From this verse to the end of verse 25, the words of blessing are addressed to each of the tribes of Israel in turn. We notice that the tribe of Simeon is missing. Levi is listed as a tribe, and in the case of Joseph (verses 13-17), his two sons are named (verse 17), thus making a total of twelve.
The translator must choose, in each instance, between the name only (such as “Judah,” “Levi,” “Benjamin,” and so on) and the phrase “the tribe of Judah,” and so on. In most cases it will be better to say “the tribe of…,” since that is what the text means. Bible en français courant has “the descendants of,” which in some cases may be better. So we may say here “Tribe of Reuben, you will…” or “People of the tribe of Reuben….”
Good News Translation opens the verse with “Moses said about the tribe of Reuben”; this is translational, providing this blessing with the same kind of introduction that appears in all the other blessings; Bible en français courant has “And Moses continued.” It is recommended that Good News Translation be followed.
Let Reuben live, and not die: the prayer, or wish, is that the tribe of Reuben will always continue to exist and never disappear. In English “not die out” (New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible) carries the idea of a group not disappearing.
Nor let his men be few: as some commentators say, this is a wrong translation. The Hebrew text has “and his people be few”; the negative of “and not die” in the previous line does not modify this line. New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh, Good News Translation, and New Jerusalem Bible have “although his people are few.” It is better to follow Revised English Bible, “but may he be few in number” (also Traduction œcuménique de la Bible, Osty-Trinquet). This is actually a request that the tribe of Reuben will never become strong and dominant; see Gen 49.3-4.
A possible alternative translation model for this verse is:
• Moses said about the people of the tribe of Reuben:
“May you never die out;
but may you always be few in number.”
Quoted with permission from Bratcher, Robert G. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Deuteronomy. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2000. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .