Thursday, July 20, 2017

7 Questions: Samuel Bray

I want to thank Samuel Bray for taking the time to answer my "7 Questions" about their new translation of Genesis 1-11.  I will have a review up in the coming weeks.  (If you are wondering, I would highly encourage you to pick this volume up.)

1) As we get started, I was wondering if you could you tell my audience about how this book came to be? What was your motivation for proceeding with this project?
We each bring different backgrounds and motivations to this project. For John's part, there has been years of study of the Bible in its original languages, teaching Hebrew, service as a pastor, consulting on Bible translations, and blogging at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. I'm a law professor with interests in language and literature. One of my recent papers, for example, is on figures of speech in the Constitution. I had been trying to decide on a Bible translation to read at home with my kids, and I was dissatisfied with the new ones either for their distance from the original or their roughness when read aloud. I started working on a translation of Genesis, and then approached John about it--I knew him from his blog and thought we would have a similar translation philosophy. We started collaborating, and the first volume, on Genesis 1-11, was recently published. It's called Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators 

2) The heart of this book is your translation of Genesis 1-11.  What style of translation would you say it is?  More formal like a NASB or dynamic like the NIV?  
Translations are classified in many different ways. On a spectrum of formal (NASB) to dynamic or functional (NIV) to more paraphrastic (the Message), we're definitely at the formal end. In fact, our translation is often closer to the Hebrew than the NASB is. To be clear, these terms are generalizations: every translation will be "formally equivalent" some of the time and be forced into "paraphrase" in some places, so these labels should be taken as descriptions of a translation's tendency and emphasis.

But that isn't the only way to classify a translation. Compared to more "formal equivalent" recent translations (e.g., NASB, ESV), our translation is more attentive to literary characteristics of the original, including its puns, its figures of speech, its physicality (discussed here and here and its repetitions here). Our translation is also more attentive to how the English text sounds when it is read aloud--rhythm, euphony, pacing, and so on. Of course this claim about the sound of the English is one that many translations make. The proof is in the pudding; we recommend that you taste it.

3) Could you give an example from your translation that shows its unique characteristics?
One verse that shows a number of careful choices is Genesis 6:9. We translate it like this:


These are the generations of Noah.
Noah was a righteous man. Perfect was he in his generation. With God Noah walked.


Note that our translation is usually not this choppy, but there are several short clauses here, and we render them as separate English sentences, which has the effect of slowing the pace and putting emphasis on each clause.

Let's start with the sentence that is italicized and set off: "These are the generations of Noah." This is an instance of a formula that marks major seams in the Book of Genesis. We don't add headings to the text, but we italicize these and set them off because they are like headings that Genesis itself uses. (A couple instances are complicated, as we discuss in the notes.) Like the older translations, including Douai Rheims, we use "generations" consistently for the keyword in the formula (toledot). That helps the reader follow the use of the formula as a structural marker.

To unpack more of our translation choices in this verse, let me quote three paragraphs from our translation notes (footnotes omitted):

“Perfect” is the traditional rendering. It accords with the Septuagint and Vulgate. Compare Matthew 5:48: “Be yee therefore perfect, euen as your father, which is in heauen, is perfect” (KJV). In recent English translations the dominant rendering is “blameless.” But the Hebrew word (tamim) is not a negation; it expresses integrity and perfection.
The word translated “generations” in “These are the generations of Noah” means “begettings.” A different word is translated “generation” in “Perfect was he in his generation.” This word (dor) refers not to the family a person has generated, but to the people generated and living in a given time, and by extension to that time. (Compare “the Greatest Generation.”) This description has long been understood as qualifying the assessment of Noah’s perfection. In Jerome’s words, “Scripture says distinctly in his generation, to indicate that he was righteous not in respect of the highest degree of righteousness, but relative to the righteousness of his own generation.” Other good renderings: “among those of his generation,” “in his age” (NJPS), “in his time” (NASB, Alter). Note that the Hebrew is plural, “in his generations,” and KJV has that more literal rendering.
In the Hebrew clause rendered “With God Noah walked,” the word order is unusual, and the placement of “With God” at the beginning of the Hebrew sentence likely emphasizes that it was with God that Noah conducted his affairs, that he walked in the path of righteousness indicated by God, not in the path of his peers. In Genesis 5:24, on the other hand, there is no fronting, because the opposite possibility, of walking with all flesh which “had ruined its way upon the earth,” was not in view: “Enoch walked with God.”

