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Ancient Hebrew Proverbs in 21st Century America

Trevor Peterson

2001?

If scholarly consensus is correct, proverbs represent wisdom of the mas- ses. Whether that is understood as wisdom produced by the average person or as wisdom disseminated for the average person, their popular appeal should be the same. The fundamental paradox of the proverb is that it is not merely popular wisdom, but its very bite-sized packaging, the devices that make it so memorable and give it such a ring of truth, also represent the best of language as art. To put the point bluntly, a proverb is not a grain contract. To produce a translation of a proverb or of a collection of proverbs is not the same task as culling economic documents for insight into the social structure of a long-dead people. This may seem like a self-evident observation, but perhaps it is for that very self-evidence that it ought to be made explicit. Sometimes it is the self-evident that proves most elusive to scholars. And I do mean to address scholars. It is, after all, scholars who pro- duce the translations on which today’s masses—by that I mean, those who lack the philological training to read these ancient proverbs for them- selves—must depend. 1 The Bible is still one of the best-selling books in the world these days, which means a lot of people are paying a lot of money, presumably to compensate the efforts of scholars who are still laboring af- ter five hundred years to give them the best modern translations possible. How, then, are we doing? What is the latest pinnacle to which we have at- tained? Perhaps it is unfair to perform such an investigation on Proverbs, of all books. But it seems that, if this material is arguably written more than any other for the consumer, it is worth looking at more closely. Also,

1 This is, at least, the way things normally work in English translation. Translators work- ing on Bible versions in previously unreached cultures are generally less expert in the bib- lical languages but more conscious of the end-user side of the process, often working in teams of linguists, Bible teachers, and native speakers of the target language.

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if Proverbs is indeed one of the more difficult books to translate, then per- haps it will give us the best sense of what we are currently prepared to do.

In what follows, four sources will be considered—two relatively recent translations and two recent commentaries. The oldest is nrsv (1989), fol- lowed by nasb (1995), then the two commentaries by Van Leeuwen (1997) and Murphy (1998). 2 While there is a lot that could be said about these resources, the focus here will be on how well they seem to provide English readers with material that is otherwise beyond their reach. The material to be considered is Prov 12, from the middle and largest division of the book.

1 Structure

This central material of Proverbs yields no obvious structure. It contains few internal headings, and the flow of the text provides no consistent point- ers to a formal pattern. The sources considered here respond by dividing the section according to already existing chapters in the standard editions of the Hebrew or English Bible. nasb, for instance, abandons its use of lesser divisions marked by blank space in the text and applies headings only at the chapter divisions in chaps. 10–21. nrsv identifies sections by blank space only, unless there appears to be a heading in the text. Chaps. 10–15 and 16:1–22:16 constitute the two longest unbroken sections in the book, and even their division from one another is not obvious. Murphy,

2 These are not the only resources that could be considered, nor in hindsight are they necessarily the best, particularly in the case of the Bible versions. nasb represents what is normally categorized as formal equivalence translation style. Formal equivalence tends to retain the form of the source text—word order, syntax, and a more rigid correspondence be- tween lexical elements. This is not to say that a version like nasb never adjusts any of these factors to produce more natural English wording, but such adjustments tend to be minimal and unsystematic. nrsv is variously classified but seems to fit best in the category of dy- namic equivalence. (These terms seem to have been developed by E. Nida, who apparently changed his own usage, to refer to “functional equivalence.” “Dynamic equivalence” still seems to be the more popular term, perhaps for no other reason than that it can be easily abbreviated—DE—distinctly from formal equivalence—FE.) Dynamic equivalence tends to be more intentional about replacing idiom with idiom but still remains rather close to the mechanisms of formal equivalence. The third category, which is missing from this analysis and could arguably be called the “state of the art” in Bible translation, is meaning-based (MB)—the attempt to render the meaning of a text written in one language according to the way a native speaker of another language would be inclined to communicate the same thing. I still think there is value in comparing the first two categories, but there are MB translations currently in production that are making attempts to render poetry as poetry. I can’t speak for their success, but I think the attempt is a step in the right direction.

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who states that his “commentary is based on the recognition that the book is a collection of collections …prefaced by an introduction (chaps. 1–9),” attaches headings to a few major sections, but most of his divisions are iden- tified by blank space only. 3 The major section “The Proverbs of Solomon” extends from 10:1 to 22:16. Within that section, only chapter breaks are indicated. 4 Van Leeuwen places chap. 12 within “The First Solomonic Collection of Sayings” (10:1–22:16), specifically in “The Antithetical Col- lection” (10:1–15:33). 5 Headings of chap. 12 itself are accordingly vague. nasb calls it “Con- trast the Upright and the Wicked,” while Van Leeuwen simply prints the first line of the chapter, and Murphy gives no heading at all. The particu- lar edition of nrsv that I used, the New Oxford Annotated Bible, heads the pages with generally descriptive titles, which can be a bit difficult to as- sign with any specificity. Vv. 1–20 appear under the heading “The dangers of wickedness,” while vv. 21–28 appear under “The rewards of wisdom.” Perhaps both can be applied to the whole of chap. 12, at least in some respects. These headings are extrinsic to nrsv itself, however, which pro- vides no sections and consequently no headings. None of this is meant to indicate that there is no cohesion within chap. 12 or in Proverbs in general, or that structural arrangements are utterly im- possible. In his discussion of form and structure, Murphy points to “a care- ful assembling of the proverbs,” specifically in 12:14–13:2, as evidenced by “close similarity between the beginning and end, 12:14a and 13:2a …[and] chiasms and parallel repetitions within this section.” He also stresses the prevailing antithetic parallelism and catch words, as well as the concen- tration on speech in vv. 6, 13–23 and the “compatible identification of wisdom and justice.” 6 Unfortunately, many of the textual indicators that might point the reader to cohesive elements in the book are obscured in translation, sometimes inevitably, but sometimes because translators don’t seem to approach the bulk of Proverbs with any particular sense of unity or cohesion beyond the level of the individual verse.

