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Ancient Hebrew Proverbs in 21st Century America

Trevor Peterson 2001?

If scholarly consensus is correct, proverbs represent wisdom of the masses. 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 produce the translations on which todays massesby that I mean, those who lack the philological training to read these ancient proverbs for themselvesmust 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 after 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 attained? 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,
This is, at least, the way things normally work in English translation. Translators working on Bible versions in previously unreached cultures are generally less expert in the biblical 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.

if Proverbs is indeed one of the more difficult books to translate, then perhaps it will give us the best sense of what we are currently prepared to do. In what follows, four sources will be consideredtwo relatively recent translations and two recent commentaries. The oldest is nrsv (1989), followed 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 pointers 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. 1021. nrsv identifies sections by blank space only, unless there appears to be a heading in the text. Chaps. 1015 and 16:122:16 constitute the two longest unbroken sections in the book, and even their division from one another is not obvious. Murphy,
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 textword order, syntax, and a more rigid correspondence between 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 dynamic 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 abbreviatedDEdistinctly from formal equivalenceFE.) 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 cant speak for their success, but I think the attempt is a step in the right direction.

who states that his commentary is based on the recognition that the book is a collection of collections prefaced by an introduction (chaps. 19), attaches headings to a few major sections, but most of his divisions are identified 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 (10:122:16), specifically in The Antithetical Collection (10:115:33).5 Headings of chap. 12 itself are accordingly vague. nasb calls it Contrast the Upright and the Wicked, while Van Leeuwen simply prints the first line of the chapter, and Murphy gives no heading at all. The particular 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 assign with any specificity. Vv. 120 appear under the heading The dangers of wickedness, while vv. 2128 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 provides 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 impossible. In his discussion of form and structure, Murphy points to a careful assembling of the proverbs, specifically in 12:1413:2, 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 concentration on speech in vv. 6, 1323 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 dont seem to approach the bulk of Proverbs with any particular sense of unity or cohesion beyond the level of the individual verse.
Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs (vol. 22 of WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), xix. Murphy, Proverbs, xlvixlvii. 5 Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, The Book of Proverbs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, in The New Interpreters Bible (12 vols.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 5:30. 6 Murphy, Proverbs, 8889, 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 criteriapresumably 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 lasting 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 grammatically 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 discoveries 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 languagethe 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 translaNew American Standard Bible (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, 1995), v. 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 Leeuwens 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 grammarians 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 determined.10 He goes on to justify his general strategy of literal translation from two angles. First, the different idiom becomes a challenge to the readerand 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 authors fuller discussion, 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 complexities related to its status as poetry, as wisdom literature, as a collection of relatively self-contained sayings, and as an ancient Hebrew product. Hopefully a translation or commentary will convey all such aspects to the
Murphy, Proverbs, xxiii-xxiv. 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 sophisticated 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 linguistic phenomena. These features that are sometimes obscured in translation include: phonological similarity, morphological derivation, word class, homophony, lexical ambiguity, poetic terminology, topoi, syntactic ambiguity, unusual word order, syntactic parallelism, noteworthy grammatical distinctions, and intertextual connections. The major deficiency of this arrangement is that many of the issues under consideration are significant 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 common 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, . / 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 its probably worth noting nonetheless.) Only mipt and mirm fall short, with assonance in both syllables.15 Similarly, v. 6a and v. 7a in Hebrew read, - / . The rhyming is not as complete, but there does seem to be a sound
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.

correspondence between the two instances of rm and between robdm in v. 6 and wnm in v. 7. Likewise, v. 1 in Hebrew reads, . / While there is no full rhyming in the vocalized pronunciation, there is assonance between hb (twice) in line a and n in line b and between dat and bar. 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 attention 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 lexemeindividual wordsreceives a good deal of treatment 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 different 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 considerations above. Both at the end of v. 5a and at the end of v. 5b, for instance, follow a miqtl pattern. In this case, they end up showing 7

assonance, as noted above, but the correspondence of derivational pattern is a deeper issue that sometimes manifests itself in such phonological similarity. In v. 9, and 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 is in pause. Other examples of words of related formation types include and in v. 15, and in v. 18, and in v. 20, and in v. 23a and 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. is written in the Hebrew text, but it is pointed to be read . The first appears to be a G verb, while the second is a C verb. nasb and Murphy 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 somewhat 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 ,)but sometimes other concerns overrule derivational consistency and produce forms like honest (v. 17, nrsv). In all three translations, in v. 2b and in v. 3a are translated as condemn and wickedness, respectively, even though they both come from the root 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 ( worker) in v. 9 as ser vant and ( work) in v. 11 as till, thus hiding the common root .All three fail to associate ( dishonored) in v. 9, variously trans lated as lightly esteemed, lightly regarded, and despised, with in
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 senseperhaps 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 to get sense. 17 nrsv reads, and manual labor has its reward. 18 Murphy, Proverbs, 91. 19 Van Leeuwen, Proverbs, 126.

v. 16, as dishonor and insult. nasb links vv. 15, 20 with counsel and counselors, but Murphy and nrsv render as advice and as counsel. nrsv also renders the N verbal form in v. 16 as show, which obscures its connection to the other words from the same root associated with knowledge throughout the passage. Again, it is impossible to follow every derivational connection in Hebrew with corresponding English 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, 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 in v. 5b as an adjective. Perhaps this is not terribly crucial to a correct understanding of the verse, but calling someones thoughts justice, rather than calling them just, seems to be something different. The adjectival translation also disambiguates the relationship 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 adjectiveperhaps a worse situation than the consistently adjectival renderings of the versions. A slightly different issue arises in v. 9, where the noun 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 similarity extends further in that homophony can occur between different word
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Van Leeuwen, Proverbs, 125. Murphy, Proverbs, 88.

classes. The clearest example in Prov 12 is in v. 1, where 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 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 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 in this line as the subject. In vv. 16, 23, Murphy translates 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 ones 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 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
As the Masoretes have accented this word, it should, in fact, be taken unambiguously as a noun. 23 Murphy, Proverbs, 88; Van Leeuwen, Proverbs, 12526.