4) One of the things I really appreciate about your book is that, since you reference both Protestant and Catholic translations, it has a true ecumenical spirit to it.  Therefore, it makes this text useful to Catholics, who really don't have anything like this available to them.  Was that intentional?  Was there anything you discovered that was unique to the Catholic translations, in general?
John and I are constantly reminded of the wisdom and skill of our predecessors in translating Genesis. As you note, these include Catholics and Protestants. We also draw on ancient rabbinic commentary, the great Jewish medieval exegetes, and more recent Jewish translations and scholarship, as well as a number of Eastern Church fathers. This ecumenical gathering of insight was certainly intentional. And, truth be told, not unique. Although the translators of the King James Version didn't readily admit it, they leaned on the excellent scholarship in the Douai Rheims version for their translation of the New Testament. (The DR rendering of the Hebrew Bible appeared too late to have much influence on the KJV's rendering of Genesis.) And of course all subsequent translators stand in Jerome's debt on many points.

We quote or cite many Catholic translations of Genesis. The ones we invoke most often are the Vulgate, Douai Rheims, and NABRE, but we also refer to the Old Latin, the Latin version of Sanctus Paginus, the Confraternity Bible, Knox's translation, and the Jerusalem Bible, as well as Catholic-Protestant ecumenical projects like Traduction œcuménique de la Bible.

I don't think there's a unique characteristic of Catholic translations. Some translate the Vulgate (e.g., Knox), but the more recent ones translate from the Hebrew, emending the received text at various points (e.g., NABRE). Compared to most recent English translations, the NABRE had better stylists and shows more attention to public reading. But it's hard to say that that's a characteristic of Catholic translations--one could invoke modern counter-examples--and despite its strengths Douai Rheims is not stylistically stronger than Tyndale or the KJV.

In the end, I think the sixteenth-century English translations have more in common with each other, whether Catholic or Protestant, and the twentieth and twenty-first century English translations have more in common with each other, whether Catholic or Protestant. Our translation has more of the virtues and vices of the old translations, but that's another topic.

I should add that we are careful, in theologically sensitive passages, to translate with openness to the history of interpretation. One example is the proto-evangelium (Genesis 3:15), which we render: "Enmity will I set between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He shall bruise your head; you shall bruise his heel." Moreover, because we try to preserve connections with the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the reader may find passages that echo in unexpected ways, such as Lamech's "Just as I kill a man for a wound, so a child for a stripe" (Genesis 4:23b)--stripe may call to mind stripes in Isaiah 53, where the same word is used, creating a contrast between the suffering of Lamech and the suffering of the Servant. And our rendering of the end of Genesis 6:6 may for some readers call to mind the cross: "And the LORD was aggrieved that he had made man on the earth, and in his heart he sorrowed."

5) After having examined a number of different Catholic translations for this book, did any of them stand out to you?  Why?
I gained new respect for the Douai Rheims version, which is a translation I had not used much before this project. There are a number of places where it carries over a detail lost in other English translations. Sometimes we follow its lead, as in Genesis 10:11, where it has “Niniue, and the streets of the citie" and we have "Nineveh, and the city's wide squares"--not "Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir" as in many translations.

By the way, we have five indices for the book, including an Index of Authors and an Index of Translations. These make it easy to look for where the notes discuss a favorite author or translation. For example, Thomas Merton is quoted or cited on pp. 98, 109, 128, 133, 168, and 179. NABRE is quoted or cited on pp. 50, 55, 66, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 77, 78, 79, 85, 88, 90, 91, 95, 100, 107 (twice), 109, 112, 113 (twice), 117 (twice), 119, 122, 128, 133, 134, 136, 138, 141, 143, 144, 145, 146 (twice), 147, 151 (twice), 152, 153, 154, 156, 157 (thrice), 159, 160, 161, 162, 165, 168 (twice), 171 (twice), 173, 176, 179 (twice), 184, 188, 189, 193, 196, 225.

