Translation commentary on Tobit 1:3

The previous two verses serve to provide the setting for the story in time and on the map. At this point the story itself begins with the writer, speaking as Tobit himself, establishing Tobit’s pious character. Like the time and place, this is necessary for an understanding of the story (compare Job 1.1-5). Good News Translation and Contemporary English Version have introduced the first person direct speech at verse 1.

Walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of my life: This indicates correct ways. To “walk in the ways of truth” is to do what each person ought to do. The metaphor walked may be retained in certain languages, but in a majority of languages it is best to drop it and to introduce the clause with something like “I have been honest…” (so Good News Translation, Contemporary English Version). Joining truth with righteousness establishes that Tobit did what was morally proper; Good News Translation expresses this as “I have been honest and have tried to do what was right” (similarly Contemporary English Version). All the days of my life is a literary device adding a note of authority to the story. In many languages it will be better style to put this phrase at the beginning of the verse, as Good News Translation and Contemporary English Version have done, and say “All my life I have been….” Tobit’s own death will be described at the end of the narrative in 14.11.

Acts of charity for my kindred and my people identifies Tobit’s piety as distinctively Israelite. The word for charity is used particularly of almsgiving; Good News Translation says “I often gave money” (Contemporary English Version “gave help” is too vague). Kindred refers to relatives, while my people goes beyond near relatives to show that Tobit’s concern did not stop with his immediate family, but included all Israelites who found themselves exiled in the foreign land of Assyria. Good News Translation renders my people as “fellow Jews,” but this is technically wrong, since Jews are people descended from the tribe of Judah, and the term is not much used before the time of the Babylonian exile, when the people of that tribe, that is, the Jews, were in exile. The events described in the book of Tobit take place at an earlier time, when people of the northern tribes were exiled in Assyria. In 11.17, however, the author does actually refer to the people as “Jews.”

Who had gone with me in exile to Nineveh: This may also be rendered as “people who the Assyrians had taken captive with me to Nineveh.” In some languages the sense of Nineveh as the capital city of the empire may be expressed as, for example, “the big village where the high chief lives.”

It is possible to restructure verse 3 as follows:

• All my life, I have been honest and tried to do what is right. And even after we were brought here to Nineveh, I often gave money to help my needy relatives and other Israelites who were in exile with me in Nineveh.

Quoted with permission from Bullard, Roger A. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Tobit. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2001. For this and other handbooks for translators see here.

Translation commentary on Tobit 2:13

When she returned to me: The Greek indicates that Tobit is indoors, that Anna enters the house, more than simply that she returned. The phrase to me, only vaguely suggested by Good News Translation, may be important. Another way to express this clause is “When Anna came into the house to me with the goat.” Anna comes home proud of her work, happy to be paid, thrilled over the bonus of the young goat, and can hardly wait to share her good fortune with her husband. But when she gets home, before she has a chance to speak, the goat bleats. Then before Anna can explain, or even before her blind husband Tobit is aware of her presence, he assumes the worst.

This interpretation assumes that the subject of the verb returned is Anna. The Greek is ambiguous, and it could be that it is the goat that comes into the house. Some translations (such as New Jerusalem Bible) take it that way, but translators are urged to follow the first interpretation.

The goat began to bleat: In some languages the translation will show the sound that a goat makes; for example, “The goat began to go ‘Baa, baa’ ” or whatever sound a goat is supposed to make in a particular culture.

So I called her … It is surely not stolen, is it?: Tobit “called out” (Good News Translation) to her; being blind, he doesn’t know where she is. The two questions he asks are not requests for information, but accusations. The second question is especially loaded, and in many languages will require a positive statement and a question; for example, “You stole it, didn’t you?” (Good News Translation) or simply a statement “You must have stolen it” (Contemporary English Version). Tobit uses a precise term for “stolen goods”; the question is grammatically framed so as to expect a negative answer; but he clearly expects Anna to lie about it.

Return it to the owners: Good News Translation “Take it straight back to its owners” captures the harsh nature of Tobit’s command, although the Greek achieves rudeness by being clipped and short. There may well be irony in the reference to the goat’s owners, since it is the same word used twice in verse 12 to refer to Anna’s employers, who as the reader knows actually did give her the animal.

We have no right to eat anything stolen closely reflects the Greek’s use of the first person plural here. It is as if Tobit is thinking, “You may be a thief and a liar, but I am not going to get involved in anything wrong.”

Quoted with permission from Bullard, Roger A. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Tobit. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2001. For this and other handbooks for translators see here.

Translation commentary on Tobit 4:17

Place your bread on the grave of the righteous: The Greek here is clear. It says “Pour out your bread on the grave of the righteous.” What it means is not clear. What we do know is that the Greek verb used here is used of liquids. Bread can refer to any food. One version of the k Book of Ahikark* (see the note on 1.21) contains this proverb: “Pour out your wine on the grave of the righteous rather than drink it in the company of evil people.” Pouring wine on a grave, or making any kind of funeral offering for the dead, was a pagan custom condemned by the Jews (compare Deut 26.14). The Vulgate rendering of this verse says, “Place your bread and wine on the grave of a just man, but do not eat and drink of it with sinners.”

Many approaches are taken in various translations. Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version simply translate “pour out” as Place, but do not mention wine. New American Bible interprets “pour out” as meaning “Be lavish with,” but goes on to speak of “bread and wine.” It interprets “on the grave” as meaning “at the burial.” It does not actually say so, but it gives the impression that the food is for the benefit of the mourners. Good News Translation does not mention wine, but makes it clear that the “food” is “for the family.” This is a reasonable approach, and translators are urged to follow the Good News Translation model (compare Jer 16.7; Ezek 24.17).

If the interpretation presented above for the first part of the verse is correct, give none to sinners refers to not providing food for those mourning the death of sinners.

Quoted with permission from Bullard, Roger A. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Tobit. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2001. For this and other handbooks for translators see here.

Translation commentary on Tobit 6:6

So after cutting … and liver: “Tobias did as the angel had told him” (Good News Translation) is an attempt to avoid repeating, in essence, the instructions given by Raphael in verse 5.

Then he roasted and ate some of the fish: Good News Translation “cooked” is a general term for roasted; the Greek word would allow the fish to be broiled or roasted, but not boiled. Many languages have appropriate terms for the various ways to prepare fish. In such cases “broiling” will probably be correct.

Kept some to be salted: Salting is a means of preserving the leftover flesh so that it can be eaten later; this is the reason for the explanatory addition in Good News Translation, “to take along with him,” and Contemporary English Version “to keep it from spoiling.”

The New Revised Standard Version footnote indicates that some sources read “Ecbatana” instead of Media. Media should be used. No footnote is needed since Media is the reading in the Greek manuscript we are following.

Quoted with permission from Bullard, Roger A. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Tobit. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2001. For this and other handbooks for translators see here.

Translation commentary on Tobit 8:6

Support: This does not mean that Eve was intended to support Adam financially, but to give him the encouragement of her love.

From the two of them the human race has sprung: This may be expressed as in Good News Translation “They became the parents of the whole human race” or Contemporary English Version “they were the source of the whole….”

Let us make: This is close in wording to the Greek of Gen 2.18; compare Gen 1.26. (In the Hebrew, Gen 1.26 is first person plural, but 2.18 is singular.) Us is literal, but Good News Translation uses the first person singular on the assumption that God is speaking in the plural of majesty, much as when a king refers to his government as “our” government. Another view is that in the Genesis passages God is addressing members of his heavenly court. A translation in the singular will prove simpler.

A helper for him like himself: This means a human being; the first of the intended companions, animals and birds, proved unsuitable (Gen 2.18-22).

The information in the final two lines logically comes before the clause and for him you made his wife Eve. Contemporary English Version has an excellent model reordering the clauses in this way:

• You made Adam and said,
‘It isn’t good for the man
to live alone.
So we will make
a suitable partner for him,
someone like himself.’
Then you gave him Eve—
the perfect companion—
and they were the source
of the whole human race.

Quoted with permission from Bullard, Roger A. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Tobit. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2001. For this and other handbooks for translators see here.

Translation commentary on Tobit 11:3

Let us run ahead of your wife: Possibly “go on ahead” (Good News Translation) is all that is intended, but the Greek verb does mean “run.” The impression must not be given that the whole party is running, however. Contemporary English Version solves this problem with “why don’t you and I run on ahead of your wife Sarah.”

While they are still on the way; that is, “before everyone else arrives” (Good News Translation). There are others in the group—slaves, at any rate (see 10.10). Good News Translation “everyone else” subtly reminds us of that. The pronoun they in New Revised Standard Version after the mention of Tobias’s wife is jarring. New American Bible is a good model, “the rest of the party,” as long as “party” is understood as “group.”

An alternative translation model for this verse is:

• Why don’t you and I run ahead of your wife Sarah and get the house ready before everyone else arrives?

Quoted with permission from Bullard, Roger A. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Tobit. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2001. For this and other handbooks for translators see here.

Translation commentary on Tobit 12:19

Although you were watching me, I really did not eat or drink anything: The Greek text of this verse is awkward, literally “And you saw that I ate nothing, but you were seeing a vision.” The meaning, more clearly expressed in the shorter Greek text, is as both Good News Translation and New Revised Standard Version have it. The addition of and drink in New Revised Standard Version is taken from that other text. It is not in our text and is not needed to make sense. Good News Translation is a helpful model.

But what you saw was a vision: There is a difference in meaning between “it only seemed so” (Good News Translation) and what you [plural] saw was a vision. A noun is used in Greek, but it does not necessarily indicate a vision in the sense of a religious experience. Clearly, when Raphael was with Tobias, Tobias was not having a religious experience; he didn’t even know who Raphael was. Raphael’s only meaning here is “You were seeing things that weren’t real—it was an illusion.”

The whole verse may be expressed as, for example,

• Even though you thought you saw me eating, I really ate nothing; it only appeared that way.

Quoted with permission from Bullard, Roger A. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Tobit. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2001. For this and other handbooks for translators see here.

Translation commentary on Tobit 14:13

He treated his parents-in-law with great respect in their old age: “Edna and Raguel,” the parents-in-law, are named in Good News Translation. Both Good News Translation and New Revised Standard Version make things clearer for the reader; the Greek just says “them,” but even though Edna is not mentioned in this context, both parents-in-law are clearly meant. It is also possible to put this information at the end of verse 12, as Contemporary English Version does with “ … he lived with his father-in-law Raguel and his mother-in-law Edna. He treated them with….”

And buried them in Ecbatana of Media: “When at last they died” (Good News Translation) may leave the wrong impression, since the next sentence tells how Tobit inherited Raguel’s property. “At last” makes it sound as if he were impatiently waiting for Raguel to die so he could get his property. It corresponds to nothing in the Greek text. “When they died” or “until they died” (Contemporary English Version) reflects the meaning of the text more accurately.

Quoted with permission from Bullard, Roger A. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Tobit. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2001. For this and other handbooks for translators see here.