Tuesday 10 August 2021

Translating and interpreting

It is impossible not to interpret as one translates. So for the latest scandal in the word punishment as described by Bart Ehrman in his last two posts on Amos see here and immediately prior post. I don't disagree that there are consequences for ignoring the instruction of the God portrayed in the Old Testament. I was struck though by the effrontery of the translation used:

For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron.  So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael… I will break the gate bars of Damascus and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven. (1:3-5)

The offending words for me are "I will not revoke the punishment". The word for punishment is not in the text at all. It has been read into the verb by context. It has been read in because of the gloss chosen in English for the word wvb - which is the word for turn. See here for all its uses in the Bible. As you can see, it is the word 'return'. Return has nothing to do with punishment. The word is awibnu  (roughly ashivenu)- future, imperfect, first person singular subject and third person singular object. Literally choose between, I will return it, I will return him, I will turn him, or perhaps restore instead of return (I use that choice in some contexts). Others I allow with my concordance rules include: turn back, pay tribute, repair, give riposte, reverse / revert, occasionally 'reply'. I don't use revoke since that has to do with calling rather than turning / returning.

And you could use 'it' as the third person object - so : I will reverse it. This would work. Of course in this case it is 'la awibnu' - (add the vowels and it becomes approximately 'lo ashivenu') so it is a negative. What you choose for your gloss depends on what you think the third person pronoun suffix is referring to. What is its antecedent? In every one of these 8 instances, the immediately preceding noun is the nation addressed. I am tempted to write as I initially did, "I will not turn them" and allow the obvious antecedent the plurality of the people of the nation, to be the object. But I think I had better not. Let 'it' suffice to refer to the antecedent nation that is addressed.

The RSV, NRSV, ESV and another 7 English translations have decided to make this passage 'clearer' and have pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Neither hat nor rabbit is in the text. The policy of the churches who approved these words must be to keep the people ignorant of God and of the character of God.

Punishment has been introduced into the text. This word requires an invisible and unstated antecedent. If God determined to turn any of these nations, they would have turned as Nineveh did in the book of Jonah. But God doesn't work that way, he allows the consequences of our actions to come to us so that we might learn the difference between good and evil - just like we wanted. This applies to all the nations even Judah and Israel.

You can see this very same word and phrase in Numbers 23:20 in the mouth of Balaam. No punishment there. Here the antecedent is explicitly blessing. Even if in the discourse analysis of the implications of the continual acts of violence against others, the implied antecedent is the opposite of blessing, you can't use punishment for this, because the implication is that God is punishing. The consequence may be punishing but the agency is not God. For the atheist it is the consequence of a hard reality, for the believer, it should be the same, otherwise their God is even more cruel than the atheist's. Perhaps this is why the world frequently knows better than the church. They have learned the church's lessons better.

God has not turned the hearts of these translators either. And so we the people are misled again. I am consistently against the translator telling us what the text means. A translator should report what the text says as accurately as he or she can.

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