Bible translation foundations – naturalness

Most English translations of the Bible contain quite a bit of unnatural English. By unnatural we mean here forms of grammar and lexical word combinations which never naturally occur in the speech or writing of any native speakers of English at any level, register, or degree of formality of the language. Some advocates of these less natural translations justify the use of unnatural English on various grounds, such as that a Bible should sound “sacred,” which, to them, means it sound or read as something “other” than what we normally encounter in good quality speech or writing, or on the basis that we must literally translate forms of the biblical language texts to maintain an “otherness” of language and culture so that a translation doesn’t sound like it was written for contemporary speakers.

What do you think?

  1. Do you believe that the majority of sentences in the biblical language texts were at any level / register / degree of formality of language natural or unnatural?
  2. If your answer to #1 is “yes,” do you believe that an English Bible translation should be written in natural, good quality contemporary literary English (that would pass muster with English professors and literary editors and would sound natural and good, but not slangy or colloquial, to essentially all native English speakers)?

Please try NOT to comment on minority percentages of language examples either in the biblical language texts or good quality contemporary natural English. Rather, let’s try to address the majority, big picture, of language examples both in the biblical language texts and current English usage. If the majority of sentences in the biblical language texts would have been regarded by native speakers of those languages as unnatural, then answer that the biblical language texts were, on the whole, unnatural. If, however, the majority of sentences would have been regarded by native speakers to be natural, good quality language, then do not answer “unnatural”. We all speak and write occasionally in unnatural ways, but a high percentage of native speakers of English, including each one who comments on this blog, writes using natural English most of the time.

18 thoughts on “Bible translation foundations – naturalness

  1. Theophrastus says:

    My goodness, that’s presenting the question in quite a loaded fashion.

    (And question 2 is pretty strange because question 1 doesn’t seem to be a yes/no question! At least, there is no way to answer a question of the form “X natural or unnatural?” unless one postulates a third category separate from natural and unnatural!)

    You ask about the “majority” of the text. The “majority” (e.g., greater than 50%) of letters in the KJV are natural to native English speakers in 2010. The “majority” of words (when written in modern spelling) in the KJV are natural to native speakers of English in 2010. Even the “majority” of brief phrases in the KJV are natural to native speakers of English in 2010. However, despite these “majority” facts, we still say the KJV is written in archaic language that is not entirely natural in 2010.

    Similarly, if one takes examples from English poetry of today, it is often not “natural” (indeed, this is one of the characteristics that distinguish poetry from prose). This shows that the natural/unnatural dichotomy is somewhat mislaid.

    To answer now your questions:

    (1) I believe that most of the Hebrew Bible, the national literature of the Israelites, was written in a formal, highly literary style. I believe that most of the Greek Christian Bible was written in a jargon-filled and unnatural Semitic Greek.

    (2) No, I think that the demands of best representing the elements of the text take priority over some subjective evaluation of “naturalness”. (By the way, do you think the writings of Joseph Conrad are “natural” or “unnatural”? A case can be made for either position, showing how strange these sort of questions are).

    Finally, I am a person who regularly works with English professors. I’ll tell you that English professors are often famous in many universities for being the worst writers! If you read PMLA (the journal Publications of the Modern Language Association) you know exactly what I mean. They are the last people you’d want to consult about “natural” English.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Believe me, my numerous typos and punctuation errors above are quite natural. Now, for all who read them, these can be part of the joy of reading. 🙂

  3. Michael Nicholls says:

    Theophrastus brings up a good point that ‘majority’ isn’t an adequate term when talking about naturalness. Perhaps there are other ways to measure it. In order to seem like a natural language translation, I would guess that the percentage of natural words/structures should be closer to 98%. Does that sound about right? (I acknowledge that percentage of natural words/structures is a very rough test, but it’s a starting point.)

    Anyway, at some point there are enough unnatural words/structures that mark the language as strange, so whatever that point is, a natural language translation would be at or above it.

    In answer to Wayne’s questions:

    1) I believe that the original texts would have been up there around the 98% mark (or w/e it should be), but that’s just my wild guess. I don’t really know how to measure that, but since people who write in their own language normally write natural language, it’s a good position to start from there – i.e., that they wrote natural language. I can’t see any good reason that would compel them to write unnatural language. And yes, there are different styles in different genres, but they generally wrote naturally for whatever genre they were writing in (and each genre has its own different requirements for naturalness, so we shouldn’t assume that the style of a psalm is unnatural because it’s different from the style of an historical account or a genealogical list).

    2) Yes.

  4. Patrick says:

    Theophrastus wrote: I believe that most of the Greek Christian Bible was written in a jargon-filled and unnatural Semitic Greek.
    This is an interesting statement. I was just wondering for whom it was unnatural. For a Greek audience? For a Jewish audience? For the authors themselves?
    As a nonnative English speaker, I try to write and speak as natural as possible. But I can imagine that a lot of people would say that my English is very unnatural.
    Regarding the Bible, I assume that the language used is meant to be natural and in my opinion translators should aim at natural language use as well.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    What do I think?

    1. I believe Robert Alter is on to something when he “strongly suggests that the language of biblical narrative [i.e., the original Hebrew] was stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identified by its audience as a language of literature, in certain ways distinct from the language of quotidian reality.” I imagine Alter’s assessment that biblical Hebrew, as written, was not natural: “Biblical prose… is a formal literary language but also, paradoxically, a plainspoken one, and, moreover, a language that evinces a strong commitment to using a limited set of terms again and again, making an aesthetic virtue out of the repetition… not [only at] one level of diction but a certain range of dictions… [so that] the biblical prose writers favor … a primary vocabulary [and not necessarily rich and natural lexicons].” — from The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary

    And I imagine the Greek of the LXX and of the NT to be highly rhetorical and political. By that, I mean I can easily see how the Greek wordplay of the Bible (both word choices and the general “dictions” or, as Aristotle might say in English, various “styles”) does participate in the Greek language wars. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander were establishing imperial Greek, which the LXX and NT translators and writers resisted.

    For the LXX, there is the “Homeric paradigm” and not the “Alexandrian” or Aristotelian or Egyptian “Exodus” paradigms used in the translations, as Sylvie Honigman suggests. (See her Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria).

    Likewise, there is the Talmudic tradition, viewing the LXX Greek in its “early Jewish counterhistory of Christianity [a stark contrast to the Church Patristic history],” which views God and the LXX translators as being rather political. In this talmudic view, according to Naomi Seidman, the Jewish translators are submissive to the task of rendering the Hebrew in rather natural Hellene while they are also, simultaneously, subversive of the task of making that Greek the language promoted in and by the Greek fathers of the Great Alexandrian Republic turned Empire. (See Seidman’s Faithful renderings: Jewish-Christian difference and the politics of translation).

    The NT writers, similarly, seem to have played with Greek in ways that Lydia H. Liu calls, generally, “translingual practice.” As Ann Nyland and Richmond Lattimore show (and both are NT translators into English from the Greek), the Greek NT writers and translators were not unaware of either the LXX or of the literatures of Greek sophists, playwrights, and poets. Furthermore, it seems quite clear that the playful and facile Koine Greek NT writers and translators in Jerusalem and in the Jewish diaspora used Hellene that flaunts the political linguistic aims of the Roman elite, who were (as Jorma Kaimio puts it) “bilaterally unilingual.” (You can google these writers to find their works I’m referencing).

    2. I believe translation English can create, can participate in the creation of, what’s natural (literary) language. I think it’s interesting, and helpful, that Robert Alter sees the “right direction” for Hebrew bible translation into English as “the King James Version, following the great model of Tyndale a century before it.” Alter strongly asserts, “There is no good reason to render biblical Hebrew as contemporary English, either lexically or syntactically… not to suggest that the Bible should be represented as fussily old-fashioned, but [wiht] a limited degree of archaizing coloration … employed with other strategies for creating a[n English] that is stylized yet simple and direct, free from the overtones of colloquial usage but with a certain timeless homespun quality.” As for biblical Greek, I think Willis Barnstone is right, likewise, to look to the KJV and to the Tyndale as models for his “new translation of the New Testament to give a chaste modern, literary version of a major world text … to restore the probable Hebrew and Aramaic … Jewish identity of the main figures … to clarify the origin of Christianity as one of the Jewish messianic sects of the day vying for domination … and to translate as verse what is verse [in English what is Greek].” (See Barnstone’s NT translation).

