Whose Giggles and Foreplay? Wordplay for Bible Translators

The Bible is full of wordplay. Some translators get that and give it to their readers.

Now, let’s define our terms. What I mean by wordplay is something very precise. Ha. I’m only joking; what I mean when I say “wordplay” is “playfulness” (as in “fun” and “funniness”) and / or “wiggle room” (as in “hermeneutic play” and “interpretive latitude”) and / or “performance” (as in what actors and a chorus might do with a playwright’s play, and what the audience members do with it with them; ditto for comedians and their audience, laughing, sometimes involuntarily, sometimes involuntarily when there’s is an inside joke especially one that has some shady innuendo or double entendre when the kids are still up past their bedtime).  So I’m being a little silly here, which is precisely the sort of seriousness that comes in language when we use it often. So, did I already say some translators get the Bible’s original wordplay and give it to their new audiences? For example, translator Everett Fox gives us English readers this (as Genesis 17:17a…. 19a):

But Avraham fell on his face and laughed….
God said:
Sara your wife is to bear you a son,
you shall call his name: Yizhak/He Laughs

And the translators of GOD’S WORD ® Translation have that this way [without the forwardslash that Fox punctuates with but with brackets instead to bring the Hebrew punny-ness across, interpolated, into English]:

Immediately, Abraham bowed with his face touching the ground. He laughed as he thought to himself….
God replied, “No! Your wife Sarah will give you a son, and you will name him Isaac [He Laughs].

So it’s funny if you get it in Hebrew, laughing as if along with Abraham and then with God. And it’s a wordplay in English too.

But then things get serious. Someone is giggling. It’s a husband and wife. Could it be foreplay? It’s “Yizhak/He Laughs” giggling with “Rivka.” Could it be “Isaac [He Laughs]” and “Rebekah” engaging in loving, would-be private foreplay? Are you smiling, or laughing, while you read? Is your hand at least covering your mouth? Everett Fox exclaims, “there was Yitzak laughing-and-loving with Rivka his wife!” GOD’S WORD ® Translation team sees it as “Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah.” And Top Bible Blogger, Joel Watts, says that it’s “Isaac caressing Rebekah.” Joel says that because he reads the New Living Translation (NLT) translation team’s translation, and they say that. He also says this at his blog:

“The same word is used for Isaac’s caressing of Rebekah as was Ishmael’s caressing of Isaac.”

Now Joel and the NLT and GOD’S WORD ® and Everett Fox were looking at Genesis 26:8 here. But Joel is rewinding also (without looking at the NLT) to find Genesis 21:9. To be fair to Joel, translator Robert Alter did that too and found a bit more: “Some medieval Hebrew exegetes,” Alter tells us in a footnote, “trying to find justification for Sarah’s harsh response [to Ishmael], construe the verb as a reference to homosexual advances.” Chris Heard overheard some of that, and now is blogging one post after another to set the record straight, to set Ishmael straight too.

Joel, not giving up too easily, appeals to Caesar, or at least to some higher power of his, saying this:

“Frankly, I am of the opinion, that if we were meant to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, God wouldn’t have given us the Septuagint and the New Living Translation.”

I’d love to say more about Everett Fox’s wordplayful translation, and how he negotiates all the twists and turns in the Hebrew enacted plot here. But we’re turned elsewhere, alas. So, for now anyway, we’ve already given a good bit of time to the NLT and none yet to the Septuagint (or LXX). Thus, let’s just note this: the LXX translators from Hebrew to Hebraic Greek were doing some funny stuff. I think they were ignoring the serious Aristotle and the unplayful Alexander. Perhaps they were playing with the wordplayful Hesiod, who gets his readers giggling. Perhaps they were giggling with their readers, thinking of how Gorgias played with his audience, arousing them. So, shall we listen in with our hands over our mouths, and then read our Septuagints (aka our LXXes)?

