Saturday, July 07, 2012

"Please" and "thank you" in Biblical Hebrew

In a paper delivered last November at the SBL meeting, Jan Joosten mentioned that the Biblical Hebrew expression "to find favor in someone's eyes" often has the effect of expressing gratitude, an insight he attributes to Arnold Ehrlich. I don't think I had ever noticed this before, but this pragmatic expression of politeness makes more sense in many contexts than the literal translation (which most English translations still favor).

A quick look (via Accordance) at the occurrences of this expression shows that there are basically three uses for it: (1) the literal use, as in, for example, Gen. 6:8, "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord," meaning simply that God was well disposed towards Noah. This usage is common in narrative. (2) When uttered as part of a request ("if I have found favor," etc.) it functions as a politeness strategy underlining the social distance between asker and the askee: an extremely polite "please" or even more "if you would be so kind" or "if you would indulge me." (3) If a request is granted, it is used as an expression of gratitude ("I would find favor"), for the same reasons of deference as no. 2: an extremely polite "thank you" or even more "I am in your debt" or "I am very much obliged."

Nos. 2 and 3 are differentiated in two ways: no. 2 appears before the request and is framed in the perfective (suffix) conjugation, while no. 3 usually appears in response to a granted request and is framed in the imperfective (prefix) conjugation. Most of the English translations, in my opinion, obscure this; the only one that often gets it right is the Jewish Publication Society version. Here are some examples:

Gen 18:3 (Abraham to the angel): "My lord, if I find favor with you ( מצאתי חן בעיניך), do not pass by your servant" (NRSV). JPS is better: "My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant.." (no. 2)

Gen 30:27 (Laban to Jacob): "If I have found favor in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you" (NIV). The words "please stay" are not found in the Hebrew text. JPS again is better: "f you will indulge me, I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me on your account." (no. 2)

Gen 47:25 (Jacob's sons to Pharaoh): NIV: "May we find favor in the eyes of our lord ( נמצא חן בעיני אדני); we will be in bondage to Pharaoh." JPS: "We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh." Even more functionally equivalent would be something like "We are most humbly obliged to my lord, and will be forever in his debt." Of course the latter phrase must also be understood as an ironic foreshadowing of the Egyptian bondage. (no. 3)

Num. 11:15 (Moses to God): A literal translation sounds rather odd. The NIV has "put me to death right now — if I have found favor in your eyes." JPS has "kill me rather, I beg You." There may be a touch of irony here; if we translate as follows, we can see it: "Just kill me, if you would be so kind!" (no. 2)

In 1 Sam 1:18, after Eli tells Hanna to go in peace, and that God will grant her petition, Hanna says, according to NIV: "May your servant find favor in your eyes." This makes little sense literally. Better is JPS's "You are most kind to your handmaid." (no. 3)

Similar is 2 Sam 16:4. After David gives Ziba all the property of Mephibosheth, Ziba says (NIV), "May I find favor in your eyes, my lord the king." Not appropriate; better is JPS's "Your Majesty is most gracious to me." (no. 3)

Joosten remarked that this expression was used only in Classical Biblical Hebrew, specifically in Genesis, Samuel, and Ruth, but was not used in Late Biblical Hebrew. However, it is also found (by imitation?) in Esther.

There are some cases that are ambiguous, such as Ex. 33:13 (Moses to God), which JPS translates as "Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor." One could possibly translate "Now, if you would be so kind, let me know your ways, that I may know you, and that I may be most humbly grateful to you." Nevertheless, so much is made in this chapter of God's favor to Moses and to Israel, that it seems likely that the literal meaning (no. 1) is uppermost in the author's mind.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Jan Joosten, "Hebrew Thought and Greek Thought in the Septuagint Fifty Years after Barr's Semantics," Biblical Hebrew Lexicography session, Society of Biblical Literature, November 2011; see also the Wikipedia entry on Politeness Theory.

1 comment:

Kevin in Chicago said...

Allow me to say "thank you" in American English. It is usually not difficult to translate the literal meaning of a biblical passage, but catching the tone is another matter. Because the Bible is intrinsic to our culture, English speakers tend to unconsciously accept that biblical characters spoke in "Biblicalese," an English dialect not otherwise attested, but bearing a strong resemblance to the Authorized Version.

But the original readers of the Authorized Version were at least familiar with the notion of elevated, formal diction and "court"-esy, even if "find favor in your eyes" was a Hebraism not native to English. Seventeenth-century readers also had some awareness of "oriental" courts, e.g., Turkey and Persia, whose language and customs were, or were imagined to be, more formalized than their own. Modern English-speakers, on the other hand, inhabit a largely homogenized, democratized thought-world in which true "oriental despots" are addressed as "President" or "Prime Minister."

The translator is faced with a dilemma: either misrepresent the cultures and thought-worlds of biblical characters (or at least biblical authors) by using contemporary English, or, by putting in their mouths an English dialect never spoken by anyone anywhere, falsify their humanity by making them appear as alien beings.

Your translation of Num. 11:15, "Just kill me, if you would be so kind!" exemplifies the problem. Your translation captures the irony of Moses' request, but translating the original Hebrew "courtesy-phrase" with the English "courtesy-phrase," "if you would be so kind," boldfaces the irony in a way the original does not, since contemporary English speakers almost never say "if you would be so kind," without intentional and pointed irony.

On the other hand, as you point out, a literal translation, "kill me if I have found favor in your eyes," sounds bizarre (your "rather odd" is too kind). A compromise, such as a simple "please," might be preferable, but that would eliminate any indication of the deferential diction of an inferior speaking to his superior. (English "please" long ago lost the original meaning retained in the French "s'il vous plait"; we no longer see or hear the irony when asked to "please" do things no one could reasonably suppose might please us.)

My preference would be to retain the literal translation, the “Semitism” of the Authorized Version, leaving it to the reader to understand that this is a formal phrase not to be understood literally. But others may reasonably differ, and this post is an excellent short exposition of the problem -- as well, of course, of the particular Hebrew phrase. It should be made available to all teachers of biblical Hebrew to share with their students.