    The NT Greek is political and rhetorical and translingual, and it’s not necessarily “natural,” and so why shouldn’t English translations convey some of that?

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    I’ll tell you that English professors are often famous in many universities for being the worst writers! …. They are the last people you’d want to consult about “natural” English.

    Hey now, wait a minute. What’s not natural about The Pooh Perplex: A Student Casebook and Postmodern Pooh. These are books of essays compiled by a distinguished insider Frederick C. Crews, essays supposedly of various exemplary and representative writings of English professors who may “speak and write occasionally in unnatural ways” at times, as we all do most certainly, but, more importantly and even more to the point, English professors whose natural English writing comes from “the proceedings of a forum on Winnie-the-Pooh convened at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention,” purportedly, and yet also most originally professors who are “Freudians, Aristotelians, and New Critics”; they’re all teaching those students who once were, in recent antiquity, known as “freshmen.” But because of natural political correctness, these students are, now, more accurately and naturally, of course, understood to be “first year students” in English. May natural “professor speak” never die, and may it remain faithfully natural to the language which graces the “English” Department! 🙂

  7. Bob MacDonald says:

    Wayne’s amazing – asks a loaded question with a non-descript adjective and gets answers more than interesting. Reminds me again of the portrayal of wisdom in Auden’s Hymn to St Cecelia – “I only play”.

    I cannot grow;
    I have no shadow
    To run away from,
    I only play.

    I cannot err;
    There is no creature
    Whom I belong to,
    Whom I could wrong.

    I am defeat
    When it knows it
    Can now do nothing
    By suffering.

    I am sure Wayne might legitimately ask how to read this poem and give it meaning. When is it that Wisdom can now do nothing by suffering? I asked my wife what the last stanza means and she said – it is futility. It is when someone takes his own life because nothing can be done by further suffering. I take exactly the opposite meaning from it – it is when someone has given his life for the life of the world, offered as Wisdom is from before the foundation of the world. So such suffering accomplished, there is no further work to do.

    The Bible is a riddle opened only by faith. That is both for and against natural as an adjective.

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    As Bob and others have pointed out, poetic language often does not follow non-poetic genre rules of language. In a sense, poetic language phenomena are the exceptions that prove the rule with regard to ordinary (non-poetic) language.

    I have written about poetic language before on this blog, so let’s not get hung up on how poetic language is different from ordinary narrative and other genres of language. We are all creative and can think of exceptions to all kinds of basic observations which are made. But let’s not let the exceptions, especially those of poetry, many of which have observable language forms and patterns of their own, such as rhyme, rhythm, assonance, parallelism, etc., detract from the basic observations about language for the majority of sentences of other genres in the biblical language texts. Translation of poetry is a whole ‘nother kettle of worms (so to speak).

    Before we can adequately deal with translation of poetry, we have to be able to deal with ordinary language, such as narrative, conversation, instructions, etc.

    Then we can return to translation of poetry again, a topic we have addressed before and can address again.

    I see the cup of language in the biblical texts as being half full, rather than half empty. And, please, if it be possible, take not this cup away from me!! 🙂

    I stand by my comments in my post that the majority of sentences in the biblical texts are likely to have been considered natural by those to whom those texts were written. If that is true, then our English translations should likewise be natural, following normal, natural English rules of grammar and lexicon which we each are already following as we comment on this blog. PLEASE, as I pleaded in the post, let’s try to deal with the majority cases, rather than exceptions. I’d like to make some headway in finding some common ground in our assumptions about language and translation, but we cannot do so if we’re not discussing the same kinds of language.

    We would not be able to communicate in language if we did not follow rules which are part of the pattern of each language. This is true for any language, English, as well as for the biblical languages. We don’t communicate all the time with grammatical exceptions or poetic license. Yes, we sometimes do communicate those ways, but when we do, it is for rhetorical (esp. poetic) reasons, and we all (I think) recognize that rules are being broken. That’s part of the beauty of poetry. It causes us to slow down and smell the verbal roses.

