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Some thoughts on rendering the quirks of the Masoretic Text in translation - Lethargic Man (anag.)

Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2008-11-20 18:26
Subject: Some thoughts on rendering the quirks of the Masoretic Text in translation
Security: Public

[This post contains characters that might not display correctly on all computers and operating systems. (FWIW, it was encoded in UTF-8 and displays correctly on Firefox 2 under Linux; the טעמי המקרא and Hebrew overdots rendered for me in Firefox 3.5 under Windows XP, but not in Firefox 3 on a different XP machine; and neither those nor the English overdots do in IE6 under Windows XP.)]

Something you'll see in any Hebrew text of the Bible, but lacking from translations are the occasional odd things done to particular letters in the Masoretic tradition. I think this is a shame—and indeed, has led to mistranslations, where the precise meaning of the text is only determinable through the Masoretic tradition.

For example, the opening of Isaiah 40 is generally mistranslated "A voice cries in the wilderness; clear a way," giving rise to the voice crying in the wilderness of English proverb. However, take a close look at the טעמי המקרא—the notes written around the Biblical text showing how to chant the text:

ק֣וֹל קוֹרֵ֔א בַּמִּדְבָּ֕ר פַּנּ֖וּ דֶּ֣רֶך

This clearly indicates that the translation should actually be, "A voice cries: clear a way in the wilderness." Other examples abound, such as where only the טעמי המקרא (and the accompanying dropped דָגֵשׁ) distinguish:

He calledon the nameof the LORD(Gen. 12:8) וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה
טִפְּחָא מֵרְכָא סוֹף־פָּסוּק
He calledon the LORDby name(Ex. 34:5) וַיִּקְרָ֥א בְשֵׁ֖ם יְהוָֽה
מֵרְכָא טִפְּחָא סוֹף־פָּסוּק

Nevertheless, that's not actually what I primarily want to talk about here. The טעמי המקרא are not actually written in the text of Torah scrolls: the information they convey goes right back in the Oral Law, but their textual representation is a late innovation, and is therefore not written in Torah scrolls. (Neither are the dots indicating the vowels, another late innovation. Reading from the Torah would be so much easier if the Jews did what the Muslims do—and what Wikipedia does for the purposes of illustration here—and wrote both of these on the text, but in different colours, so you can tell what is canonical and what is not.)

Even just looking at the bare Masoretic Text, though, there are occasional twiddles of one form or another; but they get left out of English translations, and I think that's a shame. Here's some examples:

In Gen. 33:4, Jacob is about to meet his brother Esau for the first time since Jacob fled, many years ago, after hearing Esau vow to kill him. The text reads:

Esau ran to greet him, and embraced him, and fall upon his shoulders, ȧṅḋ k̇i̇ṡṡėḋ ḣi̇ṁ, and they wept. וירץ עשו לקראתו ויחבקהו ויפל על צוארו וׄיׄשׄקׄהׄוׄ ויבכו

You can imagine the field day the commentators have with the dots above "and kissed him". What do they mean? Did it mean Esau was not really sincere? Were they part of the Word of G-d, or were they put in later? (Consensus has it they were put in by Ezra the Scribe 2500 years ago, when he encountered words he was not sure should be there.)

Other examples are harder to translate without footnotes, though they can still be flagged up to draw attention to themselves; for example the opening of Leviticus:

[G-d] called to Moses ויקרא אל משה

The last letter of the first word is small, and so too I have rendered it in the English; but if you read the Hebrew word without that last letter—not to emend the Biblical text, but to add extra layers of meaning to it—the meaning becomes "[G-d] was dear to Moses".

There are plenty of other examples, both those amenable to interpretation—e.g. the broken letter ו in Num 25:12, or the large ו marking the central letter of the entire Torah (Lev. 11:42), and those not (for example, what's the significance of the small מ in Lev 6:2?).


One of the most important things conveyed by the Masoretic tradition is when the written text (כְּתִיב) differs from what's actually read (קְרִי). Here is not the place to go into this in detail, but one ramification of it I had to deal with when translating the Wandering Jews Siddur was how to deal with the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of G-d.

This is spelled YHVH, but, because of the Jewish taboo about pronouncing the Divine Name, is pronounced as if it were written Ădonāi, "Lord"; this is where the custom of translating it as "LORD" derives from. (It's also where the name "Jehovah" derives from, as the Tetragrammaton is often marked with vowels to indicate whether the pronunciation should be Ădonāi or "Elohim".)