In Shield of Herakles (280-283), Hesiod has this (with my bolding of his words for our emphasis):

αἳ δ’ ὑπὸ φορμίγγων ἄναγον χορὸν ἱμερόεντα.
ἔνθεν δ’ αὖθ’ ἑτέρωθε νέοι κώμαζον ὑπ’ αὐλοῦ.
τοί γε μὲν αὖ παίζοντες ὑπ’ ὀρχηθμῷ καὶ ἀοιδῇ
τοί γε μὲν αὖ γελόωντες ὑπ’ αὐλητῆρι ἕκαστος

Now, if we’re the respectable Hugh Evelyn-White translating for a serious readership, then that goes like this:

and the girls led on the lovely dance to the sound of lyres.  Then again on the other side was a rout of young men revelling, with flutes playing; some frolicking with dance and song, and others were going forward in time with a flute player and laughing.

And, if we’re Daryl Hine translating with a bit more attention to Hesiod, like most Bible translators to Paul or something, then our audience reads as if a congregation in the pews, following along with the preacher’s points:

Accompanied by lyres, young women led a charming dance
on one side and young men reveled to a flute on the other.
Some in turn performing in dance and song,
Some in turn laughing, each to the music of a flutist,

But if I were performing, were opening up the possibilities, were humoring as Hesiod seems to be, then you get something else sort of like this:

These, hmm, with sounds led them on, these girls the desires
Hither, hmm, again the others, boyish youths, pleasured with the pipes
Some sure indeed, again, do foreplay with dancing and singing,
Some sure do indeed, again, giggle with each flute playing

That’s Hesiod. Shall we just skip Gorgias, who arouses his male audience with praise of Helen only to admit in the end he’s just been playing, that this praise of his of her is just his toy, his plaything? Shall we skip out of our church pews and get into our LXXes now?

The LXX, says Israeli historian Sylvie Honigman, was “at least as sacred as the Hebrew original” to its original readers. The translators, she says considering the legend, worked not out of Alexander’s paradigm or the Exodus paradigm but out of Homer’s and Hesiod’s. Translation scholar Naomi Seidman, considering the Talmud’s vision of the legend, suggests the LXX translators were tricksters, working like the underground railroad in America or something. But she also says the Hebrew original works this way too, according to the Talmud, to its vision. Whether we can take all that these two academics put forth in their minorities’ perspectives, we still might find some of this funny, humorous. It really does seem that the LXX translators had read Hesiod and Homer. If you look at their Genesis, it’s Hesiod and his Theogony. If you look at their ExOdys, it’s Homer and his Odyssey.

So let’s look again at γελόωντες and παίζοντες (at giggles and foreplay and such) around the Hebrew wordplay, around צָחַק. Since Chris Heard makes charts comparing the different Christian Bible translation versions around certain verses, I thought I’d give you one too. Except this one here compares Everett Fox’s wordplayful translating with the LXX’s.

Gen 17:17 laugh γελάω
Gen 17:19 Yitzhak/He Laughs Ισαακ
Gen 18:12 laugh γελάω
Gen 18:13 laugh γελάω
Gen 18:15 laugh, laugh γελάω, γελάω
Gen 19:14 jest γελάω
Gen 21:3 Yitzhak/He Laughs Ισαακ
Gen 21:6 laugh γελάω
Gen 21:9 laugh παίζω
Gen 26:8 laughing-and-loving παίζω
Gen 39:14 play around with παίζω
(sexual reference)
(or laugh at)
Exod 32:6 revel παίζω
Judges 16:25 [no translation] παίζω

Well, I hope you get that the parentheses show Fox’s footnoted options and that brackets show where he didn’t translate at all. But what I really hope we all see is how the LXX translators, also following the Hebrew’s wordplay, are also engaging in their own wordplay. It’s very striking, to me anyway, that the Septuagint translators make a sharp turn from their word γελάω to their word παίζω within a very short context. It’s also striking that their turn is a consistent antistrophe, so that the playful laughter turns to laughing play. There’s certainly more here to study. Discourse linguists and corpus linguists and the like may like it.

