[b-hebrew] Translation theory and hebrew verb forms

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Mon Jul 13 08:02:36 EDT 2009

Dear James,

I appreciate your questions; they are important. I have written two 
books on Bible translation, so translation issues are close to my 

One of the first things I learned when I started with applied 
linguistics, was that different translation methods should be used 
for different target groups.  I have for example translated the 
Ethiopic Enoch, Kebra Nagast, and several Ugaritic, Akkadian, 
Phoenician, Aramaic, and Hebrew documents into Norwegian, and while I 
have tried to be as literal as possible, I have basically followed 
the idiomatic method. I have also translated several of the Dead Sea 
scrolls from Aramaic and Hebrew, and here I have to a greater degree 
followed the concordant method, trying to use one Norwegian word for 
each Hebrew and Aramaic word, when that was possible (it is rarely 
possible in all instances). The reason for this was that I felt that 
the details were more important for the target group in these texts 
than in the other texts.

The lexical meaning and Aktionsart of the verbs are more important 
than the aspects, because these generate meaning, and the same is 
true with the Hebrew stems. As I have written previously, I view 
aspects as mere peepholes that do not generate any meaning on their 
own. But still, these peepholes in combination with other linguistic 
factors may give particular signals that should influence the 
translator. This is more easily seen in Greek than in Hebrew (I view 
the Greek aspects as similar to the Hebrew aspects and different from 
the English ones). I will give a few examples:

Matthew 7:7 NIV: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find"

Matthew 7:7 RF : "Continue to ask, and it will be given you; continue 
to seek, and you will find."

Here we find two examples of present active imperative, and what is 
made visible, as I see it, is continuous action and not just one 
single act. The NIV completely lacks the force I find in the original.

1 John 2:1 RSV: "My little children, I am writing this to you so that 
you may not sin; but if any one does sin (AORIST), we have an 
advocate with the father, Jesus Christ, the righteous."

1 John 3:6 RSV: "No one who abides in him sins (PRESENT IND); no one 
who sins (PRESENT PART) has either seen him nor known him."

1 John 2:1 NIV: "My dear children, I write this to you so that you 
will not sin. But if anybody does sin (AORIST), we have one who 
speaks to the father in our defense - Jesus Christ, the righteous 

1 John 3:6 NIV: "No one who lives in him keeps on sinning (PRESENT 
IND): No one who continues to sin (PRESENT PART) has either seen him 
or known him."

The renderings of the RSV are contradictory because they show that 
"one who abides in him" both sins and does not sin. The NIV has taken 
the aspects into consideration and differentiates between "to sin" 
(aorist) and "to keep on sinning" (present). In this translation 
there is no contradiction.

In Hebew, the aspects may also give different signals. For example, 
the writer of Hebrews 4:1-10 interprets the verbs used in Genesis 
2:2-3 and the context as indicating the 7th day, the rest day of God 
were not terminated when the creation was completed, but that it 
still held in the days of this writer.
The following Hebrew example suggests that the translator should 
carefully note the interplay of stem and aspect. Regarding the 
creation of the universe with its celestial bodies we read:

Psalm 148:5, 6 NIV:

(5)"Let them place the name of the LORD, for he commanded (QATAL) and 
they were created (WEQATAL).
(6) He set them in place (WAYYIQTOL) in place for ever and ever; he 
gave (QATAL) the decree that they will never pass away (YIQTOL)."

There is something that seems to be wrong with the translation of v. 
6, namely, the past tense. The words "for ever and ever" refer to a 
never ending future (reference time comes after the deictic center). 
But in the clause, "He set them in place," reference time comes 
before the deictic center. Thus, there is a lack of temporal 
correspondence, because it is difficult to combine a particular point 
in the past with the remote future.  If the imperfective nature of 
the WAYYIQTOL is accepted, we see a good and forceful solution. The 
combination of the Hiphil stem and the imperfective aspect may 
suggest one of the following translations:

"And he keeps them standing for ever."


"And he will cause them to stand for ever."

What we learn from these translations is not only that God created 
the universe, but that he actively maintains or upholds it as well.

Then I come to Bible translation and your questions. In my view, the 
ideal situation would be to have three kinds of Bible "translations".

First, I would like to have an Interlinear Bible, which hardly is a 
translation at all. The advantage of this would be for the interested 
reader to get an idea of which words were used in the source 
language, and to some extent get an idea of the inflexions.

