20 June 2014

Literal translation can make a big difference: example from Proverbs 8

by Dan Phillips

Have you been following along in, and been using the outlines for, my sermons through the book of Proverbs?  If so, you'll have noticed, to your amusement or amazement or indifference, that I always provide my own very literal ad hoc translation. Here's an example of why.

As I have explained more than once to my dear ones here, I don't do it to supplant any standard translation. Our church used a now-out-of-print edition of the NASB, and has since switched to ESV. Probably like anyone who's studied Greek and Hebrew closely, it drives me nuts. Every translation does. There is no fresh, consistently and readably literal translation.

Now, my point isn't to discuss translation philosophy or debate individual translations, but to make one point. I don't know whether it's the effect of committees or what, but one of the specifics that drive me nuts is the interpretive clues that translations withhold from readers.

For instance, here's one all translations do: there are a number of different Hebrew words for "fool" and "folly" in Proverbs. English versions all tend to render them all simply by "fool" and "folly." If Solomon is doing something with his word-choice, no English reader can tell; he'll sometimes look unnecessarily repetitive — as in 17:21, where ESV has "fool" twice to render two unrelated Hebrew terms.

Now, some of this is pretty much unavoidable. Anyone who reads my translation will say it's well-nigh unreadable, and I will agree. It's extremely literal. It isn't meant to replace a standard translation. My point is to try to make transparent nuances of structure and word-choice that a smoother, more readable translation would obscure.

Sometimes there's no good reason for what English versions do, and the less-literal hides delightful features of Solomon's art.

An example is found in Proverbs 8:32-36. Here's the ESV:
32 "And now, O sons, listen to me: blessed are those who keep my ways.
33 Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.
34 Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.
35 For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD,
36 but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death."
It looks like Wisdom asks them to listen and promises a blessing, says to hear (similar word, but different), then gives blessing and warning. And that's not wrong. Nobody is harmed by that translation.

But what Solomon's doing is a bit more artful than what's apparent. Here's my very-literal translation:
8:32  “So now, sons, listen to me!
And oh! the blessings of those who keep my ways.
8:33  “Listen to discipline, and be wise,
And do not ignore it.
8:34  “Oh! the blessings of the man who listens to me,
Watching at my doors day after day,
Keeping vigil at the doorposts of my opening.
8:35  “For he who finds me finds life,
And he obtains favor from Yahweh.
8:36  “But he who misses me does violence to his own soul;
All who hate me love death.”
Oh, look, that's a little different. "Listen" is in v. 32a, and v. 33a; then "oh! the blessings of" begins both v. 32b and v. 34a. Could that mean something?

Indeed it does. It means that verse 32 is the key to the entire section. Line A's call to listen is expanded in the terse imperatives (three imperatives in five words) on v. 33, and Line B's exclamation "oh! the blessings" is expanded in vv. 34-36.

In other words, Solomon has Wisdom saying "So now, sons, listen to me!" in Prov. 8:32a. Keying on "listen," verse 33 then expands this to three commands of which two are positive and one negative. It is a terse five-word verse, of which three words are imperative. Positively: listen, be wise. Negatively: do not ignore.

Then in Prov. 8:32, Wisdom exclaims "Oh! the blessings of those who keep my ways." What does all that involve? She tells us in vv. 34-36. Keeping her ways involves listening (again!), eagerly watching at her doors daily, keeping vigil at her every opening (v. 34). The one who does this gains real life, which is to say favor from Yahweh (v. 35). This bounty is heightened by a glance at the anti-blessing, the consequences of not seeking and finding her: doing violence to one's own soul, and loving death. (As I expound it, Lines A and B ov v. 36 are cause/effect, then effect/cause, respectively.)

What ESV does with vv. 32 and 33 is what it does when it's at its worst: simply echoing RSV without needed revision (pun noted, not intended). Both versions translate the exact same Hebrew word (שִׁמְעוּ, shim`û) by two different English words (listen, hear) in two sequential verses. (CSB and [it pains me to admit] NIV do not obscure this connection.)

As I said: does it harm anyone? No. Would a false doctrine be born of it? No. Could a reader read and be blessed and built up? Absolutely.

But as I say and have often said, a pastor is like a professor of ancient Hebrew and Greek literature. It'd be pretty rough for him to teach that course without knowing the languages. And one of the things that knowing the languages does for anyone is show greater color. If you've got a good B&W TV, can you watch Star Wars or Sound of Music and "get it"? Absolutely. But might you miss the color, and in some cases, the beauty is in the chromatic variations? Sure.

Proverbs 8:32-36 is a perfect example where a pastor's possession of a color TV can serve to bless his congregation with a deeper appreciation for and reverence of what God did in inspiring Solomon to craft this masterpiece.

POSTSCRIPT: having said all that, it is also true that the woodenly-literal can sometimes mislead an English reader, as I illustrate in today's post over at my personal blog.

Dan Phillips's signature


Frank Turk said...

We need the Phillips idiosyncratic translation.


DJP said...

LOL...I think.

One of the folks I taught decades ago called it the DPUV - the Dan Phillips Unauthorized (...or was it Uninspired?) Version.

Grant H said...

To this reader, your "very-literal" translation reads very well, pastor. It succeeds entirely at bringing out the nuance you've identified. It would be great to read a whole OT interpreted like this.

DJP said...

That's kind of you, Grant. You could read all of Titus and Proverbs 1-8, using the outlines of the sermons at Sermon Audio (http://bit.ly/yeiSNO).

Randy Talley said...

I know I probably need to take a number where this is concerned, but I appreciate that you do it. I know a lot of people who attempt to use original languages in their teaching, who then prove that all they did was open a lexicon. To do it correctly (as you do) is the difference between a color vs. black and white television.

Randy Talley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grant H said...

^ I've just taken a look at your Proverbs 7 and 8 translations through the link (thank you, btw). They are great! So vivid, clear, and fresh. Not hard to read at all. There's a real sense of the ancient voice coming through in them. Made me take notice.

If ever you publish a DPUV, I'm definitely buying. :)

DJP said...

That's very kind of you. However, the moment it was published, I'd give it a bad review and demand a revision.

underground pewster said...

You illustrate the power of repetition which we see in other places in scripture as well. When a point is made repeatedly, particularly in speech, our minds tell us to... listen.

Bike Bubba said...

Much appreciated. I'm a beginner in Hebrew and Greek, but even I am learning some neat things about how the original languages worked. My kids even notice that it's much easier to memorize the more word for word versions than it is to memorize a paraphrase--it's as if God put those mnemonic devices in His Word for a reason.