3 Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs (vol. 22 of WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), xix. 4 Murphy, Proverbs, xlvi–xlvii. 5 Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “The Book of Proverbs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (12 vols.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 5:30. 6 Murphy, Proverbs, 88–89, 94.

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2 Sources

In turning to the work of translators and commentators, it is helpful to have a sense of what they saw themselves doing. This is not to say that their work should not be evaluated on external criteria—presumably it is written, or at least published, for the sake of the readers; and as such, they are accountable to the readers’ demands. But no one work can accomplish everything, so perhaps readers owe to translators and commentators the simple courtesy of trying to discern what they have intended to accomplish. According to its “Foreword,” the aims of the nasb are to “be true to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek …[to] be grammatically correct …[and to] be understandable.” The translators sought to “preserve …last- ing values of the ASV by incorporating recent discoveries of Hebrew and Greek textual sources and by rendering it into more current time-honored English.” Specifically, they preferred “word-for-word literalness” unless it seemed “unacceptable to the modern reader.” In such cases, they used “more current English idiom” and included more literal renderings in the notes. 7 No justification of this strategy is provided, but it should not be considered self-evident that being “true to the original,” being “grammat- ically correct,” or “being understandable” is best accomplished through “word-for-word literalness.” According to their statements “To the Reader,” the translators of the nrsv took their place in the long line (and increasingly great crowd) of Bible translators, editors, and revisers, to account for various textual dis- coveries and philological studies, while following the maxim, “As literal as possible, as free as necessary.” They describe the product as “essentially a literal translation,” with the major exception of “paraphrastic renderings …chiefly to compensate for a deficiency in the English language—the lack of a common gender third person singular pronoun.” What this means is that “masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture.” The translators therefore engaged in “simple rephrasing or …introducing plural forms when this [did] not distort the meaning of the passage.” What does and does not distort the meaning of a passage is hardly a matter of well-established policy; but there it is, for the readers to deal with as they may. 8 The work of a commentator is much less restricted that that of a transla-

7 New American Standard Bible (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, 1995), v. 8 The New Oxford Annotated Bible (ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy; nrsv; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), x-xii.

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tor, since the commentary itself may explain much of what the translation can leave unclear. The NIB does not even include Van Leeuwen’s own translation, providing instead the niv and nrsv in parallel columns. In his introduction, Murphy stresses “the juxtaposition of nouns and predicates, or nominal sentences.” He objects to inserting the copula or the adverb “like” and asserts that “a literal translation is the best translation” in such instances. Similarly, Murphy anticipates occurrences of “what grammar- ians have called the waw adaequationis, or the ‘and of equivalence,”’ and suggests that such uses of the conjunction are “best left untranslated,” by using instead “a dash or comma.” 9 In an excursus on translating Proverbs, Murphy amplifies his concerns regarding more idiomatic translation, in which “the rhythm and the deliberate density of the Hebrew is flattened out for the sake of clarity. …Moreover, the relationship of the subject and predicate, which may have been ambiguous in the original, is now deter- mined.” 10 He goes on to justify his general strategy of literal translation from two angles. First, “the different idiom becomes a challenge to the reader—and this purpose is inherent to a proverbial saying.” 11 Second, “a more literal rendering does justice to the ambiguity of a saying.” 12 He does stress, however, that it is “the format of a detailed commentary” that “provides an opportunity to depart from the traditional style.” 13 Naturally, in both commentaries under consideration, it is the author’s fuller discus- sion, not the accompanying translation, that must bear the final weight of analysis.

3 Problems

The task of translating a literary piece is a good deal more complex than might first appear. Particularly with a work like Proverbs, there are com- plexities related to its status as poetry, as wisdom literature, as a collec- tion of relatively self-contained sayings, and as an ancient Hebrew product. Hopefully a translation or commentary will convey all such aspects to the

9 Murphy, Proverbs, xxiii-xxiv. 10 Murphy, Proverbs, 251. 11 Without questioning whether proverbs are meant to challenge readers or not, I do have to wonder whether they were ever intended to do so by sounding linguistically foreign. This is not to deny a translator or commentator the right to confront readers with the cultural distance between them and the text; but it does not seem to be in any sense a strategy driven by some internal purpose of the proverb. 12 See especially the discussion below of subject/predicate ambiguity. 13 Murphy, Proverbs, 252.

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reader, but with any restricted work, especially with a translation, there will inevitably be trade-offs. This realization should not lead to complete

despair, for language is a versatile thing, and it can be used to accomplish

a great deal. Nevertheless, language is inextricably linked to culture and

should not be expected to operate independently of it. The more sophisti- cated the use of language becomes, the more apparent this challenge seems. In what follows, some of the problem areas that can be observed in the treatment of Prov 12 will be addressed in a general arrangement of lin- guistic phenomena. These features that are sometimes obscured in trans- lation include: phonological similarity, morphological derivation, word class, homophony, lexical ambiguity, poetic terminology, topoi, syntactic ambiguity, unusual word order, syntactic parallelism, noteworthy gram- matical distinctions, and intertextual connections. The major deficiency of this arrangement is that many of the issues under consideration are sig- nificant in ways that transcend their linguistic levels. Nevertheless, the pre-existing linguistic categories afford a useful beginning point in trying to lay out the relevant issues systematically. We begin from the bottom, with the individual phoneme.

