songs of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15

Following is a translation of the songs of Moses and Miriam from Exodus 15 into dance and a song presented in the traditional Fang troubadour style (mvét oyeng) by the group Nkuwalong as part of a project by Bethany and Andrew Case. (Note that you can activate English, French and Spanish subtitles.)

addressing God

Translators of different languages have found different ways with what kind of formality God is addressed. The first example is from a language where God is always addressed distinctly formal whereas the second is one where the opposite choice was made.

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Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

In these verses, in which humans address God, the informal, familiar pronoun is used that communicates closeness.

Voinov notes that “in the Tuvan Bible, God is only addressed with the informal pronoun. No exceptions. An interesting thing about this is that I’ve heard new Tuvan believers praying with the formal form to God until they are corrected by other Christians who tell them that God is close to us so we should address him with the informal pronoun. As a result, the informal pronoun is the only one that is used in praying to God among the Tuvan church.”

In Gbaya, “a superior, whether father, uncle, or older brother, mother, aunt, or older sister, president, governor, or chief, is never addressed in the singular unless the speaker intends a deliberate insult. When addressing the superior face to face, the second person plural pronoun ɛ́nɛ́ or ‘you (pl.)’ is used, similar to the French usage of vous.

Accordingly, the translators of the current version of the Gbaya Bible chose to use the plural ɛ́nɛ́ to address God. There are a few exceptions. In Psalms 86:8, 97:9, and 138:1, God is addressed alongside other “gods,” and here the third person pronoun o is used to avoid confusion about who is being addressed. In several New Testament passages (Matthew 21:23, 26:68, 27:40, Mark 11:28, Luke 20:2, 23:37, as well as in Jesus’ interaction with Pilate and Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well) the less courteous form for Jesus is used to indicate ignorance of his position or mocking (source Philip Noss).

In Dutch and Western Frisian translations, however, God is always addressed with the formal pronoun.

Translation commentary on Exod 15:7

Verses 7-11 are the second part of the song, which is addressed to Yahweh and speaks of his power in more general terms. In the greatness of thy majesty is literally “In the abundance of your height [or, loftiness].” Various terms may be used here, but Good News Translation is easier to understand: “In majestic triumph.” It is possible, though, to express this sentence as “You gloriously defeated your enemies and destroyed them,” or even “You have gained great honor by defeating your enemies and destroying them.” (See the comment on “triumphed gloriously” at verse 1.) Thou overthrowest thy adversaries uses a verb meaning to break down or destroy. Adversaries is derived from a verb that means to stand up or rise. Here the participle means “those who rise against you” (Durham). Other ways to express thy adversaries are “your enemies,” “those who hate you,” or “those who oppose you.”

Thou sendest forth thy fury uses the verb “to let go,” the same word used in the demand to “let my people go.” It means to release or give free play to something. Here it is Yahweh’s fury, or “anger” (Good News Translation), which comes from the word “to burn or become hot.” (See 4.14 and 32.19.) It is therefore related to what follows, it consumes them like stubble, referring back to the adversaries in the first line. So New International Version has “You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble.” Consumes is the word “to eat,” but here it gives the picture of fire that “devours” the stubble (Jerusalem Bible). (See the comment on stubble at 5.12.) Good News Translation has “your anger blazes out and burns them up like straw,” and Contemporary English Version has “Your fiery anger wiped them out, as though they were straw.” If it is impossible in a receptor language for the translator to talk about “fiery anger,” it may be possible to use similes and say, for example, “You get very angry just like a hot fire, and you burn up your enemies as if they were straw.”

Quoted with permission from Osborn, Noel D. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Exodus. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1999. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .