The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Last year John F. Hobbins and I published Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators. Readers of the Volokh Conspiracy may remember the seven-part series I did on the translation at the Washington Post. The academic reviews are now coming in. But before getting to those, a brief word on the three aims of the translation.
First, it is very close—in colloquial or Nabokovian terms, it is "literal." We tried to carry over from the original its repetition, its emphasis, its wordplay, and even its moments of archaism. We of course did not fully succeed; imperfection always attends translation. But we aimed to be very close—closer than Robert Alter, closer than major Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant translations (e.g., JPS, NABRE, ESV).
Second, we were consciously working within a long tradition of English Bibles (especially those of William Tyndale and his conscious successors, such as the KJV), and a long tradition of interpretation, both Jewish and Christian. We were not trying for "what might an early reader have understood this to mean?" but instead tried to translate in a way that left open, rather than closed down, the range of options within that long tradition of interpretation.
Third, we were attentive to the demands of reading aloud. This meant care for rhythm, pacing, and euphony.
Of course these aims sometimes conflict. And there were other aims that we were not even pursuing—we were not trying to make the text sound like a work newly written in the twenty-first century.
As always, the proof is in the pudding. And when authors send a book out into the world, just as when a chef sends a pudding out of the kitchen, one never knows exactly how it will be received.
On that front I have good news. This week two reviews of the book were published, one by Ernst Wendland in The Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages and the other by Marco Settembrini in New Blackfriars. There are critical notes. Wendland faults us for presenting the English text in paragraph form instead of showing the clause structure of the Hebrew. Settembrini hints that we leaned too far towards the subsequent tradition of translation and interpretation when we translate tannimas "whales" (with KJV); many recent translations have "sea monsters." We do have a note arguing for our translation choice, but it did not persuade.
On the whole, however, both reviews praise the work. And both understand what it does and does not try to achieve. Here is Wendland:
This interesting and informative work, which is of special interest to those engaged in the fields of Old Testament and Translation Studies, has already attracted significant academic attention in the United States. . . . [I]t is much more than a translation . . . [and is] undoubtedly a most valuable resource for "Scholars and Translators". The complementary "Notes" offer a precise, learned commentary on the Hebrew original and its proposed English rendering – a version that readers may not always agree with, but one by which they will be variously instructed as they follow the accompanying perceptive argumentation provided by the translators.
This fine book published by GlossaHouse offers good contributions to biblical translations. Its authors, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and a Reformed pastor and scholar of classical Hebrew, seriously engage with contemporary exegetical literature in order to provide their readers with a good English rendering of the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1 – 12:9, accompanied by comments upon selected phrases. . . . [T]he newly crafted translation is aimed at public reading and private worship, is conceived in a substantial continuity with the Tyndale Bible and the King James Version, is willing to mirror the Semitic original albeit highly mindful of the style and pace of the English text.
A tannin is not a whale, but readers will certainly have a whale of a time with this volume by Bray and Hobbins in their hands.