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….
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.
verse EVERETT FOX LXX
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
(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.