translation equivalence – possession #3

If this is the first post in this series that you have read, please be sure to read preceding posts. They contain background information which will help you understand this post better.

We now begin looking at biblical examples expressing possession as we examine translation equivalence.

In a previous post in this series we noted that the semantics of relationship (e.g. his daughter) is usually expressed the same grammatically in English as is the semantics of possession (e.g. his boat). In fact, for study of Greek, some consider the genitive of relationship (e.g. ho huios tou theou, lit. ‘the son of God’) to be a subset of the genitive of possession. In Biblical Hebrew both semantic relationships are encoded by the same set of possessive suffixes.

The Hebrew of Gen. 2:24 with a morpheme-by-morpheme(1) interlinear translation is:

עַלכֵּן יַעֲזָב-אִישׁ
man-leave-he therefore

אָבִיו וְאֶת-אִמּוֹ
mother-his-and father-his-and

וְדָבַק בְּ
wife-his-to cleaves-he-and

וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד
one flesh become-they-and

I have highlighted the possessed nouns and their possessive suffixes in red.

While Hebrew uses possessive suffixes, Cheyenne (the language I have been studying for many years) uses possessive prefixes. If we translate this verse from Hebrew to Cheyenne, translation equivalence requires that the form changes, from Hebrew possessive suffixes to Cheyenne possessive prefixes, but the meaning stays the same.

Greek uses a third kind of form, the genitive case, to indicate possession. Here is the Septuagint (LXX) translation of Gen. 2:24 with an interlinear translation:

ἕνεκεν       τούτου   καταλείψει      ἄνθρωπος
because.of this leave-he-will person/man

τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ
the father him.of and the mother him.of

καὶ προσκολληθήσεται πρὸς τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ,
and unto the woman/wife him.of

καὶ ἔσονται οἱ δύο εἰς σάρκα μίαν.
and become-they-will those two for flesh one

(I highlighted the genitives of possession in red.)

The translators of the LXX used a different Greek form (genitive case) to express the same meaning that the original Hebrew had expressed with possessive suffixes on nouns. That is translation equivalence.

English uses yet a fourth way to indicate possession, separate words called pronouns. (We write them as separate words, but they often are pronounced as prefixes to the noun they modify. So English, like many other languages, has a difference between orthographic words and what we can call phonological words.)

Here is an English translation of the Hebrew of Gen. 2:24:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (NASB)

(I highlighted the English possessive pronouns in red.)

The NASB translators used different forms (possessive pronoun words) than the possessive suffixes of the original Hebrew, but kept the meaning the same, resulting in translation equivalence. Translators of all other English Bibles that I have examined do the same as the NASB translators did. They all use possessive pronouns instead of forcing the Hebrew syntax of possessive suffixes upon English. Using the Hebrew syntax with English words and affixes would not give us English translation equivalence. It would not be natural English to use Hebrew syntax with English words.

I think everyone can clearly see how obvious the English translation equivalents are when we deal with the examples of the possessive syntax of Gen. 2:24. Yet too many Bible translators have forced Hebrew (or Aramaic or Greek) syntax upon English for other kinds of grammatical forms in other passages of the Bible. And we Bible users often affirm them for doing so, thinking that somehow we are honoring the “words” of the Bible better doing so. In our next post we’ll look at some biblical examples where English translation equivalence may not be so obvious to everyone.

(to be continued)

P.S. If any of you spot any errors in my interlinear glossing, please let me know by private email so that I can correct them. I don’t want discussion in the comments of my glossing errors to detract from the main translation points of this post.

(1) A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning. The English word “cats” has two morphemes, “cat” plus the suffix “-s” which means plural. In the interlinear translation a hyphen indicates a morpheme break within a Hebrew word. Not all morpheme boundaries are marked in the Hebrew here.

3 thoughts on “translation equivalence – possession #3

  1. mike says:

    Wayne, I wish I could write as clearly as you. The posts (Literal Translation ) that I’ve written on this issue simply cannot compare to this.

    I’m looking forward to your bringing out the big guns next week for some complex translation equivalence!

    (you’ve also given me an idea in light of my most recent posts no Greek grammar too for some discussions of translation)

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Your blog post seems quite clear. Appreciate your getting at the confusions around our English word “literal” with ref. to translation.

    I’ll steer clear of hot-button methodology words (as per Rich’s kind suggestions in a comment to me on your last post). It would actually be helpful (to me at least) to know whether you think that the translation methods of “The translators of the LXX [who] used a different Greek form (genitive case)” are anything like what Karen H. Jobes suggests contemporary Bible translators should use: “bilingual quotation” and “simultaneous interpretation” methods.

    >And to all Better Bibles Blogs readers,
    I invite you to comment on how you think one particular Greek phrase of the Bible is best translated into English. I’m also curious about the Greek genitive and now English translation. Please feel free to make your observations over at my blog.

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk wondered:

    It would actually be helpful (to me at least) to know whether you think that the translation methods of “The translators of the LXX [who] used a different Greek form (genitive case)” are anything like what Karen H. Jobes suggests contemporary Bible translators should use: “bilingual quotation” and “simultaneous interpretation” methods.

    In this case (pun not originally intended), yes. But each translation example has to be considered on a case-by-case basis to see whether or not they fit Jobe’s “bilingual quotation” and “simultaneous interpretation” methods. There are more cases coming up in future posts which do *not* fit Jobes’ helpful categories. Stay tuned!

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