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Translating Genesis: figures of speech


Figures of speech are used in many kinds of texts, including legal texts. The late Justice Scalia saw "speech" and "press" in the First Amendment as "a sort of synecdoche" (p. 38 here). And several phrases in the Constitution, including "necessary and proper" and "cruel and unusual" are best seen as instances of hendiadys.

Figures of speech are also pervasive in the Book of Genesis. This is the sixth post in a series on "Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators." Here, I'll discuss some figures of speech in these chapters and how they affect the decisions of a translator.

First, there are several instances of synecdoche and merismus. In synecdoche, a part stands for the whole. A variant of synecdoche is merismus, in which there are two contrasting parts, often polar opposites, that stand for the whole (e.g., "the heavens and the earth," "day and night"). I'll give one example that affects translation. As discussed in an earlier post, in Genesis 1:11 most translations have "vegetation," but this one has the more specific and more exact "green shoots." Recognizing the figure of speech synecdoche, a translator can let the specificity of the original stand, because it can be understood as representative of a broader category.

Second, there are several instances in Genesis 1-11 of personification. For example, in Genesis 4, Sin is a beast sleeping at Cain's door, and the ground is God's agent that curses Cain. In these instances, our translation carries over the gendered pronouns of the original-masculine for Sin, feminine for the ground-to better show the personification.

Third, there are several instances of chiasmus, an A-B-B-A pattern. These often emphasize a contrast. We typically carry over the Hebrew word order that has the chiasm. For example, Genesis 4:4:

And the LORD looked with favor

upon Abel and his offering,

but upon Cain and his offering

he did not look with favor.

Fourth, words are sometimes repeated with irony. One of these, "know," has already been discussed in a previous post. Another is "multiply." In Genesis 1, mankind is told to "be fruitful and multiply." When the man and woman eat of the forbidden fruit, each is sentenced by God. For the woman there is an ironic repetition of multiply: "I will surely multiply your sorrow and your conceiving." (Note that the word sorrow is repeated in the sentence for the man, and there is another personification of the ground: "cursèd is the ground because of you; in sorrow shall you eat of her all the days of your life.")

Fifth, there are anthropomorphism and theriomorphism. These are matching figures of speech. In one, theriomorphism, human beings are depicted in language associated with animal activity. In the other, more familiar figure of speech, anthropomorphism, nonhuman entities are depicted in language associated with human activity.

An example of anthropomorphism is the cattle going into the ark in pairs, "husband and wife" (7:2). An example of theriomorphism is God's instruction to Noah and his sons that, like the swarming things of Genesis 1:20, they should "swarm on the earth and multiply on it" (9:7).

Sixth, there is the figure of speech hendiadys. With hendiadys, a phrase with an "x and y" structure does not refer to two separate things. A farmer who says his cow is "nice and fat" doesn't mean the cow has (1) a good disposition and (2) ample weight. The phrase means one thing: nicely fat, quite fat. (Note that hendiadys is not the same thing as mere repetition, like "aid and abet"-the terms have to be semantically distinct.)

Many scholars, following the lead of the distinguished biblical commentator Ephraim Speiser, find at least three prime examples of hendiadys in Genesis 1-11. These are (as rendered in our translation): "void and desolate" (1:2), "your sorrow and your conceiving" (3:16), and "a trembler and a wanderer" (4:12). Understanding these phrases as instances of this figure of speech is what leads to translations like "a vast waste" (1:2 in the Revised English Bible), "your birth pangs" (3:16 in Alter), and "a restless wanderer" (4:12 in the New International Version).

But these three phrases from Genesis are probably not instances of hendiadys at all. In 1:2 and 4:12 the terms are not distinct in meaning. They are rhyming pairs of words, words with a high degree of overlap in meaning that refer to a place that is desolate (1:2) or a kind of recursive movement (4:12). Instead of "nice and fat," the English analogy would be "true and trustworthy" or "vim and vigor" or "hustle and bustle," which are repetitions of sound and sense in which the second term does not materially alter the significance of the first.

In 3:16 the phrase might be a hendiadys: i.e., "your sorrow and your conceiving" might be equivalent to "your sorrow in conceiving." But it might not be. If not, the judgments on the man and woman would have a subtle and deadly interaction. She bears more children, he gathers less food. He produces less, she produces more. It would be the Malthusian trap that is the central economic fact of most societies in human history. Our translation leaves open the interpretive possibilities: "I will surely multiply your sorrow and your conceiving."

The Genesis translation project has contributed to my legal scholarship in various ways, introducing me to new concepts and distinctions and making me a better, closer, less literal reader of texts. One of those new-to-me concepts was hendiadys. It was reading Ephraim Speiser's discussion of hendiadys in Genesis that first introduced me to this figure of speech several years ago, and made me think about whether it appeared in legal texts. As I've argued at length elsewhere, I think it appears several times in the U.S. Constitution. But my considered view is that the "parade examples" of hendiadys in Genesis 1-11 don't hold up.

There may be a lesson for interpreters here. A person with only a hammer thinks everything is a nail. But what is the solution? Throw away the hammer, or add a screwdriver? If hendiadys looms too large in your imagination, you may find it everywhere, as Ephraim Speiser did. But the solution isn't to throw out hendiadys. Add more tools, so you can pick exactly the right one.

(Page references: For the translation note on "void and desolate," see pp. 68-69; for the one on "your sorrow and your conceiving," see pp. 118-119; for the one on "a trembler and a wanderer," see pp. 133-135. In the Index of Subjects, the entry for "Figures of Speech" will point you to the discussion of each figure, not only the ones discussed here but also others, such as hysteron proteron. And if you want to read more about literary terms, I recommend the excellent dictionary by Meyer Abrams; older editions can be purchased inexpensively.)