Sunday, May 10, 2009

On Translation Part I

First, I do not have any great claim to translation mastery. My Hebrew and Aramaic are awful, and my Koine is ... well, what it is. Still, I do have some experience translating French to people, although there too, I can hardly consider myself an expert.

I had occasion to think recently about translation as a general concept. Recently, I discovered all of my Biblical translations, as well as a few scholarly tomes. And I compared all of these translations to each other, sometimes finding surprises. I also found my grandfather's Bible, he the Lutheran Pastor. I believe this one he used to prepare his sermons. And this had me thinking about the value of translations especially when we consider sacred texts.

Before I talk about translating the Bible, we have to consider translation itself. When I translate from French to English, or vice versa, it's usually a pretty simple task to simply tell the auditor what the other person said or wrote. But what happens where one comes upon an idiomatic statement? Does one translate it word for word, or convey the meaning? In spoken language the latter is preferable. But what about sacred texts where the words will form the basis of doctrinal and dogmatic assertions? Now the task of the translator is much more difficult. Precision is key, obviously, because the precise words in the original languages become the basis of doctrinal assertions.

A famous example of this, and the usual test to see if a translation is going to be more orthodox than heterodox, is Is 7:14. Most older translations translate the inexact term of almah as "virgin" after the Greek term, parthenos, found in the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). This is because Matt 1:23 quotes the LXX and sees the Virgin Birth as fulfilling this prophecy. But more recent translations translate it as "maiden," "young girl.," or words to that effect. That's because the word Almah isn't more specific.

Let's look at this more closely to get inside the head of translators and to try to figure out what's going on. Read Chapters 7 through 9 of Isaiah to understand the context, especially the introductory narrative and the parallelism at the beginning of Chapter 8. Then also read Matt 1:23. Now, this text presents us with numerous choices if we're a translator. Do we consider Matt 1:23? The trend lately is to say no ... we're only going to consider each book as a separate work in the Bible. In that case, it becomes a little harder to tell what the prophecy is. Who is the young woman? Some have seen this as a prophecy of Hezekiah, whose mother would have been quite young at the time of the prophecy. But the parallelism of Chapter 8 makes it seem like the prophetess is the "young woman" since Maher-shalal-hash-baz is said to have some of the same characteristics as Emmanuel (especially the reference to "before he is old enough to say "Mommy" and "Daddy," and the references to Emmanuel being connected to his birth). In fact, none of these works perfectly. Obviously, all the prophecies about Assyria don't seem to fit with Christ all that well without stretching them into obscure allegory. What value would they be to Ahaz who was being admonished for turning to Tiglash-Pileser instead of God? This was a specific admonition to which Ahaz was to take a specific lesson. But if Hezekiah is intended, why does he not get a mention at all during the specific verses where Emmanuel is referenced? If Maher-shalal-hash-baz, then this seems unlikely, because is mother had already had a child, and so we'd really have to stretch the value of the word almah to encompass her. Now, one technique is to adopt the thinking of the New Jerusalem Bible and basically cop-out and say that none of the prophecies really belong to one set of prophecies but is a mishmash thrown together because they have similar turns of phrase, but are otherwise unrelated. This seems to me to be an intellectual cop-out. We can't figure it out, so there's nothing to figure out.

We also need to consider how the words were understood by their audience. Although the LXX was translated about 500 years after Isaiah, it does represent an understanding of the text that is important, because it clearly was fulfilled in Christ's birth. It seems to me that a number of things are going on here.There is an immediate meaning that Ahaz was meant to take away: most likely the birth of Isiah's son. While it might seem to stretch almah, almah itself is a rather flexible word. In Psalm 46, it's a musical term. In Songs 6:8 virgins is almost certainly intended a meaning. And in Prov 30:19 I actually think generic "woman" is intended, since there's no special reason why it should mean anything more specific in the verse, and indeed if it did, would break up the parallelism of the other three images. Not to put a fly in the ointment, but parthenos is equally versatile. After all, the LXX calls Dina a parthenos after her violation. So, Maher-shalal-hash-baz's mother, the prophetess could be intended in a proximate way. But Christ is also clearly intended as an ultimate sense. Both are intended here.

