Monday, August 16, 2010

On the Use of Italics in Bible Translations

I’m reading a book by Joel H. Hoffman called And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning. Hoffman holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and has served on the faculties of Brandeis University and Hebrew Union College. One of the issues he discusses is the use of italics in translations to indicate words that are not in the original text. This is not a common feature in modern translations but was very common, and inconsistently used, in the King James Version. His discussion is very good.  (Incidentally, the Geneva Bible was the first Bible to use italics.)
“Linguists know that there are two kinds of languages. One kind, like English, almost always requires a subject. When the subject is the one doing the verb, as in ‘God said,’ every language includes a subject. But the question arises of what happens when on one or nothing in particular is the one doing the verb. The answer is that, in languages such as English that required a subject, a pleonastic subject serves as the subject of the sentence. In English, the pleonastic subject is usually the word ‘it’ or ‘there.’
The clearest example in English is ‘It is raining.’ The ‘it’ is not ‘raining.’ Rather, the pleonastic ‘it’ is included in English only because English always requires a subject. Similarly, we see a pleonastic ‘there’ in ‘There is no reason to panic.’
French, which behaves like English, similarly requires a subject even when the subject isn’t doing the verb. ‘It’s raining’ in French is il pleut. Il—a pleonastic subject here—means ‘it’ or (‘he’), and pleut means ‘rain.’
Other languages do not require a subject. Spanish is such a language. Accordingly, the Spanish equivalent of ‘It’s raining’ or il pleut is the one word llueve—literally, ‘rains.’
How should llueve be translated into English? Obviously, the only reasonable answer is ‘It’s raining.’ Italicizing the ‘it’s,’ or marking in some other way the difference between English and Spanish grammar, would do only that: mark a difference in grammar. It would not make the translation more accurate or in any other way better.
Hebrew is like Spanish. It does not require a subject. That’s why ‘There will-be light’ in Hebrew (y’hi or) doesn’t have a word for ‘there’ and literally ends up ‘will-be light.’
The KJV gets this right and, perhaps surprisingly in light of Genesis 1:4, does not italicize anything in Genesis 1:3, offering as a translation the fairly accurate ‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.’
Unfortunately, in the very next line, the word ‘it’ is italicized: ‘And God saw the light, that it was good. . . .’ Like ‘there’ in the previous line, there is nothing unusual about ‘it’ (or ‘was,’ for that matter). There is nothing missing in the Hebrew. There is nothing extra in the English. And italicizing ‘it’ leaves the English reader with the mistaken impression that the ‘it’ is somehow less a part of the original than other words.
From the point of view of studying Hebrew grammar, there might be some merit to that claim. The italicized ‘it’ might remind students of Hebrew that Hebrew doesn’t require pleonastic subjects, whereas English does. But from the point of view of translation, it’s simply a mistake. It leaves the English reader not with a better understanding of the original but with a misunderstanding of the original.” (73-74)
I'll give another example later this week. 

And God Said is a hardcover from Thomas Dunne Books with 256 pages and sells for $25.99.   Walter Brueggemann says this of Hoffman's work
"Hoffman is wise and gentle as he exhibits the issue of distortion by way of translation.  Short of all readers learning Hebrew, Hoffman's work is the best gift for a careful reader of a text that defies easy contemporary rendering." 


Andrew said...

That book sounds really interesting. Thanks for the excerpt.

Esteban Vázquez said...

Perhaps you'd be interested to know that Hoffman blogs over at God Didn't Say That. Great stuff there!

Louis said...

You're welcome Andrew.


I have seen his blog but forgot to mention it. Thanks for the reminder.

Andrew said...

Yes, thanks for the link, Esteban.