3.1 Phonological

English readers have generally come to expect that biblical poetry will not

sound quite like the English poetry we know. Particularly absent is the com- mon structure of rhyme and meter upon which so much of our own poetry

is based. 14 Granted, Hebrew poetry does not use rhyming as commonly as

English, but that does not mean it is quite so absent as the English reader might think from most translations. The nasb rendition of Prov 12:5, for example, reads, “The thoughts of the righteous are just, / But the counsels of the wicked are deceitful.” The MT, on the other hand, reads, םיקיִ דִּצַ תוֹבשְׁ חְ מַ המָ רְמִ םיﬠִ שָׁ רְ תוֹלבֻּחְ תַּ / טפָּ שְׁ מִ . It may appear from the English that there is no rhyming of any sort in this verse, but there is almost full, word-for-word rhyming in the Hebrew text. (Admittedly, it may not be a rhyme scheme that we expect in English poetry, but it’s probably worth noting nonethe- less.) Only mišpāt ̣ and mirmâ fall short, with assonance in both syllables. 15 Similarly, v. 6a and v. 7a in Hebrew read, םיﬠִ שָׁ רְ ךְוֹפהָ / םדּ-בָ רָאֱ םיﬠִ שָׁ רְ ירֵבְ דִּ םניָ אֵוְ. The rhyming is not as complete, but there does seem to be a sound

14 For the purposes of this discussion, rhyme is defined as precise matching of the stressed vowel and what follows it in a word. 15 Assonance indicates a matching of vowel sounds, without regard for the consonants.

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correspondence between the two instances of rĕšā‘îm and between ’ĕrob- dām in v. 6 and wĕ’ênām in v. 7. Likewise, v. 1 in Hebrew reads, רסוּמָ בהֹאֵ רﬠַבָּ תחַכוֹתַ אנוֹשֵׂ וְ / תﬠַדָּ בהֹאֵ . While there is no full rhyming in the vocalized pronunciation, there is assonance between ’ōhēb (twice) in line a and śōnē’ in line b and between dā‘at and bā‘ar. None of these examples is visible in the English translations or addressed in either commentary; but perhaps the very rarity of their occurrence in Hebrew ought to require special at- tention when they do appear. Instead, the English reader is left completely unaware of what may or may not be going on at the phonological level.

3.2 Lexical

The level of the lexeme—individual words—receives a good deal of treat- ment in secondary literature, and especially for a translation that tries to achieve “word-for-word literalness” or even “essential” literalness, can be one of the more fruitful areas of investigation. Unfortunately, in the end the translator must limit the English representation to one or two words, which cannot always do justice to what is really going on in Hebrew. This is especially the case when differing lexical fields force the translator to use different English terms to represent the same Hebrew word in differ- ent contexts, or vice versa. For the English reader who is trying to trace textual or intertextual cohesion, such a lack of verbal correspondence can complicate the task beyond reason. Granted, complications are inevitable in any such effort, but it may be that a lack of awareness on the part of the translator is at least partially to blame. This particular issue will be taken up later under the heading of intertextuality; but there are plenty of other concerns to be addressed at the lexical level.

3.2.1 Derivational Morphology

One relevant issue in the lexicon is that of derivational morphology. The complexity of Hebrew morphology creates two possible subcategories within this issue. Not only do words display derivational relationships to one another that can be used to show cohesion of thought in a passage, but their derivations occur in fairly regular patterns that also become potential cohesive devices in themselves. The first category often can be reproduced in English, at least where we have similar relationships to exploit; but the second is almost as difficult to preserve in English as the phonological con- siderations above. Both טפָּשְׁ מִ at the end of v. 5a and המָ רְמִ at the end of v. 5b, for instance, follow a miqtāl pattern. In this case, they end up showing

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assonance, as noted above, but the correspondence of derivational pattern is a deeper issue that sometimes manifests itself in such phonological sim- ilarity. In v. 9, דבֶﬠֶ and םחֶלָ both follow a segolate pattern. 16 Underlying both is an original qatl form, but their appearance here is quite different, both because of the phonological changes in the language that eliminated consonant clusters and because םחֶלָ is in pause. Other examples of words of related formation types include ר שָׁ ָי and ם כָ חָ in v. 15, תוֹר קְ דְ מַ and א פֵּ רְ מַ in v. 18, המָ רְמִ and החָ מְ שִׂ in v. 20, and םוּרﬠָ in v. 23a and םיצוּרִ חָ in v. 24a. None of these relationships are observable in the English translations, nor are they addressed in the commentaries. It is also possible to include in this category the problem of verbal stem treatment that appears in v. 14. בושי is written in the Hebrew text, but it is pointed to be read בי שִׁ ָי . The first appears to be a G verb, while the second is a C verb. nasb and Mur- phy translate it as a G, contrary to normal practice of following the MT; nrsv is so idiomatic as to avoid the problem altogether. 17 Both Murphy and Van Leeuwen make the subject divine if the C reading is accepted, but neither makes any suggestion as to which stem is more appropriate. 18 Van Leeuwen goes as far as to suggest that both should be taken together, to show the unity of divine intention and accidental occurrence. 19 The category of words that are derived from common roots fares some- what better. As noted above, it is possible to trace in English, particularly in a more literal rendering such as that found in nasb or in Murphy, the continuity of such forms as “righteous,” “right,” and “righteousness” (from the Hebrew root קדצ), but sometimes other concerns overrule derivational consistency and produce forms like “honest” (v. 17, nrsv). In all three translations, עיַ שִׁ רְ ַי in v. 2b and ע שַׁ רֶ in v. 3a are translated as “condemn” and “wickedness,” respectively, even though they both come from the root עשׁר and could be associated by using something like “treat wickedly” or “return wickedness” in v. 2b. (Murphy does identify the linkage in his commentary.) Likewise, all three render דבֶﬠֶ (“worker”) in v. 9 as “ser- vant” and דבֹעֵ (“work”) in v. 11 as “till,” thus hiding the common root דבע. All three fail to associate הלֶקְ נִ (“dishonored”) in v. 9, variously trans- lated as “lightly esteemed,” “lightly regarded,” and “despised,” with ןוֹלקָ in

