Monday, March 07, 2005

Moffatt and Hebrew Wordplay

The text of Genesis 5:29 in the KJV reads as follows:
And he called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD hath cursed.
Most of the modern translations say essentially the same thing. The NRSV has:
He named him Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.”
Without a marginal note or the like (such as in the NET Bible), the ordinary reader of the English Bible would never be able to tell that the name Noah (נח) and the words translated "comfort" or "relief" (נחם) sound alike (sort of) and that the author is making a play on words.

As far as I know, Moffatt, about whom I blogged last week, is the only one who attempts to duplicate in English the play on words:
... a son, whom he called Noah, saying, "Now we shall 'know a' relief from our labour and from our toil on the ground that the Eternal cursed."
Well, that's a pretty bad pun, but give Moffatt an A for effort. He does a bit better with Seth in Genesis 4:25:
... [she] called him Seth, saying, "God has set up another child for me instead of Abel, whom Cain killed."
Here the name Seth (שׁת) is the same, consonantally, as the verb translated "set up" (שׁת). (NRSV has: "she bore a son and named him Seth, for she said, 'God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.'")

Generally, though, Moffatt is not able to find a suitable pun and simple inserts a gloss into the text, as with Cain in Genesis 4:1:
... [she] bore Cain (Got), saying, "I have got a man from the Eternal."
Here the name (קין) really does not sound much like the verb translated "I have got" (קניתי), and so Moffatt's translation, if anything, implies a greater similarity than is present in the original text (and besides, "Cain" does not mean "got"!). A better translation that also preserves some kind of assonance is found in the Jewish Publication Society's "she conceived and bore Cain, saying, 'I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD.'"

If Moffatt falls short more often than he succeeds, at least he makes the effort. I will end this post with one of his better ones. Isaiah 7:9 has one of the best puns, and one of the hardest to translate, in the Bible: im lo ta'aminu, ki lo te'amenu, translated by the KJV as "If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established." Moffatt has the following:
"If your faith does not hold, you will never hold out."
And that's not bad; it's at least as good as the NRSV, which also tries to duplicate this pun, with "If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all." (The NIV is very similar; I don't know which was first.)


Dave said...

Thanks for this. Interesting stuff.

Tell me, what would you recommend to someone like me as an introduction to biblical Hebrew?

I'm an academic type with a degree in Biblical-Theological Studies, familiar with Greek, but almost totally ignorant of Hebrew. You know, I can remember that Yom means 'day' and that's about it -- I've pretty much focused on the New Testament. I aspire to return to scholarship in the future, however. I wouldn't be able to identify a single Hebrew character.

Any ideas for a book that would cover the basics? Cheers.

Dave Rattigan

Anonymous said...

You should see the Book of Mormon for some good wordplays, e.g. Translate Alma 27:22 into Hebrew (also note the poetic form).