Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Re-reading the Moffatt Translation

I have a ton of Bible translations, because I'm interested in the Bible and I'm also interested in translation. One of the most interesting is James Moffatt's version. The copy I have (it was my mother's) is dated 1954, but the first printing is listed as 1922. Apparently it is still in print, although I rarely see it cited any more. Some sample pages are available at Amazon.

Moffatt interests me because his book is a one-man scholarly translation, something that is pretty rare these days. I think Robert Alter's new translation of the Pentateuch is the only recent example.

But Moffatt is particularly fascinating because he makes very few concessions to canonical form or to anyone's prior idea of what a "bible" should be like. His Genesis begins with Genesis 2:4a, moved to the beginning of the text from its canonical position, presumably on the supposition that it originally belonged there. He also often distinguishes the pentateuchal sources typographically: P occurs in ordinary type, J in italics, and E within single square brackets ([ ]).

"The only other mark which requires a word of explanation," he says, with wonderful confidence, "is the double square brackets ([[ ]]). This denotes, throughout the entire Old Testament, passages which are either editorial additions or later interpolations." The reader will soon run into Genesis 4:20, 21, which are so enclosed, although these are usually now assigned to J. I think scholars are more modest today, and few if any translators are confident enough to mark definitely within the text itself some verses rather than others as interpolations. In fact, most translators would not see the marking of interpolations as their job; that's the work of the literary critic. (But why? Doesn't that assume that the final form of the text is the only one eligible for translation? Who says?)

Moffatt also does not hesitate to discuss textual decisions in his New Testament footnotes (he was primarily a NT scholar) with full citations in Greek. For instance, at Matt. 27:16, he translates "a notorious prisoner called Jesus Bar-Abbas," and footnotes "Jesus" thusly: "Adding here and in the following verse Ἰησοῦν with the Sinaitic (and Palestinian) Syriac version, some good miniscules, and manuscripts known to Origen." In the UBS Greek text, Ἰησοῦν is bracketed, but Metzer in his Textual Commentary notes that, like Moffatt, "a majority of the Committee was of the opinion that the original text of Matthew had the double name in both verses." Moffatt may have been the first to restore "Jesus" in the translation itself (NRSV has it, RSV does not). But it is the detail of the textual note, in a translation intended for public use, that amazes me.

Moffatt is particularly interesting in his translation of Hebrew naming puns. I'll talk about those in a later post.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: James Moffatt, The Bible: A New Translation (Harper & Row, 1954).


Andrew Criddle said...

Moffat may have felt a need to give unusually detailed textual notes in the NT because of his base text.

Moffat based his NT on von Soden's controversial critical Greek text which meant that the manuscripts supporting his readings would vary very much from reading to reading.

This compares with say the RV where in practice differences from the AV are readings supported by Vaticanus and/or Sinaiticus (usually both).

FWIW Most modern textual scholars regard von Soden's text as further from the original than say the earlier text of Westcott and Hort

Charlie said...

fascinating article, Ed -- I have an old copy of the Moffatt translation, but I have never opened the cover on it!!

Anonymous said...

I have a copy of Moffat's translation bought innthe DrewSeminary bookstore about 1947, and refer to it frequently for freshness of expression, and truthfulness to the original. I even preach from it on occasion.
Joe Fiske

mimi said...

I have heard that Moffatt used in his translation of 1 Timothy 6:15 the phrase "blessed controller of all things." However I have a Moffat (1935) and do not find that. Is there a revision or do I have it all wrong.

Anonymous said...

"blessed controller of all things" is JB Phillips