6) Are there plans for doing additional volumes?
We are continuing our work on Genesis, which should keep us busy for a while, especially since we both have other full-time vocations.

7) After completing this book on Genesis 1-11, was there a verse or two that you came to appreciate more after doing this book?

There are many, but I think one of them is Genesis 4:13, which we render "My iniquity is too weighty to be forgiven." I had thought of Cain as a petulant complainer, but there are good arguments that he is in fact more like Esau as described in Hebrews 12:17. We have a lengthy note on the translation of this verse (pp. 135-138), explaining this choice. But the bottom line is that the tragedy of Genesis 4 cuts deeper, the sense of loss of divine and human fellowship is much keener, than I had ever realized.

Thank you for the chance to discuss the translation. And I should note that we welcome criticism and suggestions from readers. Thank you!


Surly Hermit said...

I'm about a third of the way through the notes section of the book (Genesis 4 or thereabouts), and find the commentary fascinating and very instructive. It's much like the Catholic Commentary on the Sacred Scriptures books, but with an emphasis on translation. The translation itself I like, but would need more time with (and more than just Genesis 1-11) to replace one of my other Bibles. That's mostly because it's in the Tyndale tradition, so phrases I'm familiar with in the KJV or RSV-2CE sound slightly different and that throws me off just a bit.

Some criticism and a suggestion: I really dislike Hebrew and Greek words written in the Latin alphabet. My knowledge of both languages rounds down to zero, but I think readers would be well-served by a brief guide to pronouncing the Hebrew and Greek alphabets rather than by transliterating all the words. That's my only quibble with the book so far.

(P.S. Thanks Tim for introducing me to this book!)

Jason said...

I have to disagree in the strongest terms with your last sentence.

Expecting English readers to learn the Greek or Hebrew alphabet is unreasonable, unrealistic, and, IMO, unacceptable.

It's an English book and English translation, therefore the alphabet native to English is what things should be translated/transliterated into.

Surly Hermit said...

Jason, you must not have a high opinion of the average reader's intelligence. Learning alphabets is so easy even a child can do it, literally. It isn't learning another language. Not much good ever comes of catering to the lowest common denominator, which is precisely what you're espousing.

WWWW said...

Surly, I have to agree with Jason. I speak as someone who has learned 4 asian alphabets in addition to my native English. While anyone can learn an alphabet, it is a non-trivial time investment for which any author must assess the worth for their audience. I imagine this author wanted an expanded audience to benefit from the work.

Francesco said...

I guess it depends on what the purpose of writing the word is.

If the point is that the reader sees the word and then hears the sound in their head then transliterating it using Latin letters is always going to be superior. Hands down, there is less ambiguity and less opportunity for miscommunication. Especially for Hebrew, which only records the consonants and you have to know vowels in order to know what it sounds like.

If your preference is for pattern recognition (i.e. you see these four letters and memorize they're the Divine Name in Hebrew) or aesthetic (e.g. Hebrew is more beautiful, or authentic, or cooler than Latin letters) then I agree putting the words in their native script would be superior.

Since I think "hearing the word in your head" is what the author is going for I'd say that the transliteration should win.

Michael Demers said...

It's interesting to see how the original Douay-Rheims is still being used and consulted.

Jason said...

In Catholic Bibles it always will be.

The Douay Rheims Challoner is to Catholics what the KJV is to Protestants.

If you compare the NABRE to the DR, it's abundantly clear that they used the DR as a base text and translated and tweaked from there. They claim they made a fresh translation but theres just no way they ended up using the exact same phraseology in as many places as they did unless they used the DR either as a base text or at least as their main point of comparison...

Essentially the DR morphed into the Confraternity which morphed into the NAB and became the NABRE.

The 1970 NAB New Testament was a totally new translation, which was met with harsh criticism. So they reverted to the 1941 Confraternity NT and updated and revised it - so the 1986 NAB NT is a revision of the Confraternity NT which is a revision of the DR.

So as you can see, the DR is still of vast importance in modern Catholic Biblical studies in English - and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.