Distinguishing Ideology and Linguistic Differences

I located a post on Bible translations through the Methodist Blogs Weekly Roundup (for which I thank John the Methodist for his usual good job). The post is Ideology in Translations, but while I certainly believe ideology is involved in translations, I don’t see a battle of liberal vs conservative ideology here, and I also see some potential problems in the understanding of the linguistics involved.

Conservative Seminarian points to the NIV translation of Genesis 2:19 “had formed,” rather than “formed” as it is in many translations, and seems to believe that this is evidence of bias in the translation committees:

The difference is that the second one seems to have a time order contradiction to the Genesis 1 story (God made man, then the beasts), while the first one switches the verb tense slightly to make it fit (God made man, and had already made the beasts).

Now, the professor admits that “had formed” is within the semantic range of the verb (יצר). But apparently, it is invalid to use that even though it makes the most sense within the text.

. . . [snip]

Now, the question is, doesn’t this make his determination of the verb form actually the one that has a theological axe to grind? The NIV committee seems to have simply chosen the tense of the verb (of the range of valid choices) that makes the most sense within the text. He wants to choose the one that makes the least sense, which just so happens to coincide with what he likes about the way the Hebrews collected scripture.

Now I’m not writing this to beat up on Conservative Seminarian. I congratulate him on choosing to attend a liberal seminary and to learn better to defend his point of view. I also congratulate him on challenging any notion his professor might have that he responds to this topic without any ideological concerns. But the references that he provides also argue this largely on the basis of ideology, taking an apologetic approach. Now there’s nothing wrong with an apologetic approach where appropriate, but it works much better when the problems are correctly identified.

The translations cited here, NIV and NASB, are both very conservative translations. In fact, quite a number of conservative translations support the position of the NASB. A quick list gathered from my Logos software includes CEV, TEV, ASV, ESV, KJV, The Message, NCV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, YLT. Note that the TNIV continues the NIV translation, and Darby also supports it. From my bookshelves let me add that the JPS Tanakh and HCSB support the translation “formed” while God’s Word translation uses “had formed.” Now please don’t count these versions in order to determine which is the best translation. The question is this: Why do quite a number of conservative translations, such as the NLT, NKJV, ESV, and NASB, not take this easy option, and translate with something that “makes the most sense within the text?”

There is another problem. One cannot simply take the semantic range of a word and choose whatever particular gloss one prefers in a particular context. One must consider the syntax involved. Now I’m not going to get into the technical details. One of many excellent sources on the topic would be Paul Jouon’s A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Part Three: Syntax, pp. 389-396. The syntax here–a sequence of uses of the “wayyiqtol” form of the verb–is normally used in Hebrew to portray a series of events in sequence. It is not impossible for the sequence to be broken, but this is not normally the way it would be done. The normal procedure would be to interrupt the sequence with a simple perfect, and then continue with the consecutive presentation until the next break in time.

There is one excellent way to alter the translation here, and that is to alter the pointing of the Hebrew text, preserving the older consonantal text, but altering the vowel pointings. Thus one could, simply by changing the vowels, produce the past perfect (English term) meaning here, and create the good order. I would note that there is a certain amount of difficulty with that option, in that the next “wayyiqtol” form “brought” would normally also be translated past perfect, which doesn’t fit nearly as well. But it is a workable option.

And here is the ideological catch. I’ve expressed my ideology in the sentence above, in which I see the vowel pointings of the Hebrew text as having less authority than the consonants. There are many people who would disagree with me, including Orthodox Jews at least. Many conservative scholars are very hesitant to alter the pointing and word spacing of the Massoretic Text without stronger evidence than the fact that it fits better. What they are doing, in fact, is being faithful to their ideology of the sacredness of the text, and putting their best effort at providing an accurate translation of the text they have in front of them ahead of further theological considerations.

What is clear, I think, from the list of translations on each side of this issue, is that this is not a liberal/conservative issue, however much some particular professor may portray it in that way. It is a linguistic issue on which one’s ideology can impact in a variety of ways.

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