Now, how to convey this? That's the real challenge. Most translations have to resort to footnotes. But this can be unsatisfactory. Many dislike the concept of footnotes or notes of any sort in Sacred Scripture. I don't have an answer here, although probably the best method is the one adopted by The Living Bible which is to use the word virgin in the text and then explain the fact that multiple senses are intended here.

Tomorrow I'll talk about other choices in these and other passages that translators are faced with.

5 comments:

Pr. Lehmann said...

I've gone a number of ways on this throughout my exegetical life. Ultimately, however, I think we must see Matthew 1:23 as the authoritative and primary exegesis of this text.

Therefore, I think the best translation is "virgin." That's also not out of line for the Hebrew, either. There is a lot of strong scholarship that shows that the primary meaning of the world "almah" is a woman who is of marriageable age but is not yet married. That does not automatically mean "virgin," of course, but it normally does.

So far I've not touched on how best to read the text in it's Isaiah context. Is Maher-shalal-hash-baz a fulfillment of this prophecy? I'd say, strictly speaking, no. I don't think it's a great idea to speak of "partial fulfillment" or "multiple fulfillments." Both seem to be argued against by the very word: fulfill. All things are fulfilled in Christ (cf. Matt. 5 and John 19), and Matthew 1 makes it clear that this prophecy in particular is fulfilled in Him.

So, I think that in this case we do best to look at the prophecy of Isaiah 7 as rectilinear and typological at the same time. As a prophecy, it is rectilinear. It points straight to Jesus and only to him. However, what was happening around the time of the prophecy also points to Christ. Maher-shalal-hash-baz is not a fulfillment of the prophecy so much as he is part of the prophecy of Christ. Isaiah prophesies the birth of Jesus and then has a child by his wife. The people see, "Well, by the time this child was old enough to reject the wrong and choose the right we had been delivered, but it's clear that he's not fitting the fullness of this prophecy. He's pointing to someone else."

I would say further that the Messianic hope was well developed at this time. The Messiah would be God and man (cf. Gen 4, 2 Samuel 7).

I could and have talked about this for days in the past, but I think this is a decent summary of my thinking.

Ogden Chichester said...

My only problem is that the prophecies very clearly talk about the impending Assyrian involvement in the Syro-Ephraimite war. The only person who will be old enough to discern right from wrong when Assyria lays waste to the Levant is the son of Isaiah. There are no Assyrians when Christ comes. They're gone.

I have no problem with M-s-h-b being a type (typos) for Christ, in the same way Isaac was, for example. Indeed, I think that is true about him. Perhaps I should have used that term instead of "partial fulfillment." But I do reject that the verse only applies to Christ. If that's the case, then it's a verse completely out of place with the rest of the surrounding verses.

"Oh king Ahaz, there will be given to you personally a sign that you won't be around to receive, but all these other things will happen, supposedly tied to it, but actually more immediate.

a) Thing in far, far future
b) which leads to stuff happening tomorrow
c) which leads to stuff happening tomorrow

If that's the case then we can appreciate why the footnotists of the NJB decided to punt on the question.

I thin there's an proximate (i.e. immediate) realisation of the prophecy that points typically to its ultimate realisation in Christ. But to assert that the verse must be read only one way and only about Christ seems to me to fall apart on its face.

Or, am I misunderstanding you?

Ogden Chichester said...

"But I do reject that the verse only applies to Christ."

That should read:

"But I do reject that the verse only applies only to Christ."

Pr. Lehmann said...

You are misunderstanding me a little bit because I happen to agree with pretty much everything you wrote in your comment.

I think perhaps the best way to read it, staying faithful to the text and to Matthew's inspired exegesis of it is to say that we have a number of prophecies mixed here.

I would translate it virgin because Matthew makes it clear that we must. But I would also say that the material about the Assyrians, the age of the child, etc. necessarily have to say something about Isaiah's time.

Perhaps a good analogy would be Jesus prediction of his return and the destruction of Jerusalem in the week before his death.

Part of the difficulty of exegesis stems from the fact that we have more than one prophecy going on.

It could even be that almah means "virgin" and "young woman." But I'm still gonna stick with Matthew.

Ogden Chichester said...

Ok, then I apologise. I felt certain enough that I misunderstood you to ask the question. ;)