[b-hebrew] Hebrew and English word order

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Thu Jul 7 20:09:03 EDT 2005

On 07/07/2005 18:24, C. Stirling Bartholomew wrote:

>On 7/7/05 4:15 AM, "Peter Kirk" <peterkirk at qaya.org> wrote:
>>... it is simply impossible to render all
>>of the information structure of Hebrew into English simply by word order.
>L. de Regt seems to be suggesting an intentional (authorial intent) contrast
>in the word order between Gen 5:22,24 and Gen 6:9 making note of the
>movement of "with God" from clause final to clause initial position. I have
>some lingering doubts about this. There is a span of text between 5:24 and
>6:9. It does not seem at all obvious that this contrast exists. Nor does it
>seem obvious that the fronted "with God" in 6:9 marks contrastive or
>restrictive focus. As R.Buth has pointed out more than once, restricting the
>pre-verbal slot to topic or focus is unjustifiably mechanical.

Having now read the paper rather quickly (thank you, Clay), I would want 
to qualify what you say here. I don't think de Regt is saying that there 
is an intentional contrast between these two verses. His point is rather 
that the author has made two different choices of word order in these 
two different verses, and that there must be some reason for this. Now 
as Hayyim (Bearpecs) suggests, this could just be to make a nice chiasm. 
But de Regt obviously understands the difference as indicating that the 
sentences have different focus structures, and is surprised that Alter 
has not recognised this and translated differently. Well, perhaps 
Alter's exegesis is more like Hayyim's, or perhaps he is simply being 
inconsistent, as de Regt suggests.

>Further on (p117) L. de Regt faults Alter for his translation of Gen. 14:18
>"And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine".
> L. de Regt argues that the clause initial Melchizedek (Hebrew text) is the
>point of departure. Then he faults Alter for making Melchizedek clause
>initial in English which according to de Regt marks it as contrastive or
>restrictive focus. There seem to be two problems here. The most obvious
>problem is de Regt's analysis of the English information structure. It isn't
>valid to say that placing the subject of the verb in clause initial position
>marks it as contrastive or restrictive focus. This placement of Melchizedek
>is unmarked English word order.

I think you have misunderstood de Regt here. He does not criticise 
Alter's translation here. He merely points out that this is a case where 
in Hebrew a clause initial noun phrase is not showing contrastive focus; 
instead it is showing something else, something which is not marked by 
word order in English. And I am sure he agrees with you the obvious 
point that subject first is the unmarked word order in English. This 
sentence is not marked for focus in Hebrew, and so should be rendered in 
English in an unmarked way - which is what Alter has done.

>The second problem is more complicated. How can "Melchizedek king of Salem"
>be a point of departure when he is introduced here for the first time. L. de
>Regt answers this question but ... what do the rest of you think?
I'm not sure what you think de Regt means by "point of departure", but I 
see him as meaning that Melchizedek is the major participant in this 
passage, and that the clause initial position of his name in 14:18 
indicates this. I suppose one could make this clear by the following 
gross over-translation: "Now for Melchizedek king of Salem's part in the 
story: this man brought out bread and wine..." But if translators don't 
want to do this, the best alternative is to follow the unmarked English 
word order, as Alter and most other English translators have done.

In all, it seems to me that de Regt is saying something which should 
have been obvious to any translator: different languages have different 
rules for word order, focus structure etc, and so one cannot accurately 
reflect the focus structure of one language in another, very different 
language by simply copying the word order. Now perhaps Alter did realise 
this, and this may have been why he was not as consistent as de Regt 
thinks he should have been - at least he knew not to write the bad 
English "With God Noah walked" even if consistency might have indicated 
this. Nevertheless, there do seem to be places where Alter has copied 
the word order of the Hebrew even though this does not give the correct 
focus structure in English.

However, I applaud Alter for demonstrating the importance of trying to 
preserve the focus structure of the Hebrew in a translation. But this is 
a much more complex task than simply copying Hebrew word order.

>Clay Bartholomew 
>Just saw the bad news from London. :-(
Thank you for your concern. It seems a long way from me at home, but 
only about 30 miles and some people I know could easily have been involved.

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

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