behemoth

Another often transliterated biblical term is bĕhēmôt (…). The Hebrew noun behemâ typically means “beast, animal, cattle”, while the -ôt feminine plural ending here seems to indicate something like a “plural of majesty,” since in the context of Job 40, this creature is obviously singular in number.

Countless tons of ink have been spilled in arguments over whether this creature is a hippopotamus, an elephant, a dinosaur, or a mythical amalgam of large, powerful land animals. The point that is of interest to us here is that in modern English, at least the U.S. variety which I speak, the commonly recognized meaning of the term behemoth has become the following: “any monstrous or grotesque creature or thing”, “something of oppressive or monstrous size or power.” This word is usually applied as a description of inanimate entities, such as “a behemoth car” or “the behemoth government agency,” but can occasionally also be used to refer to animate creatures. A quick search through a corpus of contemporary American English (…) shows that the term is often used with a negative connotation approximating “more trouble than it’s worth.” So when an English reader who has not had much contact with Christian teaching or the Bible reads this passage in Job for the first time, it is quite likely that associations of oppressiveness or inutility will color this reader’s initial mental image of the creature, even though the context of the verse does not contain any such connotations, but rather the opposite connotation of appreciative wonder.

The Russian Synodal translation (RST) has transliterated this word from the Hebrew as “бегемот” (begemot), apparently borrowing this rendering from the Russian scholar/poet M. Lomonosov in his poetic translation of the Job 40 passage (c. 1750 AD). What is of interest is that this very transliteration has become the main term meaning “hippopotamus” in modern Russian. There is another Russian term with an almost completely synonymous meaning, “gippopotam,” derived from ancient Greek, but in contemporary Russian usage this latter term is becoming more and more obsolete, or at least restricted to scientific contexts. An informal corpus study of the use of the word begemot in Russian texts indicates that prior to the publication of the RST, it was used to refer to monstrously large animals, but not specifically to the hippopotamus. Thus, it seems that what gave the meaning of “hippopotamus” to the transliterated word “begemot” was the tradition of scriptural interpretation in favor at the time of the translation of the RST. Even though the transliteration “begemot” was originally introduced into the Russian text of Job ostensibly because the translators were not quite sure what this creature was, the new word eventually came to refer unambiguously to the hippopotamus and nothing else.

What should the Tuvan translation team have done with this term? (Note: The goal of the Tuvan translators was to match the Tuvan transliterations with those of the Russian Synodal translation)? the RST, which all Tuvan believers currently read as their main Bible version, specifically states in Job 40:15 that this animal is a begemot, which in contemporary Russian is completely unambiguous as meaning “hippopotamus.” This is the meaning with which the Russian word has already been borrowed into the Tuvan language. Maintaining this transliteration would mean affirming this specific interpretation of the Hebrew term “bĕhēmôt.” Although the explicit “hippopotamus” interpretation is found in some other modern translations (e.g., the English CEV, The French La Bible en français courant or Louis Segond’s translation, or the Italian Conferenza Episcopala Italiana), the Tuvan translation team did not want to commit themselves wholeheartedly to this interpretation. So we decided to retransliterate the Hebrew word using a different medial consonant — “бехемот” (bekhemot), with a footnote explaining this decision as an attempt to remain open-minded concerning the exact nature of this beast. This new transliteration created a word that did not have any pre-existing semantic associations transferred from the Russian language. Only time will tell how exactly future generations of Tuvinian Bible readers will react to the new transliteration of this term, and whether or not they will imbue it with the same “hippopotamus” sense as in the RST or with something completely unforeseen by our translation team.

Source: Vitaly Voinov in The Bible Translator 2012, p. 17ff.