16 It is worth noting that Murphy seems to have a mistake here, when he translates v. 9b as “than the one who puts on airs, but lacks sense”—perhaps an error of sight based on v. 11, which in his translation ends with the same words. Presumably he would have explained himself, if he intentionally emended םחֶלָ to get “sense.” 17 nrsv reads, “ …and manual labor has its reward.” 18 Murphy, Proverbs, 91. 19 Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” 126.

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v. 16, as “dishonor” and “insult.” nasb links vv. 15, 20 with “counsel” and “counselors,” but Murphy and nrsv render הצָﬠֵ as “advice” and יצֵﬠֹיֲ as “counsel.” nrsv also renders the N verbal form ע דַוָּ ִי in v. 16 as “show,” which obscures its connection to the other words from the same root as- sociated with knowledge throughout the passage. Again, it is impossible to follow every derivational connection in Hebrew with corresponding En- glish connections; but this is one more way in which the cohesion of a passage can be obscured.

3.2.2 Word Class

Beyond derivational morphology, another lexical issue in translation is that of word class. There are not many examples in Prov 12, but at least two seem significant. In v. 5a, טפָּשְׁ מִ is rendered as an adjective in all three translations, even though it is clearly a noun in Hebrew. Likewise, nasb and nrsv render the parallel noun המָ רְמִ in v. 5b as an adjective. Perhaps this is not terribly crucial to a correct understanding of the verse, but calling someone’s thoughts “justice,” rather than calling them “just,” seems to be something different. The adjectival translation also disambiguates the rela- tionship between subject and predicate in the two verbless clauses, which in Hebrew is somewhat less clear. Van Leeuwen notes the noun form in the first instance, but not in the second, and his comments do little to explain its significance. 20 Indeed, both commentaries may complicate as much as they clarify, since they give the impression that one of the two parallel terms is a noun and the other an adjective—perhaps a worse situation than the consistently adjectival renderings of the versions. A slightly different issue arises in v. 9, where the noun דבֶﬠֶ is sometimes repointed to agree with the participle in the Greek version. Murphy does address the issue in his commentary, but all three translations render the verse as it stands, leaving no indication for the reader that another sense might be achieved with very slight adjustments. 21

3.2.3 Homophony

Closely related to the issue of word class is that of homophony. Similarly, this phenomenon tends to introduce ambiguity into the Hebrew text that cannot help but be removed by most English translations. The similar- ity extends further in that homophony can occur between different word

20 Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” 125. 21 Murphy, Proverbs, 88.

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classes. The clearest example in Prov 12 is in v. 1, where רﬠַבָּ can be the adjective “stupid” in pausal form or the perfect form of the stative verb “to be stupid.” The English translation is virtually incapable of showing a difference, yet a verbal reading would disambiguate the relationship of the subject and predicate. 22 Perhaps a more interesting example is in v. 27b, where ץוּרחָ can be an adjective or noun having to do with sharpness or diligence or a noun meaning “gold.” This ambiguity combines with the awkward word order of the line, as discussed below.

3.2.4 Lexical Ambiguity

Another important lexical issue is that of overlapping lexical fields. As is understood by anyone who has spent much time trying to translate from one language into another, it is rarely the case that words have a one-to-one correspondence across linguistic boundaries. The translator must therefore choose one of various glosses, which can obscure inherent ambiguities. In Prov 12:2, for instance, the C verb עיַ שִׁ רְ ַי can mean “to condemn,” as all three translations and both commentaries take it, with the subject carried over from the first line. It can also mean “to act wickedly,” however, and would fit with תוֹמּזִמְ שׁיאִ in this line as the subject. In vv. 16, 23, Murphy translates םוּרﬠָ both times with “clever,” nasb translates it both times with “prudent,” and nrsv translates it first as “prudent,” then as “clever.” The Hebrew word allows for both glosses and more, ranging from “prudent” on the morally positive end to “crafty” on the morally negative end. Both verses stress the notion of concealing one’s thoughts, which can be a clever strategy without being ethical. To gloss it as “prudent,” however, assumes that the intent here is morally positive, which may or may not be the case. The nrsv rendering complicates matters still further, since it appears to the reader that two different words are used. On the other hand, Murphy understands the reflexive meaning of the Dt participle דבֵּכַּתְ מִ in v. 9 as “one who puts on airs,” while nrsv renders it, “self-important.” Both glosses are overtly negative, while the Hebrew term does not seem to be. Perhaps better is the nasb rendering, “he who honors himself,” which can be negative in the right English context but does not have to be. Especially since both place the text of the first line under question, it seems that the commentaries should have noted this ambiguity. 23

22 As the Masoretes have accented this word, it should, in fact, be taken unambiguously as a noun. 23 Murphy, Proverbs, 88; Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” 125–26.

