Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The difficulties of translation

Old Testament Professor Claude Mariottini has a number of posts related to issues of translation. I am glad to interact with him since his tradition is different from mine and he is educated in this field where I am not.

We have touched on the problem of rare words and also common ones. Most recently he has a post on 'blaming the women' in a chapter I have not yet come to, Judges 19. To be frank, there are sections of the Bible I don't look forward to reading, and Judges is one of them. I think my memory is mostly on the surface of these stories, so you could say that I hate them. But I often find - even skimming without depth in the Hebrew - that the exercise of reading them is much more fun than my memory of repulsion (זכרי זנח). Judges 19 is probably one of those stories and I am in no hurry to get to it.

But Claude raises a particularly important point, though he accused me of being incorrect in my question. How can one be incorrect with a question?
Look at these two words: זנה and זנח

Do they differ?  Yes - one has a 'heh' and one has a 'chet', two forms of  'aitch' (h) in Hebrew. Could they be confused in a text? Easily (but note the comments below). They differ only by a half line, like ו (vav) and י (yod).

Now the question becomes: are there two homonyms of z-n-h? or is the second homonym a (now accepted) misspelling of z-n-x?

I use whatever glossaries I have access to but I don’t really trust any of them. Perhaps I should, but that would be to allow these glossaries to become dictionaries. A glossary is a record of decisions that traditions have made about this language. A dictionary attempts to define language by its usage.

My Latin-Hebrew concordance has no record of a second homonym for z-n-h. z-n-h is harlotry (scortari, de idololatria usurpatur); z-n-x is despise, reject, feel the stench, profane (fastidire, respuere, reicere, foetorem emittere, poluere, profanare).

BDB has no second homonym either. Should I believe that a new homonym has recently been discovered? On what grounds?

And even if I did, if there appears to be a homonym for a word, how do I know which gloss to choose in the host language, in this case English? Do I choose because I want to prevent my reader from assuming a certain policy towards one group or other? Or do I recognize that such a choice is a cultural decision in itself?

This is a severe problem for translation, much harder than rare words or common letters as Claude and I briefly discussed earlier. Overall one must observe the pattern of usage and in this case also the nature of the writing system (a short vs a long vertical stroke). In this case we have a possible misspelling of one of many words in the domain of anger or we have a second domain for one word. I don’t know at this point. But I suspect that the second homonym is not required but rather an emendation of the text if indeed this is the right move. Equally we might suspect corruption of the text by a male dominated tradition.

Translation decisions may be based partly on a cultural decision, whether ours or the ancient culture. It seems unavoidable. As for my readers, I pray you, dear reader, will learn to read and interpret without assuming that ‘God’ is reinforcing your cultural prejudice with every passage that you read.

It would be better to read without such a 'God'.

PS: (I once had the multi-volume DCH on my desk but I had to give it back to its owner - can't check it now. I should ask the Hebrew Language Detective. I should also ask a local Hebrew teacher.)


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