The Volokh Conspiracy

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Translating Genesis: Physicality


The Book of Genesis is replete with physical imagery. Older translations, such as the King James Version, tended to carry that physicality over into English. More recent English translations often favor abstraction. This is the third post in a series on "Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators" (available from the publisher or from Amazon). In this post and the next one, I'll discuss the theme of physicality and briefly discuss a number of examples. For each example, I'll first give our translation of a verse (in bold) and then mention how a word or phrase is rendered in other translations.

1:11 And God said, "Let the earth become green with green shoots, grain sowing seed, fruit trees making fruit after their kind, with its seed in it, upon the earth."

Instead of "green shoots," most recent translations have "vegetation" (e.g., NRSV). But "vegetation" is broader than the Hebrew word (as that word is used in biblical texts and other texts found at Qumran). And "vegetation" misses that the Hebrew description is concrete and specific. It's not a term from a Linnaean taxonomy. In addition, "vegetation" obscures the wordplay in "become green with green shoots."

2:24 Hence a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

"Cleaves to" translates a Hebrew word used elsewhere for a tongue adhering to the roof of a mouth, or for a hand adhering to a sword after a day of battle. This translation choice follows the Tyndale Bible and the King James Version. In some recent translations, however, the physical image is replaced with an abstraction. For example: "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh" (NIV).

4:5 And Cain burned greatly with anger, and his face fell.

These descriptions of anger and sorrow are intensely physical—more literally, "And it burned Cain greatly, and his face fell." As noted in an earlier post, we keep the reference to burning with a double translation ("burned … with anger"). We also keep the reference to Cain's falling face. Many English translations prefer abstractions. For example: "Cain was furious, and he looked despondent" (CSB).

4:8 And it happened, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.

For centuries, the rendering in English Bibles has been that Cain "rose up against" his brother. That rendering follows the Hebrew closely. It goes back to the Great Bible, which was named for its size and which predates the King James Version by 70 years. But in a number of more recent translations, the image of rising up is eliminated with the use of a more abstract word, "attacked" (e.g., NIV). Attack has a connotation of aggression, of some kind of unjustified disruption of the status quo. That fits the context. After all, Cain did attack Abel. But the Hebrew text does not label Cain's action that way. It offers a description that is plain and physical. In Thomas Merton's words, in his unpublished "Notes on Genesis," "since people can be killed in the pulling of a trigger we have lost this image of a man 'rising up' gathering up all his force for the single blow that must not miss."

6:14 "with nests will you make the ark, and pitch her with pitch, inside and out."

Noah is instructed by God to make the ark "with nests," or at least that is what the Hebrew seems to mean, and that is how it was understood by the ancient Jewish translators of the Septuagint. But the Vulgate used a word referring to small compartments, and most English translations follow its lead, with renderings such as "rooms" (e.g., ESV) or "compartments" (e.g., NABRE). That is a possible interpretation, but the image of a bird's nest, a place of safety and new beginning, is compelling. And it connects to the description in chapter 8 of the dove returning to Noah with a torn-off olive leaf in her mouth, a leaf that she could use to build a new nest outside the ark.

In the next post, I'll offer a couple more examples of physicality from our translation, mention Monty Python and raise the question of whether physicality matters in legal writing and interpretation.

(Page references to our volume: Physicality is discussed in our "To the Persistent Reader" essay on pp. 45-46. Thomas Merton's "Notes on Genesis" are cited or quoted on pp. 98, 109, 128, 133 and 179.)