NET Bible throws us a curve (accurately)

Michael Burer, assistant project director for the NET Bible, blogged recently about their translation of Joshua 8:18. Mike has added this translation note to explain why their translation has “curved sword” instead of “sword” or “javelin”:

tn Traditionally “spear,” but see HALOT 472 s.v. כִּידוֹן, which argues based upon evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls that this term refers to a curved sword of some type; note the definition “scimitar” given there.

Michael concludes with three important principles which all Bible translators should follow, so that we can have better Bibles:

  1. Just because something has always been translated a certain way does not mean that it is correct.
  2. We should always value the light ancient documents shed on our understanding of the Scriptures, even for an issue as mundane as the meaning of a single, obscure word.
  3. We should always use the most up to date, accurate tools available. (In this instance, HALOT has the more accurate information as opposed to the other well-known Hebrew lexicon BDB.)

I like that! Greater accuracy should always trump every other factor in Bible translation.


9 thoughts on “NET Bible throws us a curve (accurately)

  1. Michael says:

    I know Michael Burer personally and professionally. He’s whip smart and a stickler for attention to detail, sometimes painstakingly so. I’m glad he and the NET bible got some press here! 🙂

  2. JKGayle says:

    Wayne,
    There’s a 1998 study by P.J. Williams, at Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Database (SAHD), who gets at the meaningS of this Hebrew word ->

    http://www.divinity.cam.ac.uk/CARTS/SAHD/kidonUNI.pdf

    Especially interesting is the often cited study by G. Molin, “What is a kidon?” (JSS 1 [1956]: 334-37). Molin gets at the various decisions by LXX translators to render the Hebrew word into Jewish Hellene.

    I see that a NET Bible commentator has cited Molin at Job 39:23, where he (or she) translates כִּידוֹן as “javelin.” It’s also “javelin” at NET Bible 1 Sam 17:6 and 17:45. But at Job 41:29 in the NET Bible, it’s “the lance.” Furthermore, at Jer 6:23 and 50:24, the NET Bible has “spears.”

    Will Michael Burer’s new (limited) reading of the not so new HALOT make the other translators change the English consistently to “curved sword”? (Which edition of HALOT?) Can the translation really be so definitively determined?

    What of the note by J. P. Fokkelman and Ineke Smit (in their Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible fn 34, pg 314) that the writer of Job “rhymes” kidon with riqqabon? The point is that at least one Hebrew writer seems to suggest a wordplay, something literary, that a translator might want to consider.

    That idea that “accuracy” and “word meanings” must reduce to an either / or choice (i.e., “spear or sword”) seems problematic.

  3. JKGayle says:

    At Michael Burer’s blog, Seth M. Rodriquez sets up the following questions:

    “In Yigael Yadin’s book ‘The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness’ (Oxford Univ. Press, 1962), he makes the case that the ‘belly’ of the kidon that is mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls is really referring to the sword’s scabbard and not to a curve in the sword as some scholars had suggested. But the NET translates it as “curved sword.”

    Did the translators reject Yadin’s interpretation? If so, do you know why?”

    Burer confesses, “I do not know the answer to this, but I’ll ask around and see if I can learn anything about it.”

    Rodriquez asks important questions. They are questions that some challenge your point about the “accuracy” of the NET Bible translator.

    Sometimes the biblical languages are ambiguous or vague. In English, then, how can one be “more accurate” than Hebrew?

    For example, referencing Yadin’s The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands*, Philip King and Lawrence Stager talk about the “more than four hundred” references to “sword” and “sheath” in the Bible. They go on to explain that “Hebrew makes no distinction between the straight sword and the sickle sword, so called because of its curved shape. The cutting edge on the outside (convex) of the curved portion of the blade was used for slashing. The sickle sword was known as khopesh (foreleg of an animal) in Egyptian, and perhaps kidon in Hebrew*” (fn 43, pg 224, Life in Biblical Israel).

    The Williams article (mentioned in my earlier comment) remarks that “With the exception of Josh 8 the weapon [i.e., kidon is not recorded in the hands of Israelites.” Williams goes on to conjecture: “This may suggest a foreign weapon.” What this means, perhaps, is that the Hebrew language under specifies what the NET Bible wants to over determine in English (if in Joshua only).

    Putting the foreign “curve” in kidon in the hands of the Israelites may seem “accurate” on the part of the NET translator. But might it also be committing what Robert Alter calls the translator’s “heresy of explanation”?

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    J.K. wrote:

    Sometimes the biblical languages are ambiguous or vague. In English, then, how can one be “more accurate” than Hebrew?

    Well, obviously, no Bible translator who has integrity would ever want to try to make a translation “more accurate” than any of the biblical language texts. When better data is available, we must follow that to direct our translation.

    Thanks, J.K., for contributing more to the discussion of the data that bears on the translation question in the NET Bible.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thanks Wayne. You know I was *not* wanting to say at all or even to imply in the least anything about a translator’s lack of integrity.

    Rather, I was wanting to agree with Kenneth Pike (a) that language is N-dimensional (i.e., iNfinitely dimensioned) and (b) that persons using language are above “either /or” formalism (i.e., the kind of logic that requires “accurate” to mean that there’s a single “best” English equivalent of a word such as kidron). Pike, when discussing “substantial ambiguity (or range of meaning)” in language, notes that “[m]ultiple alternative translations are possible from one language to another, with different emphases.” Accuracy, he seems to suggest, “is not dependent upon the exact degree of precision obtained if the generalizations are acceptable (Pike 1961:3f) [… i.e., general] coherence with background pattern expressed, implicit or intended….” (Talk, Thought, and Thing pages 11-13). What is not clear from the NET Bible translator is how “[i]n this instance, [one given meaning among several in] HALOT has the more accurate information.” (And to be very clear: I am not accusing the translator of failing to have integrity. Rather, I’m saying he’s choosing only one of his possible meanings available, is limiting the range of meanings. And I’m wanting to say, in contrast, that “better” English Bibles can keep open the various meanings in the words of the original languages.)

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