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.)

blast of your nostrils

Targumim (or: Targums) are translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic. They were translated and used when Jewish congregations increasingly could not understand the biblical Hebrew anymore. Targum Onqelos (also: Onkelos) is the name of the Aramaic translation of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) probably composed in Israel/Palestine in the 1st or 2nd century CE and later edited in Babylon in the 4th or 5th century, making it reflect Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. It is the most famous Aramaic translation and was widely used throughout the Jewish communities.

In many, but not all, cases the translation of Targum Onqelos avoids anthropomorphisms (attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions) as they relate in the original Hebrew text to God.

The Hebrew of Exodus 15:8 that is translated in English as “blast of your nostrils” or similar is translated in Targum Onqelos as “word of your mouth.” (Source: Schochet 1966, p. 15)

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 15:8

Note that this verse has three lines in parallel: the waters piled up—the floods stood up—the deeps congealed. At the blast of thy nostrils is literally “by the wind of your nostrils.” This figure of speech is what is called an anthropomorphism, meaning that God is described as though he were a human. So this suggests the vivid picture of Yahweh blowing through his nose to divide the waters (see 14.21); so Good News Translation translates “You blew on the sea.” The waters is simply the plural form of “water.” Piled up is a word used only here, but it suggests the meaning of being heaped or dammed up. So Good News Translation has “piled up high,” and Contemporary English Version has “piled up like a wall.”

The floods comes from the word “to flow.” Here it is parallel with waters and deeps, so one can say “flowing waters” (New American Standard Bible) or “surging waves” (Translator’s Old Testament). Good News Translation weakens the parallel pattern by simply using the pronoun “it,” referring to the singular “water” in the first line. Stood up in a heap is literally “they stood just like a ned,” but the meaning of ned is not certain. So translations vary: “wall” (New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh, New International Version), “bank” (Revised English Bible), “dyke” (New Jerusalem Bible), “mound” (New American Bible), “stack” (Durham), and “hill” (Childs). Any of these are possible. Contemporary English Version combines the parallelism of the first two lines and translates “that the sea piled up like a wall.”

The deeps is the same word translated as “floods” in verse 5. (See the comment there.) Congealed means to thicken or become solid. New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh has “The deeps froze,” but this should not be understood literally; it is only a description of a supernatural event. Some languages may need to say “they became like frozen…,” changing the metaphor to simile. In the heart of the sea is literally what the Hebrew says, meaning “in the midst of the sea” (New American Bible). Good News Translation combines the terms in this line: “the deepest part of the sea became solid.” This does not refer to the sea bed but to the “deepest part” of the water. In using a simile, however, the translator needs to use a comparison that is natural in the receptor language.

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 .