Friday, August 20, 2010

Translating Words with Punctuation

Earlier this week I told you about a book I'm reading on the subject of Bible translation.  And God Said is written by a linguist and expert in Hebrew, Dr. Joel Hoffman. Last time we looked at the issue of italics and Hoffman explained how it was not only not necessary but misleading to the reader.  This time the issue is how the advancement of punctuation affects translations.
"One of the most common words in the Hebrew Bible is leimor. The word literally means 'to say,' and it's most commonly translated as 'saying.'  This is where we get (terrible) translations like, 'God spoke unto Moses, saying . . .' Let's look at the context of leimor and see if we can't figure out what it really means.   
The first thing we see about leimor is that it is indeed used for things that are said.  It's used for what people say, as in Genesis 27:6 (to pick one of many examples at random): 'And Rebekah spake unto Jacob her son, saying [leimor], Behold, I heard thy father speak unto Esau thy brother, saying [leimor] . . .' (KJV) or, more colloquially (and accurately), 'Rebekah said to her son Jacob, 'I heard your father say to your brother Esau . . .'" (NRSV).  The word is also used for what God says, as in Genesis 1:22 'And God blessed them, saying [leimor], Be fruitful, and multiply . . .' (KJV) or 'God blessed them, saying [leimor], 'Be fruitful . . .'" (NRSV and NAB).
But it's also used for songs, as in Exodus 15:1: 'Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spake, saying [leimor], I will sing . . ." (KJV).  Here the KJV has a problem, because in English songs aren't 'said'; they're sung.  The NRSV and NAB do better: 'Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: 'I will sing . . .'"
The word is also used for questions, as in Genesis 37:15: 'And the man asked him, saying [leimor], What seekest thou?" (KJV).  Again the KJV has a problem, because in English one doesn't say questions; one asks them.
But a picture begins to emerge.  The word leimor is used for questions, statements, songs, blessings, commandments, etc.  In fact, leimor is used for anything that involves direct quotation.  Indeed, it introduces direct quotation.  We don't have a word like that in English, but quotation marks is to mark direct quotations.  This is why the NRSV correctly uses quotation marks where the KJV has the misleading (that is, wrong) translation 'saying.'  (Surprisingly, the authors of the NRSV, who seem to have understood leimor, still get it wrong sometimes in translation, as we just saw in Genesis 1:22). 
English quotation marks can be used for words of a speech, question, song, whatever.  So, too, the Hebrew leimor was used for any direct quotation.  So leimor doesn't mean 'saying . . .' at all.  It means, 'comma, quote. . . ""  (37-38)

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