Other examples relating to this issue of lexical field include 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 instruction, but Van Leeuwen dwells on the notion of discipline as such without mentioning the alternative.24 In v. 12, Murphy translates 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 contend that the text is too awkward for a clear solution (Van Leeuwen calls the nrsv reading an educated guess),25 but Murphys 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, 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 yda nepe 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 predominantly in wisdom or poetic contexts. Examples in Prov 12 include ( v. 2), ( v. 3), ( v. 3), ( v. 4), ( v. 5), ( v. 5), ( v. 8), ( v. 10), ( v. 12), ( v. 23), ( v. 27), and ( v. 28). The chief difficulty is finding a way to express this in translation. Should translators 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
Murphy, Proverbs, 89; Van Leeuwen, Proverbs, 124. 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
Oxford, xii-xiii. Interestingly, the other place in this chapter where hunting seems to turn up is also problematic textually. 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 , 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 , 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, ,- 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 constructions. In v. 13a, both versions render as if the evil one is the 30 Murphy leaves it ambiguous in his translation, but victim of the snare. 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 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
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.


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 ( ,) which all three translations preserve (unintentionally, it 35 would seem). 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 Murphys 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 Hebrew 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 dont 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 as a noun: but the precious possession of a man is diligence. nrsv seems to read something similar to Murphys suggestion, with a note that the meaning is uncertain: but the diligent obtain precious
Murphys 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. Murphys translation reads: The guidance of the wicked, deceit! 36 Murphy, Proverbs, 88.


wealth.37 Murphy also emends v. 28b, which seems awkward with two words for path or way. He reads for and for 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 incomprehensible without emendation, or another alternative not mentioned in any of the sources is simply to take 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 terribly 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 structure 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 readers 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
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 may combine with the awkward word order to produce a pun. 38 Van Leeuwen, Proverbs, 125.


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 instance, 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 semantically, as well. Both nasb and nrsv insert words that upset this parallel, while Murphys more literal rendering preserves it. In the Hebrew of v. 14, - at the start of the first line and ) - 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 indicating 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
That subject, in turn, disagrees with the masculine gender of its verb! Murphy, Proverbs, 88. 41 Murphy, Proverbs, 91.
40 39


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 fools 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 ones 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 insignificantperhaps all of these observations arebut the English reader will never know, even if he checks Murphys or Van Leeuwens commentary.

3.4 Intertextual
The final level to be considered is the intertextual. Commentaries are obviously 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, depending on how consistently they render key terms. As noted earlier, it is impossible to translate the same word the same way everywhere it appears and end up with a workable translation. Still, especially in a book like Proverbs where the reader almost has no choice but to read intertextually, 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 2 2 3 3 5 8 8 Hebrew nasb favor Murphy favor find a solid support one person heart nrsv favor find security one treacherous one mind Compare 22 8, 14, 25 19 14, 23, 27 17, 20 2, 25 11, 25


Verse 9 11 11 11 12 13 14 14 14 14 15 16 16 17 17 17 17 19 19 20 20 20 21 22 22 22 23 23 23 23 24 25 25 26 27 28 28


nasb be satisfied

Murphy have enough sense person be filled his

have plenty

truth false lying endure heart lying faithfully delight

pleasure person heart heart person person

nrsv lack have plenty have no sense wickedness evil one be filled manual way ignore prudent truth honest false deceitfully endure lying deceit mind evil trouble lying faithfully delight one clever conceal mind hand heart human way righteousness walking

Compare 11 14 9 8, 20, 23, 25 13, 20, 21 12, 21 2, 25 11 24 3, 23, 27 28 23 23 22 28 19, 22 5 3 17 5 11, 25 12, 21 12, 13, 20 17 17 2 3, 14, 27 16 16 11, 25 14 8, 11, 20, 23 2, 8, 14 28 3, 14, 23 17 15, 26

Both Murphy and Van Leeuwen are good about noting cross references to other passages within Proverbs, but it is worth noting that Murphys translations of key words do not match in the following: as resourceful (12:4) vs. of valor (31:10); as disappear (12:7) vs. no (10:25); , , and as the tiller, have enough, and nothings (v. 11) vs. whoever works, get plenty of, and empty goals (28:19). 18

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 products. 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, translations and commentaries intended primarily for the English reader should be developed with the only fundamental assumption appropriate to the endeavorthat the intended readership does not understand one word of Hebrew. 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 forcefulas capable of meaningas the source text. Commentaries should augment this meaning potential by discussing features that cannot be rendered straightforwardly 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 relevant 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 often structural to English poetry, it should probably be represented by some 19

other feature.) Overtly poetic language (rare vocabulary, varied word order, etc.) should be reflected where appropriate. There is nothing wrong with good English poetry requiring a native English speaker to use a dictionary every now and then; the same ought to be true of translated poetry. Polyvalence should be preserved as much as possible. This is not to say that the vague or ambiguous constructions of Hebrew need to be reproduced verbatim; but English can also be vague or ambiguous in its own waysways 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 translators 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 literature, is often as creative as that of the original writer. Far from mere copying of someone elses message, the translator is required to encounter the text, internalize its meaning, and generate a new text out of that meaning. I dont 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 considerto compare and contrastand 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.

[1] Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds. The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1979.


[2] Joon, Paul. A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Subsidia biblica 14. Translated 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 17264 in vol. 5 of The New Interpreters Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck et al. Nashville: Abingdon, 1997.