Second, I would like to have a translation like Youngs literal 
translation  and the New World Translation that are very literal 
(together with Wuest's Expanded translation). A strictly literal 
translation is in a way a semi-translation. For example, when the NWT 
consistently uses the one English word "soul" as a translation of 
NP$, the readers must on the basis of the context find the references 
of "soul". Therefore, the readers have a part in the very process of 
translation.The advantage of a literal translation is that the 
readers may come as close as possible to the original text through 
their mother tongue.  But this can of course be a real challenge. One 
other advantage of such a translation, is that the readers can see 
where other modern translations for different reasons have broken 
fundamental translation rules and in effect has lead their readers 

Third, I would like to have an idiomatic translation that is as 
literal as possible, but not is a semi-translation. This means that 
more than one word is used for NP$, but much fewer than the 30 or 
more words that are used in modern translations, Footnotes with 
alternative readings and alternative translation possibilities would 
also be appreciated. When a person who does not know the original 
languages works to get an understanding of Biblical passages, he or 
she will learn a lot by comparing different translations. It is 
impossible to transfer the whole original meaning of the verbs and 
clauses from the source language to the target language-a part, great 
or small, is lost in the process, and a part, great or small, is 
added. Different translations may stress different sides of the 
original meaning, and therefore it is an advantage to use several 

If I was asked to make a Bible translation with the  general public 
(the average Bible readers) as target group, I would probably make a 
translation similar to the third one above. In my translations from 
different Semitic languages, the importance of the aspects have 
differed. In Ugaritic, Akkadian and Phoenician the aspects only have 
played a minor role. But in texts that I have translated from Hebrew, 
Aramaic, and Ethiopic, they have played a major role. This does not 
mean that I in the majority of verbal clauses have tried to account 
for the source aspect in the target language. To the contrary, in 
most cases I have not done that, for the simple reason that few 
important nuances are lost by using the verb system of Norwegian 
without particular additions to mark the original aspects. However, I 
have carefully weighted the importance of the original aspects as 
markers or signals of particular nuances (as in Psalm 148:5 above). 
And in these cases I have taken great pains to convey these nuances 
in the target language. For example, in Genesis 41:1-3 (and 4-7) we 
do not have a terse narrative style where one action follows the 
previous one in consecution. But we have a vivid tableau where we se 
one part follow the previous one, while the previous one still is 
there, and then a third in a similar way, until the tableau is 
complete and Pharao is impressed. So both in a literal 
semi-translation and in a translation for the general public I would 
have translated the verses exactly as I did in a previous post.

The quality of the LXX is uneven.  Several different translators 
worked on the different books, and there is not a one to one 
similarity between the Hebrew aspects and the Greek ones in the LXX. 
Moreover, as in the case with the Hebrew aspects, there are different 
opinions today regarding the meaning of the Greek aspects. For 
example, I would say that Greek imperfect is a combination of past 
tense and the imperfective aspect, and many would agree with that. 
But when I say that the aorist is only the perfective aspect and is 
not combined with past tense, and that present is only the 
imperfective aspect not combined with any tense, many people would 
disagree. In any case, we should analyze the Hebrew aspects in their 
own right, and not comparing them to the Greek tenses and aspects.

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

>Hi Rolf,
>I've been meaning to ask you this for some time but never got round to it.
>This question is more to do with translation theory than with your 
>study of the verb forms although there is some limited connection. I 
>was wondering what bearing your conclusions have on how we ought to 
>translate the texts of the various Hebrew writings. Do you believe 
>that the 'imperfective' and 'perfective' aspects of the verbs are so 
>important that we should try to express them in some way in every 
>verbal instance (like the NWT does) or do you think we should opt 
>for a translation style that better reflects natural language in the 
>target language (without overstepping the boundaries and going into 
>super paraphrase mode, of course)?
>The translators of the so called LXX didn't seem to follow any such 
>rigid translation scheme. Also, the quotations of Hebrew scriptures 
>found in Greek scriptures seemed to give more emphasis to basic 
>meaning rather than any rigid adherence to grammatical influences. 
>What are your feelings about these kind of translation issues?
>James Christian
>The University of Edinburgh is a charitable body, registered in
>Scotland, with registration number SC005336.

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