What Prose Says Also: Facing Text

When I first started blogging here, my blogger friend called Theophrastus mentioned a focus in Bible translation that is, what he calls, the “classic missionary focus of “move into the culture, figure out the key points, and blast out a translation, move on to the next project.” With such a focus, it seems, another of my blogger friends, Wayne Leman, is reading and desiring to translate Psalm 80 . At least he’s getting us to figure out the key points of the text and is working on getting the meaning of the text into what’s “normally considered contemporary English, which is read and spoken by a majority of native English speakers today.” Wayne’s post at Better Bibles Blog is here. Theophrastus comments on Wayne’s post to protest, saying: “My goodness, this is Hebrew poetry — can we at least preserve some poetic forms such as parallelism?” He presses by showing that it can “take some work to read” such poetry.

In a later post, we may try to get more at what the classic missionary focus is, especially as opposed to what Theophastus elsewhere has called “the classic Jewish view.” Here in this post mostly I just want to illustrate that view, perhaps.

In this blogpost, I’d like to protest further than Theophrastus does. I’d like to suggest that the text of the Hebrew Bible is more than poetry, that it’s mostly if not always full of wordplay whether it’s poetry or prose. I’d like to show that, perhaps by the classic Jewish view, how the Hebrew Bible of the Jews is playful and creative. I’d like to show what Everett Fox does with some of the words, in Hebrew and in translation.

Here’s Fox addressing many words and motifs that are also in the poetry of Psalm 80. Fox is only discussing these words and motifs in a bit of Torah, in prose, in narrative. Here’s from his “Translator’s Preface” for The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Notice how different Fox translates by listening to how the Hebrew text sounds (by what it “says”); he shows how different this is from the way the New English Bible translators have translated (by what it “means”). Notice how different Fox’s view from Wayne’s focus:


The text in [Genesis ch.32] vv.21-22 presents Jacob’s thoughts and actions (the translation is taken from the New English Bible):

for he thought, “I will appease him with the present that I have sent on ahead, and afterwards, when I come into his presence, he will perhaps receive me kindly.” So Jacob’s present went on ahead of him. . . .

This is an accurate and highly idiomatic translation of the Hebrew, and the reader will notice nothing unusual about the passage as it reads in English. The sound of the Hebrew text, on the other hand, gives one pause. It is built on variations of the word panim, whose basic meaning is “face,” although Hebrew uses it idiomatically to encompass various ideas. (Note: in Hebrew, the sound p is pronounced as ph under certain circumstances.) If the text is translated with attention to sound, its quite striking oral character emerges (italics mine [italics are Fox’s]):

For he said to himself:
I will wipe (the anger from) his face (phanav)
with the gift that goes ahead of my face; (le-phanai)
afterward, when I see his face, (phanav)
perhaps he will lift up my face! (phanai)
The gift crossed over ahead of his face. . . . (al panav)

Comparison of these two English versions is instructive. In the New English Bible, as in most other contemporary versions, the translators are apparently concerned with presenting the text in clear, modern, idiomatic English. For example, they render the Hebrew yissa phanai as “receive me kindly.” The N.E.B. translates the idea of the text; at the same time it translates out the sound by not picking up on the repetition of panim words.
What does the reader gain by hearing the literalness of the Hebrew? And what is lost by the use of its idiomatic meaning? As mirrored in the second translation, it is clear that our text is signaling something of significance. The motif of “face” (which might be interpreted as “facing” or “confrontation”) occurs at crucial points in the story. The night before his meeting with Esau, as he is left to ponder the next day’s events, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious stranger–a divine being. After Jacob’s victory, the text reporst (32:31):

Yaakov called the name of the place: Peniel / Face of God,
for: I have seen God,
face to face,
and my life has been saved.

The repetition suggests a thematic link with what has gone before. One could interpret that once the hero has met and actually bested this divine being, his coming human confrontation is assured of success. Thus upon meeting Esau at last, Jacob says to him (33:10):

For I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God,
and you have been gracious to me.

It could be said that in a psychological sense the meeting with divine and human adversaries are a unity, the representation of one human process in two narrative episodes. This is accomplished by the repetition of the word panim in the text.

The above interpretation depends entirely on sound. Once that focus is dropped, either through the silent reading of the text or a standard translation, the inner connections are simply lost and the reader is robbed of the opportunity to make these connections for himself. Clearly there is a difference between translating what the text means and translating what it says.


7 responses to “What Prose Says Also: Facing Text

  1. Nice example. For this one in English one could play with the homonym present [gift / time / placed with] – something like this

    I will soothe his presence
    with the present that precedes my presence
    afterward, when I am present to him
    perhaps he will be present to me
    The present preceded his presenting of himself

    • Plenty playful poetic prose, Bob! (And don’t you love how Martin Buber provides Everett Fox with some initial discussion of “face” – here’s from Fox’s epigraph for his “Translator’s Preface”: “… read the Bible as though it were something entirely unfamiliar, as though it had not been set before you ready-made…. Face the book with a new attitude as something new….”)

  2. Do I really write “classic” that much? I’ll have to adopt some other byword.

    • Theophrastus, Interesting contrast your common byword made here for us.

      (What does “classic” mean anyway? I’ve always wondered how Elizabeth Cady Stanton subtitled The Woman’s Bible: A Classic Feminist Perspective. Were there really any “feminists” to speak of before her and her colleagues?)

      • Au contraire! Stanton did not give it that subtitle — it was simply entitled A Woman’s Bible. The Dover publishers gave it that subtitle in 2002 (along with a new foreword); — apparently so they could put a new copyright on it.

      • Touché! Now, that’s a classic Theophrastus reply. (Maybe more importantly than the Dover editor’s observation, Anna Howard Shaw noted that ECS’s speech “Solitude of Self” is “an English classic.”)

  3. Pingback: Colonialist, “classic missionary focus” of bible translation | BLT

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