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Other examples relating to this issue of lexical field include רסוּמָ in v. 1, which Murphy renders as “instruction,” nrsv as “discipline,” and nasb splits the difference by placing one in the text and the other in a footnote. Murphy lightly mentions the implication of discipline as a part of instruc- tion, but Van Leeuwen dwells on the notion of discipline as such without mentioning the alternative. 24 In v. 12, Murphy translates םיﬠִ רָ דוֹצמְ as “the snare of the evil,” while nasb reads, “the booty of evil men” but adds in a footnote that it literally says “net.” nrsv is somewhat more idiomatic at this point, reading “the proceeds of wickedness” in the text but adding “the catch of the wicked” in a footnote. Both Murphy and Van Leeuwen con- tend that the text is too awkward for a clear solution (Van Leeuwen calls the nrsv reading an “educated guess”), 25 but Murphy’s own translation is an attempt to read the text as it stands. 26 Still, it seems that if the net itself or what is in the net are two legitimate readings, the reader might want to know that; only the nasb reading and note give that information. The last example is not so much an issue of lexical overlap between individual words, but of the lexical value of a predicate complex. In v. 10, וֹתּמְ הֶבְּ שׁפֶנ…ֶ עַדוֹיֵ is rendered variously as “has regard for the life of his animal,” “know the temperament of their livestock,” and “know the needs of their animals.” Probably all three translations are sufficiently vague, but the question may be raised as to what yāda‘ nepeš means, particularly in reference to livestock. Both terms can be used in a lot of different ways, and how they might qualify one another is not readily obvious. Van Leeuwen explains the clause in plausible terms, but there is little real evidence to evaluate whether his understanding is right or wrong. 27

3.2.5 Poetic Terminology

One thing that quickly becomes evident in working through a passage such as this is that there are words used in the Hebrew Bible only or predomi- nantly in wisdom or poetic contexts. Examples in Prov 12 include קיפִ הֵ (v. 2), לבַּ (v. 3), טוֹמנָ (v. 3), בקָרָ (v. 4), הבָשָׁ חֲמַ (v. 5), תוֹלבֻּחְ תַּ (v. 5), זוּב (v. 8), ירִזָכְ אַ (v. 10), דוֹצמָ (v. 12), ליסִ כְּ (v. 23), ןוֹה (v. 27), and הביָ תִ נְ (v. 28). The chief difficulty is finding a way to express this in translation. Should trans- lators put the work into finding words that are similarly rare or specialized in English usage? Will the readers be that much better off for having to

24 Murphy, Proverbs, 89; Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” 124. 25 Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” 126. 26 Murphy, Proverbs, 90. 27 Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” 126.

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use a dictionary as they read their Bibles? It is a hard call to make, and for many translation committees, such an approach would probably be deemed in violation of their standards of readability. But if the point is to convey as accurately as possible what is really going on in the Hebrew text, is this complexity not an aspect of poetry that should be brought out? The editors of the nrsv point to a distinction in the English style used to render the Old Testament and the New Testament, based on what they believe to be a distinction between more “classical” literature and more “colloquial.” 28 What about other literary distinctions? There is no apparent distinction in the stylistic rendering of these poetic terms between the three translations; if anything, the nrsv renderings are arguably less sophisticated. Nor are there obvious signs in what they share that words were translated with a view toward explicitly poetic language. The commentaries, likewise, are silent on all of the examples cited here.

3.2.6 Topoi

Finally, although it is not a precisely lexical issue, there is the matter of topoi, or commonplace themes that can trigger associations in the mind of the reader. Often this triggering can be accomplished through individual terms, which makes it a lexical issue; but the relevant concepts usually are not restricted to particular key words that must appear. Consequently, they often come through in translation, as the themes of sight and sound in Prov 12:15, wounding and healing in v. 18, lasting and transient in v. 19, ruling and serving in v. 24, and life and death in v. 28. Sometimes, though, the connections are more subtle, and a careless translation can miss them. In vv. 11, 12, for instance, all three translations show the theme of farming in v. 11, but only Murphy makes clear the theme of hunting or trapping in v. 12. Granted, the text is difficult, as noted above, but the way it stands, there does seem to be agreement that v. 12 includes a net or snare. Because both nrsv and nasb focus on what is brought in by the net and use imprecise terminology to do so, the point can be missed. 29

28 Oxford, xii-xiii. 29 Interestingly, the other place in this chapter where hunting seems to turn up is also problematic textually. ךְֹר חֲ ַי appears only in v. 27a, but all three translations follow the traditional rendering of “roast.”

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3.3 Syntactical

On the level of the individual clause, there are a number of grammatical features that are significant and can be missed in translation.

3.3.1 Syntactic Ambiguity

First, there are individual words whose function in the clause is potentially confusing. nasb renders Prov 12:6a as “The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood.” In light of the verbal character of v. 6b, it would be

perfectly natural to think that both clauses are verbal; but v. 6a is actually verbless, as is more evident in the other translations, which call the words

of

the wicked “a deadly ambush.” The difference is their treatment of the

G

infinitive construct ברָאֱ, which has verbal qualities but can confuse the

reader if it is treated exactly like a finite verb. A similar situation that can confuse the English reader regarding clause types is seen in the nrsv rendering of v. 18a: “Rash words are like sword thrusts.” The Hebrew

clause actually starts with the particle שׁ ֵי , which is a different clause type than the ordinary verbless construction. Murphy notes that this type is “frequent in Proverbs for the purpose of stating a fact.” If that is so, then

it should probably be made evident if at all possible in translation, as the

other two begin, “There is one ….” One more issue to address here is the

temporal clause in v. 19b, הﬠיָ גִּ רְא-דַ ﬠַ, which all three translations render something like “only a moment.” The precative verb form seems so out of place here that it is probably a frozen use that may not merit specific representation in translation. A bit higher up structurally are relationships within genitive construc- tions. In v. 13a, both versions render ערָ שׁקוֹמֵ as if the evil one is the victim of the snare. 30 Murphy leaves it ambiguous in his translation, but he assumes that the evil one sets the trap, even if he himself is caught in it. 31 Van Leeuwen, on the other hand, also gives a literal translation but sides with the versions in favor of an evil victim. 32 תחַכוֹתַ אנוֹשֵׂ in v. 1b

is rendered in nrsv as “those who hate to be rebuked.” While this is a

possible reading, it could also mean “those who hate to rebuke” (or both). Both Murphy and nasb leave the meaning ambiguous, as it probably should

