Biblical translation: the seed, or the offspring?

The Five Books of Moses. Unfortunately, I couldn’t even remember the word “philology,” much less pronounce it, in that context. Instead, I babbled about “seed,” progeny and semen until someone silenced me by refilling my glass.

Alter’s rendition of the Pentateuch is impressive enough — James Wood calls it “a monument of scholarship” — that I thought I’d excerpt some of his observations about the trouble with contemporary translations, for anyone else who’s interested.

Why, after so many English versions, a new translation of the Five Books of Moses? There is, as I shall explain in detail, something seriously wrong with all the familiar English translations, traditional and recent, of the Hebrew Bible. Broadly speaking, one may say that in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James Version, a shaky sense of Hebrew. The present translation is an experiment in re-presenting the Bible — and, above all, biblical narrative prose — in a language that conveys with some precision the semantic nuances and the lively orchestration of literary effects of the Hebrew and at the same time has stylistic and rhythmic intensity as literary English….

[T]he modern English versions — especially in their treatment of Hebrew narrative prose — have placed readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language. As a consequence, the King James Version … remains the closest approach for English readers to the original — despite its frequent and at times embarrassing inaccuracies, despite its archaisms, and despite its insistent substitution of Renaissance English tonalities and rhymthms for Biblical ones.

Some observers have sought to explain the inadequacy of modern Bible translations in terms of the general decline of the English language. It is certainly true that there are far fewer people these days with a cultivated sensitivity to the expressive resources of the language, the nuances of lexical values, the force of metaphor and rhythm…. There are, nevertheless, still some brilliant stylists among English prose writers; and if our age has been graced with remarkable translations of Homer, Sophocles, and Dante, why not of the Bible?

Part of the explanation, I suspect, is in the conjunction of philological scholarship and translation. I intend no churlish disrespect to philology. On the contrary, without it, our reading of the Bible, or indeed of any older text, is no better than walking through a great museum on a very gloomy day with all the lights turned out. To read the bible over the shoulder of a great philological critic, like Abraham ibn Ezra…, is to see many imporant things in fine forus for the first time. There is, however, a crucial difference between philology as a tool for understanding literary texts and philology as an end in itself, for literature and philology work with extremely different conceptions of what constitutes knowledge….

For the philologist, the great goal is the achivement of clarity…. [But the] unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language, and in the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible. This impulse may be attributed not only to a rather reduced sense of the philological enterprise but also to a feeling that the Bible, because of its canonical status, has to be made accessible — indeed, transparent — to all…. Modern translators, in their zeal to uncover the meanings of the biblical text for the instruction of a modern readership, frequently lose sight of how the text intimates its meanings — the distinctive, artfully deployed features of ancient Hebrew prose and poetry that are the instruments for the articulation of all meaning, message, insight, and vision.

One of the most salient characteristics of Biblical Hebrew is its extraordinary concreteness, manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body. The general predisposition of modern translators is to convert most of this language into more abstract terms that have the purported advantage of clarity but turn the pungency of the original into stale paraphrase. A good deal of this concrete biblical language based on the body is what a linguist would call lexicalized metaphor — imagery, here taken from body parts and bodily functions, that is made to stand for some general concept as a fixed item in the vocabulary of the language (as “eye” in English can be used to mean “perceptiveness” or “connoisseur’s understanding”). Dead metaphors, however, are the one persuasive instance of the resurrection of the dead — for at least the ghosts of the old concrete meanings float over the supposedly abstract acceptations of the terms, and this is something the philologically driven translators do not appear to understand. “Many modern versions,” Gerald Hammond tartly observes, “eschew anything which smacks of imagery or metaphor — based on the curious assumption, I guess, that modern English is an image-free language.”….

The Hebrew noun zera has the general meaning of “seed,” which can be applied either in the agricultural sense or to human beings, as the term for semen. By metaphorical extension, semen becomes the established designation for what it produces, progeny. Modern translators, evidently unwilling to trust the ability of adult readers to understand that “seed” — as regularly in the King James Version — may mean progeny, repeatedly render it as offspring, descendents, heirs, progeny, posterity. But I think there is convincing evidence in the texts themselves that the biblical writers never entirely forgot that their term for offspring also meant semen and had a precise equivalent in the vegetable world. To cite a distinctly physical example, when Onan “knew that the seed would not be his,” that is, the progeny of his brother’s widow should he impregnate her, “he would waste his seed on the ground, so to give no seed to his brother.” Modern translators, despite their discomfort with body terms, can scarcely avoid the wasted “seed” here because without it the representation of spilling semen on the ground in coitus interruptus becomes unintelligible. E.A. Speiser substitutes “offspring” for “seed” at the end of the verse, however, and the Revised English Bible goes him one better by putting “offspring” at the beginning as well (“Onan knew that the offspring would not count as his”) and introducing “seed” in the middle as object of the verb “to spill” and scuttling back to the decorousness of “offspring” at the end — a prime instance of explanation under the guise of translation. But the biblical writer is referring to “seed” as much at the end of the verse as at the beginning. Onan adopts the stratagem of coitus interruptus in order not to “give seed” — that is, semen — to Tamar, and, as a necessary consequence of this contraceptive act, he avoids providing her with offspring. The thematic point of this moment, anchored in sexual practice, law, and human interaction, is blunted by not preserving “seed” throughout.

Even in contexts not directly related to sexuality, the concreteness of this term often amplifies the meaning of the utterance. When, for example, at the end of the story of the binding of Isaac, God reiterates His promise to Abraham, the multiplication of seed is strongly linked with cosmic imagery — harking back to the Creation story – of heaven and earth: “I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea.” If “seed” here is rendered as “offspring” or “descendants,” what we get are two essentially mathematical similes of numerical increase. That is, in fact, the primary burden of the language God addresses to Abraham, but as figurative language it also imposes itself visually on the retina of the imagination, and so underlying the idea of a single late-born son whose progeny will be countless millions is an image of human seed … scattered across the vast expanses of starry skies and through the innumerable particles of sand on the shores of the sea. To substitute “offspring” for “seed” here may not fundamentally alter the meaning but it diminishes the vividness of the statement, making it just a little harder for readers to sense why these ancient texts have been so compelling down through the ages.

If this discussion interests you, try to track down a copy of the book. Alter’s discussion continues for another 27 pages, and his translation notes are extensive throughout.

And see, previously, King Solomon, funny man.

Image of the Leviticus Scroll taken from the Library of Congress.

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