It would be nice to be able to reflect this duality of the Name's aspects in translation, but how? One possibility would be to intersperse the letters of the two words, like the Sephardim do in their siddurim:

Tetragrammaton

Hence:

Tetragrammaton rendered into English

That's nice, but it fails to capture the associations of the name יהוה in Hebrew. The name doesn't mean anything in its own right, but traditionally is interpreted as representing הָיָה hāyāh "[G-d] was", הֹוֶה hoveh "[G-d] is", and יִהְיֶה yihyeh "[G-d] will be"; hence the custom of the Reform Movement in rendering it "The Eternal". So then, I thought, how about:

Tetragrammaton rendered into English

The problem with that is that now you've captured the name's associations, but you've lost the name! It's not normal to do that when translating names. For example, I call myself Michael, I don't call myself Who-Is-Like-G-d?. So what we need is something like this:

Tetragrammaton rendered into English

Except that this will be a bugger to typeset, impossible to read at normal font sizes, and is probably pretty impenetrable unless you know what's going on with it.

At which point I decided to give up, and just settle for LORD... and resolve to blog this. (It's taken me until now to do so because this was a post that required a whole afternoon to put together.)


Which brings me onto something I saw a while ago, and didn't comment on, but which has been irking me whenever I remember it since.

Some time ago, someone (I forget who) linked on their blog to an article in which the sofer commissioned to turn the Conservative Movement's מְגִילַּת הַשׁוֹעָה (Holocaust Megillah) into an actual physical scroll documented online the decisions he made in coming up with such scribal oddities as I have been talking about above.

The scribe must take upon himself to achieve a meaningful interpretation. The text is very moving indeed and I wanted to create ideas for what I like to call 'visual midrash' (i.e. permitted scribal idiosyncrasies) to complement it so that not only the content of the text, but also its physical structure will then become part of our collective memory.

And he goes on to document how he chose to make various letter large or small, one word out of hollow letters, another out of thin letters and with two letters deliberately reversed, and other letters with curled tags attached to their upper or lower perimeter or other unusual tagin.

This got me rather annoyed. The whole point about the scribal oddities is not that they have been deliberately chosen for any one effect. You can say, if you like, that they were put there by G-d. Or you can say that they represent an accumulation, over hundreds then thousands of years, of copying errors—one scribe writes a letter inadvertently a bit smaller, when this scroll is copied, the copyist thinks this deliberate, and, generations of copying later (with, perhaps, some weeding of other lineages of scrolls through the vagaries of time and exile), the small letter becomes canonical. One thing the scribal oddities are not is the deliberate work of creative human hands.

Yes, you can pull all the midrash you like out of them. But the one thing you cannot do is put them in in order to create your own midrash! That would be like trying to add a patina of age to your new megillah, so it looks like the scroll is hundreds of years old!

Maybe one day, centuries hence, scribal oddities will have emerged of their own accord in a new text such as the מְגִילַּת הַשׁוֹעָה (if any such new text actually takes off and gets picked up by communities). If that is the case, such small, large or broken letters will have the ring of truth to them, hallowed as they would be by time. But actually seeking to put such things into a new document strikes me as... hagiographically fraudulent, is the best I could put it. It's like finding dental fillings on a Tyrannosaurus rex: no matter how good or convincing they are, they're not fooling anyone, but give the impression someone's trying to make a fool of you.

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ewx
User: ewx
Date: 2008-11-20 20:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

FWIW although the KJV makes the translation error for Isaiah 40 you describe, the NIV has “A voice of one calling: in the desert prepare the way for the LORD”.

It may be worth pointing out that your use of GIFs there works rather badly when not composed onto the expected background color - I generally read LJ posts with a black background and your embedded images come out as rather spidery outlines of the letters and aren't very readable.

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ewx
User: ewx
Date: 2008-11-20 20:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh, and I see lots of complicated looking dot structures above and below the Hebrew text in FF3 on my Mac. (Still can't read any Hebrew apart from being able to recognize ל as an L though.)
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Zev
User: zsero
Date: 2008-12-31 16:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Late comment: the Hebrew name for the Holocaust is spelt שואה, not שועה.
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Kerry: jewish - reading
User: kerrypolka
Date: 2009-09-03 18:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:jewish - reading
Obviously there are many problems with translating the name YHWH, but I'm not convinced that "Lord" is more of a name, or less of a placeholder, than "Eternal". They are both descriptors of an aspect of God, and not a proper name in themselves.

"Lord" also has the obvious problem of being gendered male, and I find its consistent use to describe God to be both sexist and idolatrous. I think it's more flawed to describe God as a personified, feudal and male than as an aspect of holy nature, eternity.
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Lethargic Man (anag.): reflect
User: lethargic_man
Date: 2009-09-04 15:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:reflect
Obviously there are many problems with translating the name YHWH, but I'm not convinced that "Lord" is more of a name, or less of a placeholder, than "Eternal". They are both descriptors of an aspect of God, and not a proper name in themselves.

