Meet a translator … Harold Holmyard (HCSB)

Today’s interview is with Harold Holmyard, a member of the translation team that produced the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

Hello, Harold. When did the Bible first start becoming important to your personally?

In terms of conversion, it became important when I heard it preached at a Presbyterian Church in 1971 in a treatment of Law’s condemnation of sin. I grew up in a church-going home, being confirmed as an Episcopalian at age twelve. But I had only a head knowledge of the truth. I was aware that the Bible was God’s word, but in my teens I turned to agnosticism, influenced partly by the teaching of evolution in school. When given a King James Bible as a troubled 20-year-old in 1970, I did not read it much because of the old-fashioned English, which I found hard to understand.

What was your role in the production of the HCSB?

I was basically an Old Testament translator, but I worked with the editor and helped with editing tasks. I was on a team that reviewed earlier work. There were four people, three translators and one style person. We would go over earlier drafts, checking them for accuracy and style. Our work would be passed on to others, who would in turn go over it.

What are one or two revisions during the translation process that you

One question that caused shifts of policy, lots of correction, and considerable time was the number of levels of quotation marks (quotes within quotes). God, of course, often speaks. He is regularly quoted by prophets. God Himself quotes others. There can be four or five levels of quotation marks. Not all translations have the same policy on how many levels to have, and we went back and forth, adding or subtracting, as our thinking changed. One idea was not to put God’s speech in quotes, but it became apparent that this would not always work. The goal was to have as few levels as possible without the reader becoming confused, since four or five levels of quotes can become too complicated.

Revisions that I was involved with occurred with Malachi 2:15-16. Malachi 2:15 in the HCSB reads:

15 Didn’t the one [God] make [us] with a remnant of His life-breath? And what does the One seek? A godly offspring. So watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously against the wife of your youth.

My translation team favored something more like the New American Standard interpretation, which reads:

15 But not one has done {so} who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did {that} one {do} while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth.

The two interpretations are quite different. The Hebrew is very abbreviated, and it is difficult to determine what the implied subject is. There also can be understood verbs. We made changes in the direction of NASB, but the original translator, who had done a great deal of research, convinced the editor that we should not change the text in that direction. So the editor restored the original translation.

Malachi 2:16 is a verse that has traditionally been taken as asserting God’s hatred of divorce. The New American Standard Bible, for example, has:

16 “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”

Here the HCSB has a revision of the standard translation. The problem is that the Hebrew does not say, “I hate” but rather “He hates.” “He hates divorce,” was difficult to understand, but some translators in the past have thought that God was speaking of Himself in the third person, as He does at Mal 1:9. The problem with this option is that the next main verb in the statement, joined to the first by “and” and also in the third person (“he covers”), does not refer to God. It is confusing to take one “he” to refer to God, and the next “he” to indicate someone else.

Others have supposed that the Masoretes erred in the vowels that they supplied to the consonantal text. Rare errors in the vowel pointing do occur. So they wondered whether the verb in the perfect tense (“he hates”) should be repointed (the vowels changed) to a participle with an understood subject of “I.” The problem with this option is that one does not want to alter the Masoretes’ work unless there is certainty of an error.

The word after “hates” is an infinitive, which can be taken as a gerund meaning “divorce” but can also be a purpose/result idea like “so as to divorce.” The original translator introduced an interpretation that he felt better represented the Hebrew. HCSB reads:

16 “If he hates and divorces [his wife],” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the Lord of Hosts. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously.

The words “his wife” are not in the Hebrew and are added in brackets for clarity, but you can see that the verse is understandable without them. It seemed stylistically better to say “hates and divorces” than to say “hates so as to divorce.” This translation was controversial; we did not want to be thought to weaken Scripture’s general disapproval of divorce.

How would you like people to pray for the ministry of the HCSB?

They could pray that it would have the popularity that the Lord desires for it and that any mistakes or needed changes could be presented to the publisher for revision in a future edition.

Thank you, Harold. Thank you, especially, for giving such substantive details about the translation issues the HCSB team wrestled with. I appreciate meaty content like that.

Categories: ,

5 thoughts on “Meet a translator … Harold Holmyard (HCSB)

  1. David Romano says:

    Thanks for the interview! The question that was given the longest response, “What are one or two revisions during the translation process that you remember?”, interested me the most. I haven’t read the HCSB yet, but it’s great to hear an instance of how the translators struggled with conveying the original text’s meaning. I’m just curious though, how did ancient translations convey the passage’s meaning? Harold didn’t mention any ancient mss. that were used, so I’m wondering if they were used at all. A much broader question is how often do committees who produce new translations use ancient translations. What are the biggest pitfalls in doing so?

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    David asked: “I’m just curious though, how did ancient translations convey the passage’s meaning? Harold didn’t mention any ancient mss. that were used, so I’m wondering if they were used at all. A much broader question is how often do committees who produce new translations use ancient translations. What are the biggest pitfalls in doing so?”

    Wow, excellent question, David! I’ve never heard it before and I don’t know the answer. I do know that biblical textual critics refer to ancient mss. in some cases where they can sometimes help determine what the more likely original wording was. But I have not heard of any translation team doing so. Since translation teams often have members who have training in textual criticism it would make sense that they refer to ancient mss. in cases like the one Harold mentioned, where it is not clear what the meaning of the original text might have been.

    I think I will post this question to the Bible Translation email discussion list. Harold subscribes to it and probably can answer. And there are some other biblical scholars there who might have an answer, as well. I’ll bring any answer back here. You can also check out answers for yourself by clicking on the link for the Bible Translation discussion list under “Links” in the right margin of this blog.

    BTW, I looked around on your blog after reading your post and found it interesting. As you already know, UCSD has a good linguistics dept. I have had some friends who did their grad work there, as well as friends who did theirs at UCLA, UCBerkeley.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    David, I think your question was not about ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, but about ancient translations into other languages, and the pitfalls of using them. And it seems to me that there are three possible issues here, each with associated pitfalls:

    1) Ancient translations may help to determine the original Greek or Hebrew text in cases where this is corrupt. As such this evidence, when relevant, is incorporated into critical editions of the Greek and Hebrew text. Good translators will look at these critical notes, but will rarely consult the actual ancient translation, and if so only for clarification of the sometimes cryptic critical notes. An exception would be that OT translators quite often refer to the Septuagint (LXX), largely because some scholars have a rather high view of the reliability of the LXX and because of its use in the NT. And the pitfall here is to give too much authority to the ancient translation, because all translations have errors, and ancient ones have their own textual history.

    2) Ancient translations may help translators to understand obscure words and phrases in the original. Again, this happens most often with the LXX, but LXX can actually be a rather unreliable guide because a number of Hebrew words were already obscure by the time LXX was translated. So that is the pitfall here.

    3) Ancient translations, like modern ones, may be a guide to translation e.g. by suggesting suitable wordings for complex phraseology. I suppose some translators use LXX in this way. But I would think that in general it is only likely to be helpful if the target language is related to the ancient language, e.g. it might be helpful to look at the ancient Ethiopic when translating into a modern language descended from Ethiopic. But the pitfall here would again be to give too much authority to the ancient translation’s rendering, especially as the idiom of a modern language may be very different.

    I hope this rather long answer is helpful to you.

  4. David Romano says:

    Thanks for the answers, Wayne, Harold, and Peter. 🙂 I’ve been subscribed to the BTL for about a year (only a reader), so in hindsight maybe I should have just posted the question to the BTL. Since two of you have already posted your answers on “Better Bibles Blog” and BTL, I’ll post my replies on BBB and BTL as well.

    Sorry for not initially making my question clearer, but I am more interested in the use of ancient translations in languages other than Hebrew and Greek. I found all of your answers informative. 🙂 As Wayne and Harold pointed out, critical texts seem to be a great method for saving the translator (or scholar) time, and therefore for producing a better translation overall. I hope to get a critical edition of the OT and NT sometime in the future, but I don’t know at all when that will happen. I guess I should first learn Greek or Hebrew, eh? 🙂

    Peter, thanks for the list of pitfalls. The first “pitfall here is to give too much authority to the ancient translation, because all translations have errors, and ancient ones have their own textual history.” That’s a good point. I’m not sure, however, with the implication that ancient translations should be given less authority than our own reasoning. How much is too much? If all copies, whether a translation or not, have their own errors and textual history, then wouldn’t they all be bound by the same pitfall? Is it because there is a better historical record of one ms. (a copy) than that of another ms. (a translation)? I understand that the translation has the issues of ambiguity and interpretation of the original language, but it may be largely beneficial to see how ancient authors perceived the meaning (or, in the case of a literal translation, the individual words) of a passage in the original language. Even an idiom of an ancient translation (your third pitfall) can still, if you know what the idiom means, help illuminate how to translate the meaning in another language. That may be the reason why some scholars place more authority on LXX copies than other copies.

