The Volokh Conspiracy
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This is the fourth post in a series on "Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators." As in the last post, I'll discuss the question of physicality in translation. Today I'll give a couple of examples and conclude with thoughts about translation and legal interpretation.
6:17 "And lo, I, even I, am bringing the Flood, waters over the earth, to ruin all flesh in which there is the spirit of life under the heavens. All that is on the earth shall give up its spirit."
At the start of the Flood story, God observes that humanity is destroying itself and the earth: "Now the earth was ruined before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and lo, it was ruined, for all flesh had ruined its way upon the earth" (6:11-12). What comes next is a pronouncement of divine judgment and a set of instructions for Noah. In our translation, the reader can see that Genesis presents this judgment as kind for kind: Just as God saw that "the earth was ruined" and "all flesh had ruined its way upon the earth," so God would "ruin all flesh" (6:17).
The pronouncement of judgment concludes with the statement that "All that is on the earth shall give up its spirit." Most English translations have "die" or "perish," but this Hebrew word (gevi'ah) is not the usual one for death. It refers to gasping for breath. As the great medieval exegete Abraham ibn Ezra said, "Every gevi'ah is a death, but not every death is a gevi'ah." The obvious English word might be "expire," a word that joins death and breath (at least etymologically). But it isn't in the right register. It has a kind of comic formality—less Moses and more Monty Python. (Yes, we actually mention Monty Python in our translation note on this verse. Yes, I checked to see whether "expire" is used in the "Dead Parrot" sketch. Yes, it is.) So a translator can either under-translate, using a conventional term for dying such as "die" or "perish," or over-translate, using a phrase such as "give up its spirit." We take the latter choice, preserving the physicality of the original.
11:7 "Let us go down and let us there scramble their tongue, that no man may hear the tongue of his neighbor."
This verse appears in a divine speech about the builders of Babylon. There are three instances of striking physicality, all of which are carried over in our translation: (1) God will "scramble" something, (2) what he will scramble is their "tongue," and (3) the result is that each man will be unable to "hear" his neighbor's tongue. Compare the rendering in Robert Alter's excellent translation of Genesis: "Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other's language." Where we choose "scramble," "tongue" and "hear," he chooses "baffle," "language" and "understand."
To be sure, Alter's choices are reasonable ones, and each does capture the sense of the original in idiomatic English. Yes, the result of the scrambling is bafflement. Yes, where we have "tongue"—a more literal rendering would be "lip"—the word is being used in the idiomatic sense of language. (What makes "tongue" such an apt rendering in English is that it has the same dual sense as the Hebrew, a body part and human language.) Yes, the "hearing" referred to is hearing in the sense of understanding. Like in English: "You listened to me, but you didn't hear me." Even so, the cumulative effect of Alter's choices in this verse is a cloaking of the text's insistent physicality.
Other examples could be given, but these illustrate the point. Our translation tries to carry over more of the physicality of the original. Readers will not find our choices taxing as long as they are willing to encounter an unfamiliar metaphor. And really, if you are reading a text that is millennia old, is that too much to ask?
We are not the first to notice the turn to abstraction in more recent translations, nor the first to notice its deadening effect. Reynolds Price thought the secret to the success of the King James Version was its physicality. As an illustration, he offered a verse from the New Testament (Mark 5:38), and he canvassed a few late-20th-century translations:
The Jerusalem Bible and J. B. Phillips say "Jesus noticed." E. V. Rieu says "he was faced by a disorderly scene." Ronald Knox says "he found" (violating the plain first sense of his prime text, the Vulgate, which has videt). Of widely used recent versions, only the Revised Standard preserves saw. . . .
What the abstractionists are saying is plain - "The original of course employed its resources of limited vocabulary and primitive imagery to the limit, but what we must tell you is what they meant to say." In its fidelity not to what was meant but to what was actually seen and said (and therefore meant), the King James and its English predecessors achieved their triumph. . . . [It came from] loyalty to a simple principle. In the general assumption that every word of a narrative or lyric original may be transmuted, however mysteriously, into a close visual equivalent in the vernacular, the King James awarded itself an enduring distinction - a continuous poetry rooted in and blossoming from our only means of knowledge: the human body and its fragile organs.
Is this sense of physicality also important to legal interpretation? Initially, I thought not. Yet that conclusion might be too fast.
Legal texts sometimes include not only a rule of behavior but also examples of the kinds of conduct that are prohibited or permitted. (This strategy is analyzed in an insightful new paper by Susie Morse and Leigh Osofsky.) Pairing a general principle with illustrations helps the reader see—there's that word again—exactly what the authors have in mind.
Moreover, imagery matters for good writing. That also goes for good writing by lawyers and judges. Where the chief justice wrote "tough as a three-dollar steak," try substituting "very tough." Feel the force ebb.
(Page references to our volume: Physicality is discussed in "To the Persistent Reader" on pp. 45-46. Monty Python gets a passing mention in the translation note on 6:17b, on p. 158.)