  9. Theophrastus says:

    If we think of translations such as those by Fox or Barnstone, we can see that they treat all/much of the Bible as poetry. That does not seem illegitimate to me.

    Similarly, even when something is written in prose, it can be written in elevated prose that, while it is completely valid as English, sounds elevated. Consider, for example, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. If this is “translated” into contemporary “natural” prose, it loses all of its magic.

    Let me show you what I mean by example:

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

    Now I will translate this into “natural contemporary English”

    The US was founded 87 years ago with the principles of individual autonomy and universal equal rights.

    Now we are in civil war, and that threatens the continued existence of the US, or even similar nations. Some brave men died in this particular battle, and that makes this area special — we cannot change that. No one cares what we say, they remember what the soldiers did. We need to finish their work. We need to be inspired by them. They did not die for nothing. We need to treat this like a fresh start for freedom in the US. This government, which is formed by and serves its people, will continue.

    OK, see the problem? The bottom text is (more or less) a translation of the semantic meaning of the upper text, but the upper text is great literature and the lower text is natural English but entirely lacking in literary merit.

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Theo, I agree about elevated prose. It is one of the genres used by English speakers (as well as speakers of many other languages). I tried to write enough qualifiers to the term “natural” in my post to include “higher” forms of language such as elevated prose, sacred speech, preaching, scientific conference papers language, etc. In other words, whatever is natural for a specific social or linguistic context. Sorry if I wasn’t clearer about it. I’m NOT trying to leave out any legitimate genres / registers / degrees of formality of English which are naturally used by some native speakers of the language. I AM trying to leave out syntax and lexical forms which are imported to English Bible translations from the biblical languages, but which are foreign to English. That’s what my training, experience, and opinion call for. But these are blog posts where we can disagree or bring in other perspectives. I just ask that some evidence or justification is given and you’re good at doing that when you map out a position.

  11. Theophrastus says:

    I hear you Wayne, and this series is terrific. But I think I didn’t quite make my point.

    Elevated language is much freer in choice of vocabulary and syntax than lower-register language. In elevated language one can use archaic forms freely, which is why the KJV could be published with what was archaic language even in 1611. (For example, I use “thou/thee/thy/thine” in speech about once ever two weeks or so — it is archaic, but I feel free to use it elevated speech.)

    Let’s look at Lincoln for examples.

    He uses archaic vocabulary: “score”, “hallow”.

    He uses archaic grammatical forms: “so conceived and so dedicated” means “conceived and dedicated in that way” and not “very conceived and very dedicated”.

    He uses forms that are borderline ungrammatical: “we here highly resolve”

    He uses inversion: “little note”, “long remember”

    Now, I am fully willing to defend the KJV (which is perhaps at the root of much 20th and 21st century “Biblish”) — even by contemporary standards, as being “elevated writing” by the same sorts of criteria. (I am less willing to defend translations such as the NKJV, because the NKJV mixes registers in a way that is confusing to the sensitive reader.)

    If we let in elevated writing (and the freedom that Lincoln had in his speechifying) and we let in poetry, we let in a broad range of English. Even the phrase “literary English” opens the doors wide — this means we accept writing like Samuel Beckett (think Watt for example) and Ezra Pound and James Joyce and William Faulkner (and I personally am not willing to go that far in what I accept in a translation.)

  12. Gary Simmons says:

    I find myself in agreement with pretty much everyone. It’s important for a Bible translation to be natural to what it is. The prose should be elevated in a way that sets it apart from what one may find as a $6.99 paperback science fiction novel (although Star Wars definitely has idiosyncratic vocabulary).

    So, in short: 1. Yes, it should be natural. 2. It should probably be seen as passing muster, although it’s not the absolute highest priority and so it need not get an A+. (May I shamelessly plug for myself and note that I’m trying to do a literary translation of Philippians? Here’s Philippians 2:1-11.)