30 nrsv reads: “The evil are ensnared by the transgression of their lips.” nasb reads: “An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips.” 31 Murphy, Proverbs, 90. His translation reads: “In the transgression of the lips, an evil trap.” 32 Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” 126. His translation reads: “In the transgression of the lips is an evil trap.”

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be, 33 although Murphy does seem to come down on the objective side in his commentary, as does Van Leeuwen. 34 There is a similar ambiguity in v. 5b (םיﬠִ שָׁ רְ תוֹלבֻּחְ תַּ ), which all three translations preserve (unintentionally, it would seem). 35 On the level of the whole clause, there does seem to be a common trait of Hebrew proverbs that the relationship between subject and predicate is frequently ambiguous. Because English lacks a proper verbless clause, this is a difficult phenomenon to reproduce in translation, except perhaps by Murphy’s strategy of leaving the translation basically word-for-word. Both lines of v. 1 are ambiguous, since “stupid” can be an adjective. nrsv and nasb together render it as if the initial participles are the subjects of their respective lines, but they could just as easily be the predicates. The two versions, on the other hand, take the initial participle in v. 15b as the predicate. Murphy joins them, oddly, in disambiguating v. 23a to make the participle predicative and in making “folly” the object of the verb in v. 23b, rather than the subject. Granted, in most such instances it can be determined with reasonable certainty which component is more assumed, but unfortunately that thought process escapes the English reader.

3.3.2 Unusual Word Order

Some final problems with word order need to be observed. Although He- brew can be more flexible than English in this respect, there are basic limits to how words can be positioned, even in poetry it would seem. In v. 27b, all three translations make roughly the same sense out of the individual words, but they don’t seem to fit together in any obvious way. Murphy suggests that the verse needs to be emended and settles on transposing the last two words to yield, “but the wealth of a diligent person is precious.” 36 nasb seems to stick with the order of the words as they stand but treats the final adjective ץוּרחָ as a noun: “but the precious possession of a man is diligence.” nrsv seems to read something similar to Murphy’s suggestion, with a note that the meaning is uncertain: “but the diligent obtain precious

33 Murphy’s translation reads: “But a hater of reproof, stupid!” nasb reads: “But he who hates reproof is stupid.” 34 Murphy, Proverbs, 89; Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” 124. 35 nrsv reads: “The advice of the wicked is treacherous.” nasb reads: “But the counsels of the wicked are deceitful.” Murphy’s translation reads: “The guidance of the wicked, deceit!” 36 Murphy, Proverbs, 88.

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wealth.” 37 Murphy also emends v. 28b, which seems awkward with two words for “path” or “way.” He reads הבָ ﬠוֹתֵּ for הביָ תִ נְ and לאֶ for לאַ as “the way of abomination, to death.” nrsv seems to read the two road-words together as “in walking its path there is no death,” and nasb perhaps omits one as “in its pathway there is no death.” It may be that the line is incom- prehensible without emendation, or another alternative not mentioned in any of the sources is simply to take הביָ תִ נְ as in construct: “That path is the road without death.” Then again, the awkward structure may be an intentional device of the poet, which the need to render more selectively in English will effectively obscure. Above the level of the clause, it gets a bit more difficult to set specific boundaries, especially in Proverbs. The chapter divisions do not seem ter- ribly significant, but neither is the whole book one indistinguishable mass. The introductory material and the concluding chapters seem to be more structured, even if this middle section is not. It is difficult, therefore, to know where to draw the line between intertextual issues and lower-level relationships. This section will be restricted to phenomena that affect struc- ture and cohesion on a demonstrably low level that is hard to define more technically than “within a few verses.” Such issues as pronoun antecedence and parallel clause structure would tend to fall under this umbrella, since their associations can only be sustained so long before they drop out of the reader’s memory. Because of the self-contained nature of these proverbs, there is generally little need to look beyond the boundaries of a single verse in the search for pronominal antecedents. Nevertheless, there is still room for ambiguity in places, as in v. 2, where the subject of the verb in the second line is in question on more than one level. As discussed above, if the sense is “act wickedly,” the subject is probably the man mentioned in the same line. If, on the other hand, the sense is “condemn,” then this man becomes the object of the verb, and the subject must be carried over from the preceding line. It would make good sense grammatically for the subject to be the same in both lines, but it would also make sense semantically for the subject of the second line to be divine. Because both Murphy and nrsv inflect the verb in the first line as plural, the singular antecedent is disambiguated for the English reader. Likewise, Van Leeuwen explicitly states that God is the one who condemns, although it is unclear how he knows this. 38 Even

37 If this line is using the figure of hypallage (exchanging syntactic references of words), perhaps emendation can be avoided altogether. The double sense of “diligent”/“gold” for ץוּרחָ may combine with the awkward word order to produce a pun. 38 Van Leeuwen, “Proverbs,” 125.