    This leads (I think) to the second and third pitfall you mention, that “LXX can actually be a rather unreliable guide because a number of Hebrew words were already obscure by the time LXX was translated.” I guess ‘any ancient translation’ (for ‘LXX’) would fit just as well. If the Hebrew words were already obscure, does it really make the ancient translation an unreliable guide? I mean, I agree that it may not give the correct meaning for a word, but doesn’t it have the same chance to give the correct meaning for a word? It seems like there is a 33% chance at worst of the translation being wrong (i.e., the possibilities are either 1) it’s right and you’re wrong, 2) you’re right and it’s wrong, or 3) you and it are both wrong/right) . That doesn’t seem too bad, especially if you have another translation (not connected with the first translation) of the same passage that you can compare it against. Am I missing something very important here?

    One thing I thought of is the worry that a translator may agree with a spurious meaning for a passage, and therefore give more precedence for a future translation to translate in the same way? If translators were to cite the ancient translation as their source for the meaning of a word (or passage) which is obscure in the original, it may help future translators to not place more emphasis on that particular meaning. I guess I still don’t have a solid understanding of the harm of using an ancient translation’s meaning if you don’t know what the meaning (in the original language) is anyway. I mean, you’re going to have to put something there, right? If you don’t have a better idea, how bad is it to use an ancient translation’s meaning? But for passages where you do know the possible range of meanings of each word in the original language, pitfall 2 would not be applicable (e.g., Malachi 2:15-16, right?).

    I looked at the Vulgate’s rendering of Malachi 2:16. If I remember correctly, Jerome translated from Hebrew for the OT and from Greek for the NT. (I believe I got that piece of info last summer when reading a book, titled “The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions”, by Bruce M. Metzger. From what I remember, there was a big hullabaloo when the Vulgate started to circulate. The Vulgate had a passage in the book of Jonah where a word disagreed with LXX’s rendering. Please correct me if I’m wrong on this.) The Vulgate has the following for Malachi 2:16:
    “cum odio habueris dimitte dicit Dominus Deus Israhel operiet autem iniquitas vestimentum eius dicit Dominus exercituum custodite spiritum vestrum et nolite despicere”
    My translation for this is the following:
    ‘When you will have hated [your wife], divorce [her] ,’ says the Lord God of Israel, ‘however, the unfairness will cover her garment,’ says the Lord of armies. ‘[So] keep your soul clean and don’t despise [them (i.e., those divorced)]’.

    It appears the Vulgate diverges from the Hebrew (as translated by Harold) in a few points, and my translation of ‘her garment’ instead of ‘his garment’ (for ‘vestimentum eius’) AFAIK is a novelty for an English translation. However, I’m wondering if LXX and Hebrew could support this change. The Vulgate seems to support HCSB’s translation that refers to someone other than ‘Dominus’ who is doing the hating, and to me it seems that ‘eius’ refers to the ‘eius’ of the previous verse, which refers to the wife. Is it the Latin that has this ambiguity of ‘her/his garment’ and not the Hebrew, LXX, or other translations? If it is the wife who is covered with the unfairness of her husband, the next command would then warn against discriminating against divorced women (since it wasn’t the wife’s own doing that drove her away, but the husband’s hatred). If males didn’t have nearly as much discrimination when they divorced (back then), it may be the wives that the Lord God of Israel is telling everyone not to discriminate against. Or am I just creating novel meaning that is unsupportable because of other texts? Just so you know, I only have a minor in Latin, so if anyone else has better understanding, they may be able to show where I might have gone wrong in my translation and analysis of the Latin.

    Maybe the pitfalls Peter said are very real and I’m just not understanding the full weight of what a philosophy that uses ancient translations as near equivalent to the original text would mean. Maybe I’m too ignorant of what a philosophy like this has produced in the past (e.g., LXX?), should remove my foot from my mouth, and go back to being just a reader for a bit. 🙂

    1. 2nd person singular
    2. 2nd person plural

    P.S. Sorry for such the long reply! It’s quite lengthy so I understand if everything’s not answered at once (or at all). And Wayne, I really have liked my time at UCSD. I actually switched into Linguistics just last year, so I’m still wide-eyed about it all. I was Electrical Engineering before, and Linguistics was just a breath of (much needed) fresh air. 🙂

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    FWIW, my first response to David was intended to address his question about ancient translations of the Bible, not ancient copies of the original biblical language texts.

    David, your comment is not too long. We take ’em short and long here and appreciate them all, well, at least all except for sarcasm and name-calling which, thankfully, have seldom showed up here. We consider that sarcasm and name-calling do not advance mutual learning very well. So your dealing with issues–and none of the negative stuff that is found on some forums and blogs–is much appreciated. I have to start my heavy day of work, so I’ll not try to answer your further questions, but, hopefully, others will.

    Have a good day! –Wayne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s