How! or How?

Occasionally I find a mistake in the draft of the Kasem Old Testament translation because the Ghanaian translators have misunderstood the English versions. Their English is good so it doesn’t happen very often, but differences of meaning can be indicated by quite subtle variations in English construction.  In Jeremiah 48:17 we have the exclamation:

‘How broken is the mighty scepter, how broken the glorious staff!’ (New International Version)
“How the mighty scepter is broken, the glorious staff!” (New Revised Standard Version)

The translator had understood this as a question, misled by the ‘How’, normally a question word. Consequently he translated it as a question, instead of an exclamation, giving quite a different meaning.

“How did the sceptre get broken?”

This sounds a bit like a mother scolding her children, “Now, how did that cup get broken?”  In fact, Kasem does use ‘how’ in the sense of an exclamation, but the form of the word is different to when it is used in a question. The equivalent meaning would be given in Kasem by something like: “See how the sceptre has become broken!”

Of course, the translation of ‘sceptre’ in Kasem is not straightforward, but a chief has a ceremonial walking stick which is a symbol of office. This comes close to the ‘glorious staff’ of the second line, which is parallel in meaning to ‘sceptre’. Added to which, the ‘sceptre’ and the ‘staff’ are themselves symbols of power and rule, and some English versions express this meaning, rather than the symbolism:

‘Its powerful rule has been broken; its glory and might are no more.’ (Good News Bible)

In Kasem, in order to maintain the two-line parallelism of the Hebrew poetry and also to fill out the symbolism with its significance we currently have:

‘See (how) the chieftaincy walking stick is now broken! Moab no longer has power!’

Does God bring evil?

Continuing my check through Jeremiah I keep coming across the Hebrew word ra’ah. It occurs 99 times in the whole book, appearing in 39 of the 52 chapters. In chapter 44, which I have just finished, it comes 14 times, 5 of those in verse 9. What does it mean? The Brown-Driver-Briggs English-Hebrew lexicon gives: ‘evil, misery, distress, injury’. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Jeremiah majors on that area of meaning!

What is surprising is that the word is used of God’s activities as well as those of the wayward people of God. There is a balance between the ra’ah, ‘evil deeds’, which the remnant of Judah indulge themselves in, and the ra’ah, ‘calamities’, which God promises to inflict on them as a result. So how does the translator tackle this? It is impossible to use the same word in English to translate all occurrences of ra’ah, unless one is willing to make God the agent of evil activities. Some English versions come close to this, such as the RSV (Revised Standard Version) translation of 11:11 — Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing evil upon them which they cannot escape; though they cry to me, I will not listen to them. Other versions use words like ‘calamity, disaster, destruction’ when ra’ah occurs in this sense, and interestingly the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) has made the change from ‘evil’ to ‘disaster’ in this verse.

This illustrates the principle that there is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between words in different languages. The Hebrew word ra’ah has a wider range of meaning than any one word in English, and in most other languages too, probably. The translator has to cope with this all the time. One simply cannot use the same English word, or Kasem word, to translate one Hebrew word in all its contexts and senses. To do so sounds at best stilted, and at worst (in this case) wrongly portrays the character of God. Of course the translator tries to be consistent in translating each particular sense. In fact, I now need to go back and look at all 99 occurrences of ra’ah in Jeremiah and check just that. As far as possible in Kasem we have used lwarem kikia ‘evil doings’ in the one sense, and lɛɛro ‘calamity’ in the other.

As a footnote, we should bear in mind that God’s instrument of calamity in this case was the Babilonian army, and in that sense God was using an evil power to bring just punishment on his much-loved people.

Who do you mean?

I’ve been working on checking through the draft translation of Jeremiah in Kasem for some weeks now. I’ve just got to the end of chapter 41. Hebrew does like to make double sure you know who is being referred to in narrative. It’s what we call “participant tracking”. Take Gedaliah for example. We get to meet him in 39:14 as “Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan”. Fair enough, since there is at least one other Gedaliah around (38:1). In chapters 40 and 41 (only 34 verses total), Gedaliah is mentioned by name 20 times. 4 of those times he is given the full works, “Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan”; another 9 times it is “Gedaliah son of Ahikam”; leaving 7 occurrences of  simply “Gedaliah” (and most of those are “Gedaliah at Mizpah”). Add to that the number of times his office as governor is mentioned, and it all gets a bit heavy for most languages. And Gedaliah isn’t the only one being given full-name treatment in these chapters. There’s “Ishmael son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama”, “Johanan son of Kareah”, and “Nebuzaradan, commander of the guard”, all of which are repeated in full several times. Needless to say, Kasem prefers to keep track of participants in a more economical way. Once we know who it is, just the name will do, with maybe the occasional reminder of their role. Even a pronoun may suffice sometimes!