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more problematic are the feminine object suffixes on the two verbs in v. 25, since the only feminine noun in the verse is the first subject. 39 Both versions make them refer to the “heart,” while Murphy takes them with reference to the person. He is probably right, that the sense of the verse is the same regardless, but it does leave ambiguous whether the heart or the person is in view. 40

3.3.3 Syntactic Parallelism

The issue of parallelism is an overworn one, but it seems possible at least to watch for specific parallel structures in the syntax and word order of the lines. They may not all be significant, but the English reader is at a disadvantage when they are lost in translation. In vv. 17b, 18b, for in- stance, the syntax is exactly parallel: a singular noun in construct with a plural substantive comes first as the subject of a verbless clause, while an abstract noun serves as the predicate. They are nearly opposite semanti- cally, as well. Both nasb and nrsv insert words that upset this parallel, while Murphy’s more literal rendering preserves it. In the Hebrew of v. 14, עבַּ שְׂ ִי שׁיא-יִ פִ י רִ פְּ מִ at the start of the first line and בי שִׁ ָי ם דָא-יָ דֵ ְי לוּמ גְ ) at the start of the second line, even though the syntactical roles are different, are quite similar structurally. They begin with a triple construct: first an abstract noun of production, then a body part used figuratively, then a noun indi- cating a person; this complex is followed in both lines by the verb. Both nasb and Murphy lose this parallel sequence, and what nrsv preserves, it obscures with an idiomatic rendering of the second line. The rendering of the participles by nasb and nrsv in v. 1 loses the parallel between the two lines: participle in construct with noun, participle in construct with noun; participle in construct with noun, adjective. Both versions treat the first participle as subject in both lines and the second participle in the first line as a verb. A related issue is chiasm, which reverses the parallel structure. There seem to be chiasms in vv. 4, 19, and 26, but they are almost always obscured by the versions and even by Murphy in v. 26, despite his desire to preserve the Hebrew structure. He notes only v. 19, while Van Leeuwen fails to mention them at all. 41

39 That subject, in turn, disagrees with the masculine gender of its verb! 40 Murphy, Proverbs, 88. 41 Murphy, Proverbs, 91.

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3.3.4 Noteworthy Grammatical Distinctions

Finally, there are issues that may be best classified as gratuitous obscurings of noteworthy distinctions. These are cases where for one reason or another

a potential point of contrast will go unnoticed by English readers because

of the way the translation diverges from the grammar of the Hebrew text. In v. 16a, for instance, nrsv uses an active translation for the N verb, which, while semantically correct, may obscure the distinction between the passive revelation of the fool’s anger and the active concealment on the part of the prudent, highlighted in Hebrew by the different stem forms used. All three translations fail to show in v. 21 that the righteous is singular, while the wicked are plural. In v. 23, the clever one’s action is expressed with a participle, while that of fools is expressed with a finite verb. None of the translations shows this. Finally, none of the three translations shows in v. 17 that the first line comprises two juxtaposed verbal clauses, while the second line is verbless. Perhaps it is insignificant—perhaps all of these observations are—but the English reader will never know, even if he checks Murphy’s or Van Leeuwen’s commentary.

3.4 Intertextual

The final level to be considered is the intertextual. Commentaries are ob- viously better on this count than mere translations (at least, as far as the translations are concerned, apart from whatever aids a particular edition may add); but it seems that translations can be more or less helpful, de- pending on how consistently they render key terms. As noted earlier, it is impossible to translate the same word the same way everywhere it ap- pears and end up with a workable translation. Still, especially in a book like Proverbs where the reader almost has no choice but to read intertex-

tually, since practically every verse could be considered a text unto itself,

it seems that more careful attention should be given to the preservation of

such cues. The following words are problematic within each of the three translations of Prov 12:

Verse

Hebrew

nasb

Murphy

nrsv

Compare

2

ןוֹצרָ

favor

favor

favor

22

2

שׁיאִ

 

-

-

8, 14, 25

3

ןוֹכנָ

 

find a solid support

find security

19

3

םדָאָ

 

one

one

14, 23, 27

5

המָרְמִ

   

treacherous

17, 20

8

שׁיאִ

 

person

one

2, 25

8

בלֵ

 

heart

mind

11, 25

17

Verse

Hebrew

nasb

Murphy

nrsv

Compare

9

רסֵחָ

   

lack

11

11

עבַּשָׂ

be satisfied

have enough

have plenty

14

11

רסֵחָ

   

have no

9

11

בלֵ

 

sense

sense

8, 20, 23, 25

12

ערָ

   

wickedness

13, 20, 21

13

ערָ

   

evil

12, 21

14

שׁיאִ

 

person

one

2, 25

14

עבַּשָׂ

have plenty

be filled

be filled

11

14

ד

ָי

   

manual

24

14

םדָאָ

 

his

-

3, 23, 27

15

ךְרֶדֶּ

   

way

28

16

הסַכָּ

   

ignore

23

16

םוּרﬠָ

   

prudent

23

17

הנוּמָ אֱ

truth

 

truth

22

17

קדֶצֶ

   

honest

28

17

רקֶשֶׁ

false

 

false

19, 22

17

המָרְמִ

   

deceitfully

5

19

ןוֹכנָ

 

endure

endure

3

19

רקֶשֶׁ

lying

 

lying

17

20

המָרְמִ

   

deceit

5

20

בלֵ

 

heart

mind

11, 25

20

ערָ

   

evil

12, 21

21

ערָ

   

trouble

12, 13, 20

22

רקֶשֶׁ

lying

 