All I’m wanting us to see with some accuracy and precision is that the words צָחַק and γελάω and παίζω and “revel” and “jest” and “play around with” and “laughing-and-loving” and “Yitzak / He Laughs” are Bible. They’re also wordplayful Bible translation. If that plays with anybody or makes some of us giggle, so be it.


17 responses to “Whose Giggles and Foreplay? Wordplay for Bible Translators

  1. Pingback: Now if Dr. Gayle Laughs at me! | Unsettled Christianity

  2. Of course, the fundamental work on this subject was Carol Bakhos’ Ph.D. thesis which was published as Ishmael on the Border: Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab. Bakhos is a professor at UCLA; one would think that she would be mainstream enough to deserve comment — but she’s a woman, and so does not gather attention , even on a pro-feminist blog such as this one.

    • Wow, I’m learning so much — like this is “a pro-feminist blog.” Hope you’ll explain what that means. Glad you liked my post. Glad it made you laugh. (The subject Dr. Bakhos herself says her work is fundamentally on was the following: “Rather, it focuses narrowly on the figure of Ishmael in classical rabbinic literature from the tannaitic period… through the early Middle Ages and traces the nuances and shifts in rabbinic portrayals of Ishmael over a period of a thousand years.” What if men would read more women writers and would read them more carefully?)

  3. And what passage were the Rabbis analyzing?

  4. I also must say that I think you would be better served by a philosophical commentary (rather than a traditional Biblical commentary) on Genesis, such as Leon Kass’ The Beginning of Genesis or Avivah Zornberg’s The Beginning of Desire.

    Alternatively, I would recommend a book that strongly interacts with the reader (instead of lecturing the reader) such Nehama Leibowitz’s New Studies in Genesis. If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Liebowitz’s method, I can refer you to Yaakov Kagan’s review.

    • I think you would be better served by a philosophical commentary (rather than a traditional Biblical commentary)

      I think you may be right. (Or perhaps we’d be served well by a rhetoric commentary).

      Yes, and to be sure, I see that the “Genesis” that all three scholars include in their book titles is the Greek (i.e., LXX) title. And I note how Leon Kass, with his PHilosophy Doctorate in bio-chemistry, admits a “a special fondness for the Greeks.”

      And it’s apparent and obvious how Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, with her PHilosophy Doctorate (in English Literature), gets us looking at the Unseen even in the Greek (i.e., wordplay):


      “What was mine and is henceforth but irreparably alien”: for Rebecca [the one laughing-and-loving with Isaac], the invisible geography of her body is both hers and doubly alien. Twins struggle “within her,” be-kirbah, in her kerev, the site of the entrails–in Latin, the viscera, in Greek the splanchna [sic], in Yiddish, the kischkes. In biblical language, the kerev of the animal sacrifice, for instance, includes the heart, the kidneys, the stomach and intestines. Only dimly imaginable to their human owner, these organs have a tactile, slippery, unseizable physicality. If she is a woman, that interior becomes the source of pain, blood, fluids; the source, also, of life. In the womb, of course, hysteria originates. This intimate, alien world both fascinates and repels others–men–who, in [Julia] Kristeva’s expression, “abject” to repudiate its horrifying humanity as nonhuman. These same organs also deliver passion and thought, yearning and prayer…. (page 217, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious)

      In addition to quoting Kristeva from start to finish in this paragraph, Zornberg, of course, is alluding to Aristotle’s sexist, gynophobic, misogynistic word “hysteria,” a word which he uses with “splagchna” and “koilia” to talk about the insides of females, their lacking parts, their wombs and such (as in The History of Animals and The “Generation” of Animals). We know that the LXX translators refuse to use “splagchna” but talk of Rebecca’s womb impregnated with twins by Isaac plurally, her “gastri” and her “koilia” (as in “Genesis” 25:23 – δύο ἔθνη ἐν τῇ γαστρί σού εἰσιν καὶ δύο λαοὶ ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας σου). We see how the NT writers willingly recover “splagchna” again.