LORD is a form of address. Its advantage over "Eternal" is that it's one Jews have been using for over two thousand years. It's the old question of having to choose between sticking with tradition and alienating your audience, and changing the text and losing the authority of tradition.

For me, it's a question of context. When talking about G-d in general, I will use the name "G-d" and avoid gendered pronouns; however when discussing a psalm written three thousand years ago, that would be anachronistic. The problem comes when dealing with liturgy, which involves a mixture of ancient Scriptural material I would be reluctant to meddle with, mediaeval material I would have less difficulty with, and modern material I obviously have no difficulty creatively translating. But then you run into the problem of consistency.

"Lord" also has the obvious problem of being gendered male,

<devil's advocate> Never had a female landlord?

and I find its consistent use to describe God to be both sexist and idolatrous.

How idolatrous?

I think it's more flawed to describe God as a personified, feudal and male than as an aspect of holy nature, eternity.

That last sounds more Reconstructionist than Reform. Are you sure you're a theist? ;^b
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Kerry: jewish - reading
User: kerrypolka
Date: 2009-09-04 15:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:jewish - reading
Jews have been doing a lot of sexist and misogynist things for 2000 years, but that doesn't make them acceptable. I agree that there is tension between "tradition", which is often deeply flawed, harmful and unjust, and efforts to repair those flaws without losing the connection that gives it value, but I don't agree that tradition automatically trumps equality. I think it is more important to not be sexist than it is to be "traditional", whatever that means for each individual person.

All the English words are recent translations anyway, and it's extremely inconsistent to insist on sticking to the grammatical Hebrew gender for God but not for, say, a table or river.

I'm confused: are you seriously disputing that "lord" is gendered male? I rent from a landlady. I think this reflects the same problem that "Lord" as an address for God has, which is the false idea that gendered-male is gender-neutral/normative.

I'm not sure what you mean by "how idolatrous" -- are you asking about degree or quality?
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Lethargic Man (anag.): linguistics geekery
User: lethargic_man
Date: 2009-09-04 15:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:linguistics geekery
All the English words are recent translations anyway, and it's extremely inconsistent to insist on sticking to the grammatical Hebrew gender for God but not for, say, a table or river.

True, and I should point out I don't feel strongly in favour of keeping the traditional "LORD"; it's just that "Eternal" sits very oddly with me. Which is partly, I suppose, because I'm not used to it: I only encounter it when I come into contact with someone from the Reform movement.

I'm confused: are you seriously disputing that "lord" is gendered male? I rent from a landlady.

I've found I don't use "landlady" at all, but "landlord" regardless of the gender.

I think this reflects the same problem that "Lord" as an address for God has, which is the false idea that gendered-male is gender-neutral/normative.

It can be gender-neutral; the problem is that the gendered interpretation tends to override the non-gendered one, which is a problem. But that this is culturally-determined can be shown by the fact that when Dido sang "this queen you think you own wants to be a hunter again", no one complained she should have used the same word Ben Jonson did when he described Cynthia, four hundred years earlier, as "queen and huntress, chaste and fair". Interpretation of language can change. But personally I think I'm on to a loser here. :o)

I'm not sure what you mean by "how idolatrous" -- are you asking about degree or quality?

Quality. Given the way Jews have been scrupulously avoiding idolatry for two and a half thousand years, how is describing G-d as "LORD" (which, note, is not the same as "Lord"—אֲדוֹנָי, not אֲדוֹנִי) idolatrous? Or are you saying that all anthropomorphic descriptions of G-d are idolatrous, in which case you've just trashed all of Jewish history before the Rambam...
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Kerry: jewish - reading
User: kerrypolka
Date: 2009-09-04 16:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:jewish - reading
I emphatically disagree that gendered-male words can be gender-neutral. They are sometimes used as if they were, but I think that's a reflection of the patriarchy more than anything else. If gendered-male is gender-neutral, and therefore normative, that means that gendered-female is not normative. It's a subtle form of grammatical othering.

Jews may have been trying to avoid idolatry for thousands of years, but that doesn't necessarily mean they have been successful. I am wary of automatically attributing righteousness to things that Jews have been doing for a long time just because we have been doing it for a long time; as I said before, there are many flawed and harmful things we've been doing for a long time too. So, yes, in short I think you are onto a loser, but I'm sure it's thoughtless rather than malicious.

As I said in my first comment, I find the consistent use of the same attributes, anthropomorphic or not, used exclusively to describe God, to be idolatrous. God is not exclusively a flowing spring, or exclusively a pillar of fire, or exclusively a firm bedrock, or exclusively a sheltering tree, or exclusively male. God can be all those things, but not only all those things, and using only male-gendered language to describe God is a false limitation.
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