lying

17

22

הנוּמָ אֱ

faithfully

 

faithfully

17

22

ןוֹצרָ

delight

pleasure

delight

2

23

םדָאָ

 

person

one

3, 14, 27

23

םוּרﬠָ

   

clever

16

23

הסַכָּ

   

conceal

16

23

בלֵ

 

heart

mind

11, 25

24

ד

ָי

   

hand

14

25

בלֵ

 

heart

heart

8, 11, 20, 23

25

שׁיאִ

 

person

human

2, 8, 14

26

ךְרֶדֶּ

   

way

28

27

םדָאָ

 

person

-

3, 14, 23

28

הקָדָצְ

   

righteousness

17

28

ךְרֶדֶּ

   

walking

15, 26

Both Murphy and Van Leeuwen are good about noting cross references to other passages within Proverbs, but it is worth noting that Murphy’s translations of key words do not match in the following: ל ִי חַ as “resourceful” (12:4) vs. “of valor” (31:10); ןיאֵ as “disappear” (12:7) vs. “no” (10:25); דבֹעֵ , עבַּ שְׂ ִי , and םי קיִ רֵ as “the tiller,” “have enough,” and “nothings” (v. 11) vs. “whoever works,” “get plenty of,” and “empty goals” (28:19).

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4 Conclusion

In the end, it seems that a lot more could be done to convey the language of proverbs to an English-speaking audience than is seen in current prod- ucts. This is not to argue for a more literal, in the sense of word-for-word, translation; on the contrary, it is to suggest that so much more is present in poetic wisdom material than the individual words, or even phrases or verses. Much of its linguistic quality as poetry is lost in translation, which in turn tends to diminish its rhetorical force as proverbial wisdom teaching. The answer is probably not a mechanical reconstruction of Hebrew poetry in English dress; rather, it seems that the linguistic power of Proverbs can only be restored for English readers with a thorough metamorphosis that produces real, poetic, English proverbs. One would think that after four centuries of English Bible translation something on this order ought to have been achieved. What I would propose, then, is that translations ought to translate, and commentaries ought to comment. A bit more specifically, transla- tions and commentaries intended primarily for the English reader should be developed with the only fundamental assumption appropriate to the en- deavor—that the intended readership does not understand one word of He- brew. When an English reader approaches a text like Proverbs, the goal is not to understand Hebrew poetry as such but to understand the text. Since an English reader cannot engage the Hebrew text, only what is available in the English translation is accessible for analysis. Translations should therefore be as poetic, dynamic, polyvalent, rhetorically forceful—as ca- pable of meaning—as the source text. Commentaries should augment this meaning potential by discussing features that cannot be rendered straight- forwardly in translation, especially where ambiguity of one sort or another forces translators to produce more specific renderings than what the source text seems to exhibit. In this way, commentaries can serve the needs of the English reader by explaining, for instance, why two translations appear to differ in meaning. I make no pretense that every feature addressed here is always rele- vant or that a perfect translation is possible, but I do think that some basic steps can be taken to improve translation efforts. Poetic material should be translated as poetry. What is structural to Hebrew poetry should be converted into structural features appropriate to English poetry, and what is ornamental to what is ornamental. (For instance, something should be done with rhyming that appears in Hebrew poetry, but since rhyming is of- ten structural to English poetry, it should probably be represented by some

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other feature.) Overtly poetic language (rare vocabulary, varied word or- der, etc.) should be reflected where appropriate. There is nothing wrong with good English poetry requiring a native English speaker to use a dic- tionary every now and then; the same ought to be true of translated po- etry. Polyvalence should be preserved as much as possible. This is not to say that the vague or ambiguous constructions of Hebrew need to be re- produced verbatim; but English can also be vague or ambiguous in its own ways—ways that should be employed by translators. Finally, consideration needs to be given to the rhetorical features of Proverbs. The translation of each verse should be tested for rhetorical force against that of the source text. Additionally, more attention should be given to the arrangement of the proverbial material in both translations and commentaries. Perhaps a comprehensive structure to the book will elude scholars for some time yet; but at least what can be observed should be presented to the English reader. My final recommendation is a cooperative effort between idiosyncrasy and plurality in both translation and commentary. Instead of hiding trans- lators behind an assumption of transparency and objectivity, treating them as mere conduits for an uninterpreted, uncolored message from source to reader, they should be recognized for the unique authors that they are (or should be). The work of the translator, especially with more artful liter- ature, is often as creative as that of the original writer. Far from mere copying of someone else’s message, the translator is required to encounter the text, internalize its meaning, and generate a new text out of that mean- ing. I don’t see how the translation can have anywhere near the power of the source text, as long as the translator shies away from this creative enterprise. A plurality of such unique productions would provide multiple readings for the English reader to consider—to compare and contrast—and similarly plural commentary would help to explain how these readings are generated. The end result would be a wealth of English reflection on the Hebrew text, which no English reader could easily exhaust in the search for meaning.

References

[1] Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds. The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon With an Ap- pendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson,

1979.

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[2] Joüon, Paul. A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Subsidia biblica 14. Trans- lated and revised by T. Muraoka. 2 vols. Rome: Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1996.

[3] Koehler, Ludwig et al., eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Study ed. 2 vols. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

[4] Murphy, Roland E. Proverbs. Vol. 22 of Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.

[5] New American Standard Bible. Anaheim: Foundation Publications,

1995.

[6] The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. nrsv. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[7] Van Leeuwen, Raymond C. “The Book of Proverbs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” Pages 17–264 in vol. 5 of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck et al. Nashville: Abing- don, 1997.

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