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Translating Genesis


Last year I published an article on the phrases "necessary and proper" and "cruel and unusual." I argued that both phrases are best seen as instances of the figure of speech hendiadys. Hendiadys is the use of two distinct terms, separated by a conjunction, that work together as a single unit of meaning. For example, a farmer who says his cow is "nice and fat" is not saying two things—the cow has a nice disposition and also is fat—but only one thing, that the cow is nicely fat, quite fat. I won't rehash the argument here about the two constitutional phrases. But you might wonder where the idea of hendiadys came from, especially since it is not found in most books on figures of speech. The genesis of that article was, quite literally, Genesis.

A scholar of biblical Hebrew (John Hobbins) and I have been working on a translation of the Book of Genesis, and the volume with chapters 1-11 was published Friday. You can order it from the publisher or from Amazon.

In a series of posts, I'll be discussing the translation. For me, Genesis is not just a cultural text; it's a religious one. But in my posts I'll discuss points that will be of interest to everyone who cares about language and law.

Let's start with an example. One of the most famous stories in the Book of Genesis is the Tower of Babel. Translators and translation theorists love this story (e.g., George Steiner). Maybe because it tends to justify translators' existence. It's short, just nine verses (11:1-9). It has a lot of punning and wordplay. One pun is absolutely central, the pun on the name of the city (Heb. babel) and the Hebrew word for mixing (Heb. balal), often used for mixing the flour and oil for a sacrifice.

The Babel story concludes this way in the New International Version, currently the best-selling Bible in the United States:

That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Here's how the same verse reads in our translation:

Hence her name is called Babylon, for there the LORD scrambled the tongue of all the earth and made it babble. And from there the LORD scattered them over the face of all the earth.

There are about 10 points of difference I could discuss, but let's just focus on two.

First, the name of the great city. If the pronunciation were carried over from the Hebrew, it would be "Babel"—the traditional English translation in Genesis 11. But the city referred to is the one conventionally known in English as "Babylon." That's how English translations render the word outside of Genesis. The decision to vary the translation in Genesis 11 does have antecedents. In Genesis 11, an ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint) translated the name as "Confusion" instead of using the city's Greek name (Babulon), and an ancient Latin translation (the Vulgate) mimicked the Hebrew pronunciation with Babel instead of using the city's Latin name (Babylon). But there are costs to giving the city's name a special rendering just in Genesis 11. "Babel" in Genesis and "Babylon" everywhere else keeps the reader from seeing the many allusions to this story in later biblical passages (e.g., Jeremiah 51:9, 53; Daniel 4:20-22[17-19]; Revelation 18:1-5). A consistent rendering lets the reader see these connections.

Second, there's the question of how to translate the word for mixing. Until recently most English translations chose "confounded." Then, in the 20th century, English translations switched en masse to "confused." (Herd choices in translation is an interesting sociological phenomenon.)

"Confounded" and "confused" aren't bad translations. But what they do is swap out the insistently physical Hebrew for an English equivalent that is more abstract. They lose the metaphor.

Our translation tries to keep the physical metaphor with "scramble." That word has a culinary association in English that matches the original. And it even makes a nice connection across semantic domains (cooking and language), because letters get "scrambled" to make a code.

And one more twist: We give a double translation. For a single phrase in the original, we have both "scrambled the tongue" and "made it babble." What this double translation allows us to do is keep the physical image (scrambling) and carry over into English the central pun in the story. Babylon may seem powerful, says Genesis, but it's really just a place where they babble on.

(Page references to our volume: The Babel story appears on p. 36, and the notes explaining translation choices for that story are on pp. 185-190.)