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Translating Genesis: double translation


This is the second in a series of posts about "Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators" (available from the publisher and from Amazon). In my last post, I mentioned a double translation in Genesis 11:9:

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.

"Double translation" means rendering one term in the original with two terms in the translation. This technique is almost never used in contemporary English Bible translations, but there is precedent for it. Ancient Greek translators of Genesis used double translations (e.g., the Septuagint's "chest and belly" in Genesis 3:14, and Theodotion's "in the wind during the cooling off of the day" in Genesis 3:8). Medieval English translators used double translations. And some gifted 20th century writers used them, such as Hannah Arendt, when translating a word from Aristotle into German, and Langston Hughes, when translating an African political slogan into English.

Why double translation? Our translation is meant to be very close, closer than the widely used English translations of Genesis, both Jewish and Christian (e.g., NJPS, NRSV, Alter, NIV, ESV). So we don't use double translation to gild the lily. Rather, the idea is that languages don't fully align. An expression may have multiple senses or shades of meaning that can't be carried over into the receiving language with a single translation. In these cases, a translator can try to capture more of the significance with a double translation, at the cost, however, of giving up the concision of the original.

We use the double translation technique in five other instances. I'll highlight one of them and mention the other four in passing. (You'll see an example of how our translation uses italics to mark puns, but more on that in a later post.)

First consider Genesis 2:25-3:1:

And the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. Now the serpent was smooth and shrewd beyond every other beast of the field which the LORD God had made.

"Smooth and shrewd" is a double translation. "Shrewd" captures the denotative sense, while "smooth" captures the connotation. Oily. Slick. A smooth operator.

And there's another idea behind the choice of "smooth." To explain it, I'll give an excerpt from the 135 pages of translation notes at the back of our volume:

Through a pun the fate of the man and the woman is entwined with that of the serpent. "Naked" ('arummim) sounds like "shrewd" ('arum) in the next sentence, and in fact the Hebrew word rendered "naked" was chosen, instead of a similar word of the same meaning used elsewhere in this passage ('erom, 'erummim), just to make the pun obvious. The pun ties together the creation of Adam and Eve and their temptation, and it points to the futility of disobedience: "The nude humans have been duped by the shrewd serpent; they want to be shrewd, but in the end they are only nude" (Arnold 2013, citations omitted).

To hint at the pun in English, a double translation is employed, "smooth and shrewd," with "smooth" reinforcing the sense of "shrewd" while also suggesting a smooth physical surface like the skin of the naked humans, not to mention the smooth skin of the serpent. Although "nude" would make the pun more obvious in English, "naked" is the right word because of its association with vulnerability and shame.

In short, the double translation "smooth and shrewd" is a way to carry over denotation and connotation, while also hinting at a crucial pun.

The other instances of double translation are in Genesis 2:8, 3:4, 4:5-6, and 8:21. (For comparison, I'll link to how each verse is rendered in a widely used and fairly literal translation, the English Standard Version.)

In 2:8, our translation has God planting a garden in Eden "aforetime, in the east." (Cf. ESV.) That picks up two different ways to understand a Hebrew word, which might have been used with either or both of these senses.

In 3:4, the serpent's rejection of the divine sentence is emphasized by the Hebrew word order. To show that emphasis, we repeat the negation: "No, it is not 'you must surely die.'" (Cf. ESV.)

In 4:5-6, Cain "burned . . . with anger." "Burned" is a more literal translation; "was angry" is the idiomatic sense. The double translation keeps the physicality of "burned" without sacrificing clarity. (Cf. ESV.)

In 8:21, Noah's sacrifice produces "a sweet savor, a savor of rest." This is a technical term for sacrifices, traditionally translated in English as "a sweet savor." But it is also the last in a series of puns on Noah's name, which means "rest." The double translation is meant to pick up the connection with sacrifice in the rest of the Bible ("a sweet savor") and the connection with other puns in the flood story ("a savor of rest"). (Cf. ESV.)

What these passages exemplify is the richness of language and the difficulty of bottling it up in a concise form of words. In E. M. Forster's "Howard's End," there's a quote that captures the trade-offs inherent in translation. In the novel, a character wants to buy a house, and she says she's looking for "a small house, with large rooms, and plenty of them."

Something like this is also true in law. A modern statute might be clear, precise and non-redundant, but it usually cannot be all three. Although most of the textual canons used for statutory interpretation make a lot of sense, this is why I think the canon against surplusage is naive. In everyday speech, in legal texts and even in translations of Genesis, one person's surplusage may be another person's way of dealing with inevitable trade-offs between clarity and concision.

(Page references to our volume: Double translation is discussed in our "To the Persistent Reader" essay on P. 51. The translation notes on the instances of double translation are on Pp. 95-97, 108, 109, 129, 167-168. For discussion of a double translation we consider but reject, "My iniquity is too great to be borne or forgiven" in Genesis 4:13, see P. 138.)