Yet another Bible translation — with a twist

February 2, 2009

An article on an online translation of the Bible caught my eye yesterday. The translator, Bill Jemas, is apparently best known for his role at Marvel Enterprises, but his latest project has to do with a different sort of all-powerful being. His Freeware Bible is not just a word-by-word retranslation of the Bible, but also a sort of map of possibilities for each translation decision.

The page for the first day of Genesis, here, will give you an idea of what the project looks like — a garden of forking paths in which all possible translation outcomes exist simultaneously. Jemas’s intention, he says, is not just to present a new version but to point out that no previous version is sacrosanct. Earlier translators must have considered each of the options he presents in his tables; he rescues the discarded words and brings them to view once more. The King James Bible is also presented to provide a point of comparison.

It’s an interesting project, even if I’m not sure we really need another translation of the Bible — especially one where within the very first word he makes me start doubting the translator. In the article, Jemas describes one change he made as a revelation. [I searched my mind briefly for a word free of religious connotations, as there are no indications that he thinks he’s taking dictation for the Divine, but gave up.]

“Honestly, I’m nobody, but the word ‘principles’ is an inescapable translation of the first word of the Bible,” he said. “To see that was an immediate hit in the head. As far as anybody who’s had any scientific training, or has been involved in any serious organization, it’s always principles first, whether you’re writing music, whether you’re studying microbiology, when you’re doing an economic system, whether you’re writing a good comic book. There’s principles you follow. You follow principles and things work.”

“Principles” replaces the King James “beginning” — as in, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” But principles are simply the starting points for thought and discussion. I have absolutely no knowledge of ancient Hebrew, but they’re the same word in Spanish (thanks to Latin), and I would rarely suggest subbing one in for the other.  I’m really not trying to extrapolate from a Romance to a Semitic language here, but it seems like a strange choice to me. (Insights from any scholars of Hebrew welcome!) And Jemas’s invocation of science in defense of this choice makes it all the more problematic for me. I look, for example, at this timeline of the history of the scientific method and consider the fact that the Pentateuch is thought to have been written well before Aristotle appears on the scene with his “axioms,” and wonder how much science — or what passed for it at the time — really had to do with writing the texts that became the Bible.

But I fear I am being a Professor Horrendo, minus the professor part, and minus any kind of scholarly expertise to back me up, so instead of expressing doubts I will simply say this: hesitations aside, it’s an interesting project, and certainly one that embodies Jemas’s notion that “God is the contribution of all of us.” Although Jemas chooses one translation, other options are right there, leaving me free to select “beginning” if I wish or even, apparently, “head.” There are even plans to publish translations contributed by readers, making the project at its heart about options rather than outcomes. While Jemas’s verbatim translation can sometimes be awkward (“the day of one”?) and Hebrew scholars can bicker among themselves about choices he’s made, as someone familiar mainly with the King James version, I’ve enjoyed taking a look at some of the differences between the texts.



4 Responses to “Yet another Bible translation — with a twist”

  1. rukednous Says:

    Well, of course you can’t say that the scientific method, which I think is just empiricism plus logic (“common sense applied rigorously” or something like that, in the words of somebody who I think may have been Isaac Asimov) couldn’t have seen some kind of life until Aristotle. People were doing art and engineering well before that in all kinds of places beyond the Greeks’ imaging, and those require a lot of the same concepts as scientific inquiry.

    I like this kind of “concept” translation– what I always imagined was a “teaching” translation for language students where each translated word is linked to an explanation of the choice that went into it, and slowly as you explored these elements of the original text you would replace the translation, not with one of your own choosing, but with the original language word by word and phrase by phrase. You’d still be limited by the limitations of the translator’s knowledge and the translator’s selectivity and motives for translating as they do, which the bible, Jemas’s included, especially dramatizes. But Jemas makes me think I should really have tried something like this a long time ago.

  2. exchangesjournal Says:

    Oh, of course you’re right, I didn’t mean to limit science to what we call Western civilization, and certainly didn’t mean to imply that nothing like it existed anywhere in the world before Aristotle, although looking back it certainly came out sounding like that.
    I agree that this way of thinking about translation is fascinating, and one of the things that appeals to me is its subtle undermining of the concept of faithfulness, that bugaboo of translation theory. It doesn’t seem like that’s the way Jemas would put it, but for me the presentation of several options highlights the flexibility of an original text, and the capacity of a translation to emphasize different qualities of the original. The democratizing of options thus muffles the demand for rigorous lexical “faithfulness,” whatever that means, and suggests that there may be more than one “right” translation for any given word. My hope is that it does not suggest at the same time that therefore all of those choices are necessarily “wrong”!

  3. rukednous Says:

    Hi ar,

    The notion of flexibility in the original text is a really great one.

    It’s also territory where the Bible is such an extreme case that a lot of principles for translation and literature that you could derive from it don’t seem to apply anywhere else– I can’t think of any other text where “the text” is actually the primary object of interest during a translation discussion– for anything else, you see a lot of historical background, author biography, or in general all kinds of exegesis that seems to, consciously or not, divert attention away from the original text towards an external validation of its “meaning.”

    We often seem intent on finding a way to get around the specific words of the original, and to intuit a single intention of the author’s and begin being theorists from there. Maybe that’s a sign of a fundamental ambivalence in literary types about whether we want literature to be for pleasure or to be for ideas and meaning– we split up the roles, let the translation simply be beautiful and suggestive while the analysis communicates ideas.

    The commitment to the text itself that’s so strong in the case of the Bible is really what enables it to be a “flexible text.” People not only tolerate but hope for multiple meanings, expect to reread the same passage in different ways. In contrast most literary translations only get read once and many things are only translated once, so a single axis of aesthetically pleasing faithfulness is the only metric to compete on, even though a translator is never purposefully unfaithful, just torn between a dozen things going on in a single sentence that they’re trying to be faithful to. Not that a work translated only once has no value, but it’s hard for translators to admit to an ambiguity in the original that they just couldn’t express or something they chose not to include in their version– it just kind of makes you sound underqualified to be a translator, but if we could find a way to talk about difficulties in translation rather than victories, that might be a way jump start a comparative translation discussion even when we’re the first person to translate a work.

    Really when it comes down to it I love Genesis because it seems to actually get, in the wild, people close reading it. It actually seems to be literature with the full power of literature, where difficult words actually hold people’s attention. That’s a reason why I’d love to see more dynamic (in the computer science sense) translations similar to Jemas’– Genesis is a great proof of concept, but at the same time it’s a rare instance where a lot of the audience is right there with him, close-reading for translation issues already.

  4. […] I’ve been enjoying participating in an interesting exchange in the comments section of my post on the Freeware Bible. Since my interlocutor has been saying very smart things, I figured I’d respond in another […]

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