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.

untranslatable verses

The Swedish Bibel 2000 declared the 69 Old Testament verses referenced herein as “untranslatable.” Typically, other Bible translations translate those verses and mention in footnotes that the translation is uncertain or give alternate readings. Christer Åsberg, the Translation Secretary with the Swedish Bible Society at that time, explains why the Swedish Bible Society decided to not translate these verses at all (in The Bible Translator 2007, p. 1ff.):

“In the new Swedish translation (SB) of 2000, [some verses are] not translated at all; [they are] indicated with three hyphens inside square brackets [- - -] [with a] reference to the appendix, where in the article ‘Text’ one will find a paragraph with roughly the following content:

In some cases the text is unintelligible and the variant readings differing to such an extent, that it is quite impossible to attain a reasonable certainty of what is meant, although some isolated word may occur, whose meaning it is possible to understand.

“If Bible translators find the Hebrew text untranslatable, what kind of text is it that they have produced in the translation into their own language? When a footnote says ‘The Hebrew is not understandable,’ what then is the printed text a translation of? And if the translators prefer to do without footnotes, are they then really released from the responsibility of informing their readers that the text they read is just mere guesswork?

“To leave a blank space in a Bible text seems to be an offensive act for many. (. . . ) To admit that a piece of Holy Scripture makes no sense at all may have been unimaginable in times past. In our enlightened era, an overprotective concern for the readers’ trust in the word of God is apparently a decisive factor when a translator tries to translate against all odds. The verdict ‘untranslatable’ is much more frequent in scholarly commentaries on different Bible books written by and for experts than in the translations or footnotes of the same books designed for common readers.

“Another reason (. . .) is a professional, and very human, reluctance to admit a failure. Also, many Bible translators lack translational experience of other literary genres and other classical texts where this kind of capitulation is a part of the daily run of things. They may have an innate or subconscious feeling that the Bible has unique qualities not only as a religious document but also as a linguistic and literary artifact. Completeness is felt to be proof of perfection. Some translators, and not so few of their clients, are unfamiliar with a scholarly approach to philological and exegetical matters. In some cases their background have made them immune to a kind of interpretative approximation common in older translations, confessional commentaries, and sermons. Therefore, their tolerance towards lexical, grammatical, and syntactical anomalies tends to be comparatively great.

“It is very hard to discern and to define the boundary between something that is extremely difficult and something that is quite impossible. I am convinced that all Bible translators in their heart of hearts will admit that there actually are some definitely untranslatable passages in the Bible, but are there a dozen of them or a score? Are there fifty or a hundred? Not even a group of recognized experts would probably pick out the same ten most obvious cases. (. . .)

“Conclusions:

  1. There are untranslatable passages in the Bible.
  2. How many they are is impossible to say—except for the translation team that decides which passages are untranslatable.
  3. An untranslatable passage cannot and should therefore not be translated.
  4. The lacuna should be marked in a consistent way.
  5. The translating team should stipulate their criteria for untranslatability as early as possible.
  6. It is an ethical imperative that the readers be comprehensively informed.
  7. Untranslatability has been and can be displayed in many different ways.
  8. An explanatory note should not confuse linguistic untranslatability with other kinds of textual or translational difficulties.
  9. The information given should make it clear that the translators’ recognition of untranslatability is a token of respect for the Bible, not a proof of depreciation.
  10. You shall not fear the void, but the fear of the void.”

With thanks to Mikael Winninge, Director of Translation, Swedish Bible Society