Whose head?

Sometimes English Bible translators introduce ambiguity to a translation which they themselves do not intend. As many of you know, my wife and I read from The Message after we eat breakfast. We are currently reading through the Psalms. One day this week we read Psalm 37:32, 33 in which Eugene Peterson, the translator, personifies wickedness and righteousness:

Wicked sets a watch for Righteous,
he’s out for the kill.
God, alert, is also on watch—
Wicked won’t hurt a hair of his head.

Whose head is referred to in the final line of this stanza?

Let’s try to stay on-topic and keep our comments focused on this question on this post, and not on the overall merits or demerits of The Message, OK?

16 thoughts on “Whose head?

  1. Steve says:

    I would say “Righteous”. It wouldn’t be possible for Wicked to hurt a hair of God’s head.

    But I think that sentence is unclear English. “He” most naturally would refer to God since God was referred to later than “Righteous”.

  2. Theophrastus says:

    Let’s try to stay on-topic and keep our comments focused on this question on this post, and not on the overall merits or demerits of The Message, OK? Also, this post is not about whether or not there is ambiguity in the biblical language texts, so let’s not get into that difficult question either in comments on this post, OK?

    Uh oh. Wayne usually cheerfully open-minded. I guess Psalm 37 must be a-cross-tic.

    And what about the ambiguity with “head”? Scalp vs. boss? That yields the possible reading “Wicked won’t hurt a hair on the [ultimate boss]”.

    (And how did Wayne post this without citing Leviticus 13:40, 13:41, 13:45, 21:10, Numbers 6:5, Judges 16:22, 2 Samuel 14:26, Song of Songs 5:11, Daniel 7:9, and Revelation 1:14?)

  3. Gary Simmons says:

    I think it seems clear the “his” refers back to Righteous. Now, I find it odd that Righteous and Wicked are personified. I will look into the Message at some point. And then, of course, take (ir)relevant comments elsewhere.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    It’s not fun to try to keep comments on-topic, but it’s helpful for many people. We have had and can have in the future other posts which deal with other topics for which comments on those topics would be relevant.

    I’ve taught before and when you only have a 50 minute class so many days a week and only a quarter or semester for those classes, it’s important to try to keep students on-topic so they can learn the material in the syllabus. Fortunately, there are other kinds of classes which are more open-ended for those whose minds wonderfully network out to other topics which are not directly on-topic but are semantically related. And that very topic of the relationship among semantic nodes would make for wonderful posts and topics, all of which can be directly related to Bible translation issues. Just not on this particular post. 🙂

  5. Bob says:

    I was more struck by the fact that Wicked was kind enough to adjust Righteous’s timepiece for Daylight Savings. Somehow it didn’t quite seem in character.

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    LOL, Bob. Does God have a watch on his wrist, or even hair on his wrist and his head?

    I think that the pronoun “ambiguity” in The Message here is not a problem. Most readers not only tolerate ambiguity, but they also expect it. Unambiguous language is not “natural.”

    Pronominal ambiguity is usually not a problem unless you are in the targeted reading audiences of translations for children and ESL readers, as is the audience of the NIVr. Here’s how the NIVr avoids (which in not the same as “introducing”) ambiguity:

    32 Those who are evil hide and wait for godly people.
    They are trying to kill them.
    33 But the Lord will not leave the godly in their power.

    (The only other translations that avoid English pronominal ambiguity here in these verses are CEV and GOD’S WORD®. These translations have very specific goals of being abundantly clear. Thus, it seems, they avoid introducing the ambiguity of the English pronouns).

  7. Donna says:

    Seems to me that it refers to righteous, for a few reasons: firstly the dash. Without the dash it would be more ambiguous, since the dash stands in for a “but…so…” type construction.

    Secondly, both “God” and “wicked” are the agents in this text, “righteous” is the only patient, so it would most likely refer to him.

    Lastly, it just makes more sense.

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    32 Those who are evil hide and wait for godly people.
    They are trying to kill them.
    33 But the Lord will not leave the godly in their power.

    Interesting. The last “their” appears highly ambiguous to me. The godly just can’t hang on to the power, I guess.

    Does pronominal ambiguity always exist? It’s just a matter of degree? I’m honestly asking here.

    As I read the text Wayne cited from the Message, and was therefore thinking about my thinking, I wondered if the singular for Wicked and for Righteous made the pronominal antecedent more difficult for me to process. The singular forced a salience into place for me. And the salience was rather equal.

  9. Gary Simmons says:

    Unambiguous language is definitely unnatural! This is why Terms of Service agreements and other law texts can be frustrating to read*.

    *Here “to read” refers to the process of linguistically decoding written communication.

  10. Cory Howell says:

    I am surprised that so many people instantly said “Righteous” was the answer. I think, if you’re thinking theologically, that would be the case, but just reading it at face value, as if you had never seen the text before (and didn’t know it was from the Bible), I would immediately say “God” was the answer.

    If I were to write the following, and ask you what “his” refers to, what would your answer be?
    Bob sets a watch for Joe,
    he’s out for the kill.
    Steve, alert, is also on watch—
    Bob won’t hurt a hair of his head.

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    Cory, when you set it up like that, outside of a biblical context, the answer is clearly “Steve” to me. That follows the usual rule of English, that the nearest possible antecedent is the one most speakers assume is the correct referent.

    This demonstrates the point I was hoping would be understood by this post, that it is very important to proofread Bible translations to check for anything unintended, misspellings, word substitutions (which I do frequently these days, including in my blog posts), etc.

    I have been helping several recent English Bible translation teams proofread their translations. They are very grateful for an editor’s eye. Just because something appears in print, whether it is a draft or published format, that does not necessarily make it correct.

    I doubt that Eugene Peterson caught that there was this ambiguity at the end of this stanza in Psalm 37. He is such a good English writer and poet that I think he would probably have modified the last line to remove the ambiguity, UNLESS he believed that the original Hebrew was itself ambiguous. (And, yes, Kurk, it would be fine for you to speak to that point about the Hebrew data here, whether or not it has ambiguous reference as is Peterson’s translation of it.)

  12. J. K. Gayle says:

    Cory, Your “face value” says a lot. Presumably, this is exactly why translators of the NIrV (for children and ESL readers) work to avoid face value (as if each pronoun must be marked and each character explained).

    Here’s NIV, then NIrV:

    33 but the LORD will not leave them in their power.

    33 But the Lord will not leave the godly in their power.

    Mike, of course there’s still ambiguity in the second version; but it’s invariably clear that “them” is “the godly.”

    What if the face value of Peterson’s lines read like this?

    Terrorist sets a watch for Tourist,
    he’s out for the kill.
    G.I. Joe, alert, is also on watch—
    Terrorist won’t hurt a hair of his head.

    We all know who Terrorist, Tourist, and G.I. Joe are. Will children? Will ESL readers? My point here is that readers come to the text with varying degrees of insiderness. That insider perspective can be linguistic (i.e., knowledgeable of language structure and semantic ranges) and can be cultural (i.e., aware of and even participating in larger stories).

    Wayne, You haven’t even addressed the troublesome nature of gender with English pronouns. Why must Peterson and his readers assume that Wicked or Righteous or God is male and male only?

    Consider these four variants of Peterson’s lines:

    Wicked sets a watch for Righteous,
    he’s out for the kill.
    God, our Mother, alert, is also on watch—
    Wicked won’t hurt a hair of his head.

    Wicked sets a watch for Righteous,
    he’s out for the kill.
    God, our Father, alert, is also on watch—
    Wicked won’t hurt a hair of her head.

    Wicked sets a watch for Righteous,
    she’s out for the kill.
    God, our Father, alert, is also on watch—
    Wicked won’t hurt a hair of her head.

    Wicked sets a watch for Righteous,
    she’s out for the kill.
    God, our Father, alert, is also on watch—
    Wicked won’t hurt a hair of his head.

    Certainly there are other possibilities (such as with all three characters female). And yet my point is that the language, as Peterson has it, is naturally ambiguous in several ways. We don’t know, for example, if God is male or female; and no reader can tell, likewise, whether Righteous is male or female (and does it matter, Donna, since as you point out Righteous as the only “patient” cannot have “his” head).

    Does a Bible translator introducing gender-ambiguous proper nouns (such as “God” and “Righteous”) always have to avoid introducing inherent ambiguity?

    Wayne, Thanks for letting us talk about the Hebrew now. I believe we also might want to talk about the Greek of the Septuagint as well. But before we do, I just want to look back as some things the blogger known as Iyov once wrote, and how Suzanne McCarthy quoted him at this blog, on wonderful ambiguity in the Hebrew language:

    Iyov pointed out that translators need “humility, because we can master the language of some simple translations — but in our generation, we have no sage who can fully understand the original Hebrew, much less the profound wordplay and connections present in the language.”

    Suzanne followed that by speaking of humble reading of the text without the presumption of always having to disabiguate:

    “The psalms are uniquely suited for the study of commentary through the centuries, for seeing how diversely and personally the Hebrew has been translated by one generation after another, for simply surrendering the rational mind to an acceptance of ambiguity in the original text.”

    http://englishbibles.blogspot.com/2007/10/ambiguity-and-humility.html

  13. J. K. Gayle says:

    I doubt that Eugene Peterson caught that there was this ambiguity at the end of this stanza in Psalm 37. He is such a good English writer and poet that I think he would probably have modified the last line to remove the ambiguity, UNLESS he believed that the original Hebrew was itself ambiguous.

    Here is The Message and then the Hebrew and the Greek (LXX) translation for 33a:

    God, alert, is also on watch—
    Wicked won’t hurt a hair of his head.

    יְהוָה לֹא־יַעַזְבֶנּוּ בְיָדֹו

    ὁ δὲ κύριος οὐ μὴ ἐγκαταλίπῃ αὐτὸν εἰς τὰς χεῖρας αὐτοῦ

    Does Peterson believe either of the original language versions was ambiguous? Are they? Does his English intentionally mirror the other language(s)? Does it matter?

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