      Nechama Leibowitz is just a genius. With her PH.D. concerning 15th and 16th century Jewish Bible translations in German, her methods were rhetorical. (And to my professors of rhetoric, I’ve often complained that we have far too many Ph.D.’s and also a glut of TH.D.s Why not RH.D.s? RHetoric Doctorates?) We all appreciate how Moshe Sokolow remembers her and her profoundly plural, rhetorical methods (and Leibowitz’s “trick-im” sounds like Martin Buber, like Everett Fox, like Naomi Seidman’s Talmudic reading of the LXX as a “trickster” translation):

      Erudition has existed before and since, but the panoply of pedagogical devices which she invented or refined was uniquely, and characteristically, hers. If Torah teachers, worldwide, have trained their students to ask, rhetorically, “mah kasheh leRashi?” (what troubles Rashi), it is due to her fastidious attention to that exegete’s methodology. If a tried and true tactic of Torah teaching (Nehama playfully called them “trick-im”) is to have students divide a Torah chapter into its component parts, or to compare versions of the same verse or event, it is because she pioneered these “tricks” as stimulants to what, today, we call “active learning.”

  5. Leibowitz’s book was written in Hebrew, and the English publisher includes the traditional English name (in small print/with “Breishit” in big letters.). I don’t remember seeing references to the Septuagint in her books.

    However, I do agree that she was a genius, especially in pedagogy (in fact, she won the Israel prize for Education). Reading her Studies today is still a thrilling experience — even though it is a printed book, it is a highly interactive experience.

    • references to the Septuagint in her books.

      I’m sure you could find a few references, not always favorable ones, but a few more allusions to Greek language, Homeric style, mythology, models, and culture.

      (At Genesis 24:12, Leibowitz offers a “literal” translating:

      The plea of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant poses a problem. There is surely a self-contradiction in him praying to God to engineer a coincidence. This is the literal rendering of his plea which may be translated as “cause to chance before me today.”

      Isn’t it a little difficult to believe that she’d have ignored the LXX here, which has a different construction (i.e., εὐόδωσον). This Greek is a phrase that translator Sir Richard Jebb finds in Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus) in another prayer, which he renders “may Zeus grant you good things.” Jebb attends to the wordplay, in his critical notes: “εὐοδοίη, [in some manuscripts of Sophocles] in contrast with his own ‘ὁδός'”; and then he goes on to explain the Englishing as a rendering, sounding to me a little like a lucky genie in a bottle, “may … grant … good things”; Jebb says:

      “εὐοδοῦν” is slightly recommended by the analogy of “ὁδοῦν, ὁδηγεῖν”. Suidas, too, has “εὐοδῶ: αἰτιατικῇ”: though this might be explained by the post-classical constr. of “εὐοδοῦν”, which, as in the Septuagint, was with acc.

      The point here is the analogy, the consequence of certain phrasing in petitions to deity.)

      • Actually Leibowitz made no translation. She was quoting Hebrew in a Hebrew book. Your quotation above is from the English translation by Aryeh Newman , not from her original Hebrew version – the Hebrew had no translation (but simply drew on the Hebrew original text). It would hardly make sense in Hebrew to say that the literal reading of a Hebrew phrase was such-and-such. So, it appears that the wording you quote above is from translator Aryeh Newman — not Leibowitz.

        The question Leibowitz is posing, of course, is how can one pray for a coincidence — since the workings of Providence are, by definition, not a coincidence. The contrast is clearly shown in I Samuel 6:9.

        This is also a highly atypical gliyonot since it has no questions for further study (I think that all of her other gliyonot on Breishis do)

        If Leibowitz relied on any non-Jewish sources, she certainly hid the fact quite well. In her discussion on that verse, she quotes Abravanel, Ibn Ezra, Solomon Dubnow, I Samuel 6:7-9, Yechezkel Kaufmann, Rashi, Genesis 45:8, and Nachmanides. Her main argument is to contrast the Philisitine notion of “chance” and the Torah notion of “chance”.

