[b-hebrew] Translation theory and hebrew verb forms

James Read J.Read-2 at sms.ed.ac.uk
Mon Jul 13 10:29:43 EDT 2009

Hi Rolf,

thanks for your reply. I can see your reasons for the three different  
layers of translation. I was more concerned with your views of general  
translation for the general public than anything else. But you got  
there in the end.

Quoting Rolf Furuli <furuli at online.no>:

> Dear James,
> I appreciate your questions; they are important. I have written two
> books on Bible translation, so translation issues are close to my
> heart.
> 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
> one."
> 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.

Thanks. That's a good example where the aspect makes a difference. I'm  
not sure there are many more contexts where it does make such a big  
difference though.

> 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."
> or
> "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$, the readers must on the basis of the context find the references
> of "soul". Therefore, the readers have a part in the very process of
> translation.The advantage of a literal translation is that the
> readers may come as close as possible to the original text through
> their mother tongue.  But this can of course be a real challenge. One
> other advantage of such a translation, is that the readers can see
> where other modern translations for different reasons have broken
> fundamental translation rules and in effect has lead their readers
> astray.
> Third, I would like to have an idiomatic translation that is as
> literal as possible, but not is a semi-translation. This means that
> more than one word is used for NP$, 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
> translations.
> 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.

I can see what you are saying about the LXX. The reason I asked is on  
the following assumption. Early Christian writers, I assume, were more  
familiar with the meaning of the Hebrew texts than any of us on this  
list and would have been in a better position to choose good  
translations. I've often wondered if an analysis of the style of  
translation of early christian writers could help produce superior  
quality translations for the general public. Any thoughts?

James Christian

> 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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