  13. Bob MacDonald says:

    I agree with Wayne that there is a difference between poetry and prose but it doesn’t help me much with the adjective ‘natural’. When I read grammars and linguistic texts on narrative Hebrew, I find little agreement as to what is natural word order or placement or emphasis or even conjugations and forms. So if ‘natural’ means ‘following commonly used rules’ then we have a problem for we don’t agree on what the rules are. Equally, there is disagreement over genre. Prose has dozens of genres – short story, epic, myth, irony, humour, and so on. 90% if my personal reading is in poetry but even the prose I have read might have very different ‘natural’ translations. E.g. Ruth – a short story, delicate, subtle, with a legal twist in the use of Levirate redemption that could have a lot of humour that would be hard to hear for non native speakers. Or Qohelet – a translation in pious mode would be quite different from one that heard the scroll as ironic. And Esther – I will spend a year on this because I have to take more time with the language. It seems both hilarious and legally preposterous. A Hebrew teacher from Edmonton recently told me that Judges is meant to be seen as humour. (I have not read it in Hebrew so I can’t answer this one.) Natural then, in my opinion, does not add value to understanding what the translation problem really encompasses. I see it as useless as a primary adjective. Once the decision has been made as to genre and tone of voice, then ‘natural’ might be useful. But I am difficult with this word. I find all arguments from nature ambiguous so as far as I am concerned, the word may as well not exist.

  14. Theophrastus says:

    A very insightful remark, Bob.

    I’ve read Judges in Hebrew and I don’t agree with the assessment that it is humorous. Regarding Esther: some commentators (such as Adele Berlin) argue that in Hebrew it is meant to be a comedy while Greek Esther is rather different. However, traditional Jewish exegesis of Esther sees it as rather more pious — and a key step in hastening the Messianic Era (for example, in this interpretation, the key point is verse 4:14 — if Esther did not act on her own initiative, relief and salvation would have come from another source — but by taking positive action, Esther achieved merit for herself).

    But we can not say with certainty that one interpretation (about tone) is correct and another is wrong — several interpretations are possible. To the extent that a translation reflects one tone or another, it is adding the interpretation of the translator, and possibly not reflecting the original views. This is one reason why I think it is nonsensical to talk about “authorial intent” or “the [single] meaning of the text”.

  15. Mike Sangrey says:

    But we can not say with certainty that one interpretation (about tone) is correct and another is wrong — several interpretations are possible. To the extent that a translation reflects one tone or another, it is adding the interpretation of the translator, and possibly not reflecting the original views. This is one reason why I think it is nonsensical to talk about “authorial intent” or “the [single] meaning of the text”.

    Is it possible to translate atonally?

  16. Mike Sangrey says:

    Theophrastus presents the following example:

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    And then he writes:

    Now I will translate this into “natural contemporary English”

    The US was founded 87 years ago with the principles of individual autonomy and universal equal rights.

    I like your example in that it presents many of the issues. And I think it raises an important point (or helps focus the point you’ve been making). Thank you.

    However, I think you’re conflating different elements which, when working at this close analytical level, need to be kept separate.

    It’s not hard, at all, for me to think of Lincoln’s address as quite linguistically natural to the original audience, unlike Everett’s Oration.

    For example, for today’s audience, isn’t the following natural, contemporary, and even literary?

    It has been eighty-seven years since our founding fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the underlying principle that every person is created equal.

    Four score and seven sounds foreign today. I suspect seven score and seven years ago it carried an air of respect and dignity, but it did not sound foreign. Today, that way of communicating a number sounds strange. It still communicates; but, it’s not natural. Proposition is a Latinate word and therefore today is borderline natural. Etc.

    I agree that many translations have removed something from Hebrews (as one example). I think we’ve reduced that book to a set of propositions neatly aligned in sequence. That empties it some. I think it should sound much more like the Gettysburg Address–there should be a dignity evident in its use of language. But, it still needs to sound more like a letter. Well written, but it should not be oratory, certainly not pompous.

    It should still be natural.

