphrased into its everyday “meaning,” so that “cast thy bread upon the waters” (which is literally what the Hebrew says) becomes “send your goods overseas” (as Robert Gordis translated it) or, in NEB, “Send your grain across the seas, and in time you will get a return.” This is probably what the proverbial expression meant, but surely it is significant that “cast your bread upon the waters” has traditionally been construed as an invitation to charity, while the NEB reads it as an invitation to capitalist investment. There is indeed a lot about property and the life of an affluent society in Ecclesiastes, and the problems of the rich are much in evidence. (“There is a singular evil here under the sun which I have seen: a man hoards wealth to his own hurt, and then that wealth is lost through an unlucky venture, and the owner’s son left with nothing.” NEB is good in rendering this kind of brisk talk about financial dilemmas.) But Ecclesiastes also contains its own brand of eloquently melancholy poetry where the tone is easier to determine than the precise meaning. The first seven verses of the concluding chapter provide a test case for one kind of Bible translation. AV translates:
Remember now thy Creatour in the dayes of thy youth, while the evil daies come not, nor the yeeres drawe nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them: While the Sunne, or the light, or the moone, or the starres be not darkened, nor the cloudes returne after the raine: in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bowe themselves, and the grinders cease, because they are fewe, and those that looke out of the windowes be darkened: and the doores shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and the daughters of musicke shall be brought low. Also they shall be afraid of that which is high, and feares shall be in the way, and the Almond tree shall flourish, the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall faile: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners goe about the streets: or ever the silver corde be loosed, or the golden bowle be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountaine, or the wheele broken at the cisterne. Then shall the dust returne to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall returne unto God who gave it.
This is beautiful, and at the same time somewhat mysterious. The keepers of the house and the grinders and the daughters of music have no very clear connotations to most readers. Modern translators sacrifice some of the suggestiveness to greater precision. For Robert Gordis the “grinders” were “the grinding maidens” and the next verse is rendered:
When the doubled doors on the street are shut,
And the voice of the mill becomes low.
One wakes at the sound of a bird,
And all the daughters of song are laid low.
When one fears to climb a height,
And terrors lurk in a walk.
We now see that we are dealing with a description of the fears of old age. In the attractively-produced edition of the five megillot and Jonah giving both the Hebrew text and the new translaion of the Jewish Publication Society of America,5 Ecclesiastes 12:3-5 reads:
When the guards of the house become shaky,
And the men of valor are bent,
And the maids that grind, grown few, are idle,
And the ladies that peer through the windows
And the doors to the street are shut—
With the noise of the handmill growing fainter,
And the song of the bird growing feebler,
And all the strains of music dying down;
When one is afraid of heights
And there is terror on the road.
For the almond tree may blossom,
The grasshopper be burdened,
And the caper bush may bud again;
But a man sets out for his eternal abode,
With mourners all around in the street.
We are left in no doubt that this is a description of old age, for the footnotes tell us that “the guards of the house” are the arms, the “men of valor” the legs, the “maids that grind” the teeth, “the ladies that peer through the windows” the eyes, and “the doors to the street” the ears. Everything is now clear, except the line “The grasshopper be burdened,” and here a footnote tells us that “emendation yields ‘The squill (postbiblical Heb. hasab) resume its burden,’ i.e., its blossom-stalk and its leaves.”
The problem here is complex. Modern literary criticism is accustomed to seek ambiguities and suggestions in poetic imagery and to recognize that the rational is, in poetry, in cooperation with the passionate and the emotive. But when you are dealing with a poetry written in an ancient language, which is playing games with proverbs which may have been traditional to the original writer, but which may on the other hand have been either variations on traditional proverbs or wholly new insights cast into the form of the traditional proverb, the translator is faced with an impossible dilemma. Of course, if he himself is a gifted poet as well as a profound scholar, he might be able to devise a form of expression which contains the same kind of counter-pointing of reverberating suggestiveness and brisk proverbial wisdom; but such a combination of talents is not to be hoped for in Bible translators, however well equipped, and in the end they must resort to a literal rendering accompanied by footnotes or else a rendering which, while as philologically accurate as is possible, is also agreeably phrased and at the same time captures something of the rhythms of the original. I think that the NEB translators have made this their aim, though their procedure of adding to their scholarly rendering the views of non-scholarly “literary experts” (I mean non-scholarly in the original language) means that they have given up the hope of any kind of “unified sensibility” in their version. In the circumstances, NEB does quite well. Here is their rendering of Ecclesiastes 12:1-7:
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the time of trouble comes and the years draw near when you will say, “I see no purpose in them.” Remember him before the sun and the light of day give place to darkness, before the moon and the stars grow dim, and the clouds return with the rain—when the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the women grinding the meal cease work because they are few, and those who look through the windows look no longer, when the street-doors are shut, when the noise of the mill is low, when the chirping of the sparrow grows faint and the song-birds fall silent; when men are afraid of a steep place and the street is full of terrors, when the blossom whitens on the almond-tree and the locust’s paunch is swollen and caper-buds have no more zest. For man goes to his everlasting home, and the mourners go about the streets. Remember him before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, before the pitcher is shattered at the spring and the wheel broken at the well, before the dust returns to the earth as it began and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
This passage ends with the repetition of the recurring formula which AV renders in the well-known phrase, “Vanitie of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanitie of vanities, all is vanitie.” R. B. Y. Scott, in his extremely interesting Anchor Bible version, renders it: “A vapor of vapors!—says Qoheleth—All is vapor!” The new Jewish Publication Society translation is “Utter futility—said Koheleth—All is futile.” NEB translates: “Emptiness, emptiness, says the Speaker, all is empty.” The Hebrew hevel means “breath, breeze, nothingness, emptiness, transitoriness.” Surely the traditional “vanity” makes the point very well: I see no reason for altering it. The philological problem here is quite different from that posed in the phrase “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” for the Hebrew borecha could conceivably be read bor’cha, “your grave” (literally, “pit”), which certainly makes sense in the context. Scott so translates it: “In the days of your youth, remember your grave.” The new Jewish Publication Society translation, rather more dubiously in my opinion, takes the word to mean “your vigor,” from the post-biblical bori, meaning “health” (and also “basis, foundation”). But this is a straight problem in philology, and has nothing to do with the tone and quality of translation.
The five megillot (The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther) are linked in Jewish tradition both because of their relative shortness and because they are read at specific festivals or fasts (the Sabbath of Passover, Shavuot, the Ninth of Ab, the Sabbath of Succot, and Purim, respectively) but the problems they pose for the translator are very various. Ginsberg’s edition adds Jonah, which is read on Yom Kippur. The lush erotic imagery of The Song of Songs (which is a dialogue of love between a man and a woman, with an occasional chorus of onlookers—NEB indicates the speaker in each case) is something unique in the Bible, and every time I read it I am struck anew with wonder that it was accepted into the biblical canon by both Jews and Christians. Jews allegorized it as a dialogue between God and His people, and Christians as a dialogue between Christ and His Church, which is pretty far-fetched in either case, but we must be glad that the Rabbis and the Church Fathers had this idea, for it has preserved a remarkable dramatic poem which might otherwise have been lost. In terms of style and tone there is little problem: a literal translation prescribes its own style and it comes over very well. But it is a difficult work philologically, and there is considerable scope for difference of opinion in interpreting individual words and phrases. Do we prefer NEB’s rendering of 2:3?
Like an apricot-tree among the trees of the
so is my beloved among boys.
To sit in its shadow was my delight,
and its fruit was sweet to my taste.
As the apple trees among the trees of the wood,
So is my beloved among the sonnes.
I sate down under his shadow with great delight,
And his fruit was sweete to my taste.6
I suppose the NEB translators had some good reason for rendering tapuach (which so far as I know has always meant “apple” or “apple-tree”) as “apricot-tree.” (The talmudic word for apricot is afarsek, which also means “peach,” and there is the later Hebrew mishmesh.) The new Jewish Publication Society rendering is:
Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
So is my beloved among the youths.
I delight to sit in his shade,
And his fruit is sweet to my mouth.
The really interesting difference here concerns the shade and the fruit. The Hebrew betsilo could mean either “his shade” or “its shade,” and similarly piryo could mean “his fruit” or “its fruit.” NEB refers both the shade and the fruit to the tree. This is purely a matter of tact, but it does seem to me needlessly puritanical to concentrate on the tree rather than on the young man: I feel sure myself that the fruit that was sweet to the girl’s taste was the young man’s kisses.
The Book of Ruth, a beautiful simple story, presents no great problems to the translator and reads as well in NEB as in Ginsberg’s edition. Some of the simplest Hebrew formulas can, however, present problems. What do we do with the traditional “once upon a time” formula of vayehi? AV renders the opening of Ruth as: “And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged.” The new Jewish Publication Society’s translation omits the word: “In the days when the chieftains ruled.” NEB renders: “Long ago, in the time of the judges,” and I suppose that “long ago” is as good a way as any of translating vayehi. I am surprised that nobody has ventured on “once upon a time,” for the word is a pure opening formula for a story.
The most extraordinary rendering of the Book of Ruth in modern times is that of Monsignor Knox, who moves the story on in a dreamlike languid manner that has a charm of its own though it is quite unlike the briskness of the Hebrew:
Here is thy sister-in-law gone back, Noemi7 said, back to her people and the gods they worship; do thou, too, go with her. Nay, said Ruth, do not press me to go back and leave thee. I mean to go where thou goest, and dwell where thou dwellest; thy people shall be my people, thy God my God; whatever earth closes over thee when thou diest shall be my land, and my own burial-place. Due meed of punishment the Lord give me, and more than due, if aught but death part thee and me.
“You see,” said Naomi, “Your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; go back with her.” “Do not urge me to go back and desert you,” Ruth answered. “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. I swear a solemn oath before the Lord your God: nothing but death shall divide us.”
Here is the new Jewish Publication Society’s version:
So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has returned to her people and her gods. Go follow your sister-in-law. But Ruth replied, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”
NEB paraphrases the Hebrew formula of imprecation “thus and more may the Lord do to me” as “I swear a solemn oath before the Lord your God,” which raises the whole question of whether and where in Bible translation paraphrase should replace translation. All in all, it is hard to improve on AV:
And she said, Behold, thy sister in law is gone backe unto her people, and unto her gods: return thou after thy sister in law. And Ruth said, Intreate me not to leave thee, or to returne from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will goe; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I bee buried: the Lord doe so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.
The use of “thee” and “thou,” the word “intreate,” the old-fashioned “whither,” do not, I think, in any way offend the modern ear in this context. They add to the primitive simplicity of the story. But of course a translator must be consistent once he has decided to eliminate these archaisms. Or must he? The Book of Ruth can stand as an antique story, commenting as it were on the Book of Judges which could be rendered in a more direct modern historical style. Once again we come to the question of biblical strata.
The Bible is a whole library, and in a single article one cannot pursue the question of translation book by book. But a word of praise is due to the new Jewish Publication Society’s lively and pleasing—even racy—translation of the Book of Esther. One has only to put its rendering of the opening phrase vayehi bimei Achashverosh, “It happened in the days of Ahasuerus,” beside the more long-winded NEB version, “the events here related happened in the days of Ahasuerus” (a megillah indeed!), to see how it skips along. Then there is the moving Lamentations, the splendid little book of Jonah—and, with regard to the New Testament, I was going to talk also about the problems posed by the opening verses of the Gospel of St. John. But “of making many bookes there is no end” (AV), or “the use of books is endless” (NEB), or “the making of many books is without limit” (JPS), or “book learning is an endless occupation” (Scott). The same goes for articles on the Book of Books.
1 The New English Bible, with the Apocrypha, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press. Old Testament, 1166 pp.; Apocrypha, 275 pp.; New Testament, 336 pp. $9.95.
2 “Biblical Legends,” October 1969.
3 In quoting from the King James or Authorized Version, I am using the reprint of the 1611 Bible in the Tudor Translations series, London, 1903. This retains the original spelling and punctuation, but arranges the poetry into appropriate line lengths in a way not found in the original.
4 See Milton Himmelfarb’s essay, “Translating the Psalms,” in COMMENTARY, February 1968 and “The Psalms in Translation,” an exchange between Mitchell Dahood and Milton Himmelfarb, September 1968.—Ed.
5 The Five Megilloth and Jonah: A New Translation. Introductions by H. L. Ginsberg, with drawings by Ismar David. Jewish Publication Society of America, 189 pp., $5.00.
6 Of course the possessive “its” was unknown to the AV translators, so “his” might refer either to the tree or the man. The ambiguity is precisely the same in Hebrew.
7 Noemi is the Vulgate form of the name.