      • Well, I believe you about Leibowitz making no translation, and I follow your logic. But isn’t her Hebrew and the Hebrew book she’s quoting from two different languages? Wouldn’t Robert Alter say it is? You do make me want to read Hebrew, and still, nonetheless, aren’t Leibowitz’s methods translational?

        Yes, I get her clear contrast between coincidence and Providence. Thank you also for showing the contrast of the verse she’s discussing with the other verse: I Samuel 6:9. You’re making me read interactively the way she does. Thanks for your questions here (I’m forming them) for further study. (The Legend of the Letter of Aristeas seems to appeal to something coincidental-Providential as does the Hebrew language of Eliezer’s plea. Not a fair comparison, I know, don’t I?)

        Quite possibly Leibowitz relied on no non-Jewish sources. But doesn’t she allude to Greek? Aren’t there mentions of the Septuagint in her works? I find some in the English translations, so who knows?! Are these interpolations of her English translators?

      • I can’t recall seeing Greek in any works she quoted — and other than Onkelos, I don’t remember her relying on other translations of Bible. (I may have forgotten some instance, but I think I’m right.)

        Yes, of course, Leibowitz’s Hebrew is different than the Hebrew of the Bible (just like my English is different than your English) — but just as I am not in the habit of paraphrasing Shakespeare, but rather quoting directly, she followed the nearly universal* Hebrew style of not modernizing the Hebrew of the Bible.

        On the other hand, how can we ever escape Greek? Even people who do not know Greek rely on it indirectly. I mentioned her quotation of Yechezkel Kaufmann, and he certainly used Greek.


        *Thus a Bible in paraphrased simple Hebrew caused a major scandal recently in Israel. If only we were that circumspect about paraphrases of English literature.

      • If only we were that circumspect about paraphrases of English literature.

        Yes, I’m reading Shakespeare but in Virginia Woolf (who, by the way, Michael Cunningham has me re-reading, thanks to your link to his essay a few days ago). Shakespeare isn’t paraphrased. But last night at the library with my daughter, we saw this awful “book” called Twitterature, and I didn’t recognize the Bard nor Woolf nor Harper Lee either. My daughter, as young as she is and open to these new forms couldn’t take it either; or maybe she’s old too.

        I’m wishing my library had Leibowitz’s books in Hebrew now.

    • Leibowitz certainly studied many translations – unless they cannot be called that, since they were only translations into Yiddish, and only made for women and unscholarly men, as Elija Levita wrote. One of the translations she studied was also published by a woman, Roesel Fischel, in the 1500’s.

      I don’t know if these don’t count as official translations because they were for women, or because they were only into Yiddish. Interesting though, that when Juedisch-deutsch is translated into English, it becomes “Judeo-German”, and then just “German” instead of Yiddish. A nice sleight of tongue.

      • What great points and reminders about who Leibowitz studied and for whom! Have you seen Fischel’s translation?

        Speaking of Yiddish, have you seen the first chapter of Naomi Seidman’s Faithful Renderings, in which she discusses her father’s translating from Yiddish to French and back?

        when Juedisch-deutsch is translated into English, it becomes “Judeo-German”, and then just “German” instead of Yiddish. A nice sleight of tongue. Oops! I’m guilty here! And here’s an interesting internet discussion about the name Leibowitz — is it Yiddish, male-ish? http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=17731279320&topic=2678

  6. On the significance of the names of things:

    From the Guardian, April 25, 2009:

    ‘Do you know what her children call her?” a mutual friend asked me when I said I was going to see AS Byatt. “You’ll never guess. Not in a million years.”

    “Antonia? Mum?”

    “No,” he said, laughing. “They call her ‘AS Byatt’.”

    • Thank you! Don’t know what to call her exactly, but just loved Byatt’s saying this:

      The stone is a metaphor for grief and for ageing and stiffening. We are always being told language is inadequate to describe things. I think it is endlessly inventive if we pay it attention. I love all the buried metaphors in the stone-names. Thinking and writing are making connections. I once gave a reading in a university where a student said self-righteously “You used a word I didn’t know in that reading. Don’t you think that was elitist of you?”

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