    In reference to some NT writings, I’ve often pictured Paul or Luke as a person sitting across the table in a coffee shop. Sitting with me is a varied audience of maybe 6 people sipping latte or house-blend. As he talks with us, his lexicon and syntax track very close to what we expect. It meets us where we are at. None of us feel we have to reach for a dictionary, nor do we ever feel stupid (or treated as such). We never lose his train of thought. He holds our interest with cleverness and humor. Occasionally, he uses a more unusual word, but he’s careful to build a text around it so that it communicates (coheres) well with what he is saying. Sometimes he even nuances his meaning explicitly. What he’s talking about is profound, but we get it. We have questions about what it means. But, what we mean by what it means has everything to do with how it is going to work out in everyday life. It’s our desire to “own it for ourselves.” But, the questions are rarely directed at clarifying the “text” itself since he has used natural forms to talk to us. And when there are questions, one of the six answers and then the “text” gels naturally. Sometimes, after the answer, we say, “Duh! Of course, that’s what you said.”

    I think of Paul’s and Luke’s writings as quite similar, though without the conversational corrections which are not typical in written “texts”.

    I think the OT is more literary and even much more technical in specific areas. Covenant language used in some cases, legal language in others. I think Job, for example, should be laid out as the script for a play. That’s a very specific literary structure. But, perhaps that is why it uses many hapax legomenon–it put plain talk into the mouths of the “actors”, words not commonly used in writings which were kept for the progeny.

    The Gettysburg Address stands masterfully written full of poignant impact. Surprisingly out of place since Lincoln was to play only a small part in the ceremony. The historic tragedy gave then, and still does today, profound background to the relief of the ten sentences. Perhaps, I wonder, whether the prominence of Lincoln’s dedicatory remarks was also carved by the contrast of its use of language to Everett’s two hour oration–an oration appropriate, literary, elevated, and forgotten.

  17. Theophrastus says:

    You have many excellent observations on the Gettysburg Address. However, there is one additional point I wish to observe about it.

    The Gettysburg address has a very strong rhythm to it. I suspect that Lincoln chose “four score and seven years ago” rather than “eighty-seven years ago” for reasons of preserving rhythm.

    This strong rhythm makes the speech particularly memorable — and indeed, many school children in the US memorize this speech each year (I know that I had to memorize it.)

    The Hebrew Bible, which like many ancient texts has a mixed heritage as both oral and written literature, also has a strong rhythm. The rhythm is no accident — in fact, it is further accentuated in the Masoretic text by accent/cantillation trop marks. The oral tradition of the Hebrew Bible has continued throughout its life — just as the Hebrew Bible was read/chanted during worship in Jesus’s time, it is still read/chanted aloud in Jewish worship today. The rhythm makes the Hebrew Bible sound good, and it makes the verses easier to remember.

    Few translations in English have a similarly strong rhythm — the main exception being the KJV. (Other examples in English include various metrical psalm translations, and among contemporary translations, both Fox and Alter deliberately tried to mimic Hebrew rhythm in their translations.)

    A weakness of many contemporary translations is that they sound “plain” when read aloud (compare reading aloud the KJV and the NEB, for example). “Plain” speech may sound “natural”, but does not reflect the Hebrew original.

    Let me end this comment on a controversial note: strong rhythm in religious speech is sometimes stereotyped as being characteristic of the “Black Church”. According to the Pew Center, only 7% of American churches are racially integrated. Most Evangelical translation teams are entirely white or almost entirely white. (For example, there are no blacks or Asians on the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation.) I wonder if some translators might actually avoid using rhythm, reflecting divisions in American worship.

  18. Bob MacDonald says:

    Theophrastus has named what must be a critical element of translation. Rhythm gives us the feel of words – their pulse. As Debussy said – music is the space between the notes. Translation requires this sensual component among others. Rhythm and sound will give a translation staying power even if it is inaccurate. So translators – analyse as you must, but listen first and last. Job 13:15 is a good example – the KJV has ‘though he slay me, yet will I trust him’. Is this memorable? Is it accurate?

    Here’s how I translated it back in March – it depends on so many things. As always, I feel a deep guesswork going on – but such things are hard to name.

    Lo – he will kill me
    I do not wait

    Of course the feel of it is in a dramatic context. Chapter 13 is only part way along the ‘axis of trust’ that we see ultimately in this epic. I.e. I think it is premature to translate this as ‘trust in him’. (My rendering of this chapter – entitled God’s faces due to the repetition of פנים – is here.)

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