Thursday, September 29, 2022

A Knot in a Rush and Nehemiah 2:1

 I’ve been reviewing Latin, with a view to reading some old commentaries and works of scholarship. I can’t say I’m a fluent reader (yet!), but I’m enjoying the process. Speaking of which …

Reading a book of commentary extracts on Nehemiah, I came across a Latin  expression that puzzled me. C. F. Houbigant (18th century Biblicist)  is commenting on Neh. 2:1וְלֹא־הָיִיתִי רַע לְפָנָיו, “Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence” (KJV) – “him” being the Persian emperor. Houbigant translates et non ei displicui, “and I had not displeased him.” His comment is Nihil erat tam obvium, quam ut sic interpretaremur. Et prorsus me fugit, quare nodum in sirpo quaesierint plerique interpretes. “Nothing was more obvious, than that we should interpret  it so. And it utterly escapes me, why many interpreters have sought a knot in a bulrush.”

That last expression, nodum in sirpo, made little sense to me and was obviously an idiom. The Internet, however, was soon able to point me to a useful source. In a book entitled Letters and Exercises of the Elizabethan Schoolmaster John Conybeare (1905), the teacher is commenting on Latin idioms,, and we find the following: “Nodum in sirpo quaerere : To seeke a knot in a rushe. A proverbe where one maketh a thinge difficulte or doutfull, which is verie playne to be understode, or ys scrupulouse in a thinge without cause.” Eureka! But where does the idiom come from? Apparently it is classical and Plautus is cited as the earliest user of it.

The meaning, I assume, derives from the fact that a rush (or bulrush) is a straight stem, without complication or articulation; to seek for a "knot" in it is to overlook the plain in a search for the complex. 

The default gloss of the key word in the Nehemiah passage is "bad," with the exact sense varying by context. If most English versions choose "sad," it is because of the conversation that follows, in which the emperor notices that Nehemiah is gloomy or downcast. Houbigant's translation is certainly not obvious.

(Also, by the way, apparently John Conybeare was a forebear of the early 20th century Orientalist F. C. Conybeare.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

All His Furniture

 Following up on the last post, note also the word furniture in KJV Exodus 39:33: "And they brought the tabernacle unto Moses, the tent, and all his furniture." This word also, unexpectedly to modern ears, translates Hebrew kelim. Today furniture refers to the large furnishings of a house – the tables, chairs, rugs, lamps, and so forth – but in 1611 it meant equipment. In Exodus it refers to the dishes, cups, jars, bowls, pans, trowels, etc. used in the sacrificial worship. (The word his, by the way, refers to the tent, not to Moses.)

Here the KJV translators appear to have followed the Bishops' Bible, which also has furniture, while the Geneva Bible has instruments and the Tyndale Bible apparel — another word with a different modern meaning! The NRSV and ESV translate "utensils."

So  we have seen the KJV use three words in three different verses to translate a single Hebrew word. This illustrates the obvious point that there is no one-to-one relationship between the words of one language and the words of another – a point that is sometimes obscured by the hankering for a "literal" translation. A second point is that these three words – artillery, carriage, furniture – have changed their meaning in the 400+ years between King James and ourselves. The KJV is a monument of English literature, but its archaic language renders it liable to misinterpretation.  

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Jonathan's Artillery and David's Carriage

 "Jonathan gave his artillery unto his lad." Such is the translation of 1 Sam 20:40 in the KJV, a reminder that the word artillery used to mean any shooting weapons, not necessarily those with shells. The translations that preceded the KJV didn't use this term; the Bishops' Bible (a major source for the KJV) used " instrumetes" (sic) and the Geneva Bible just has " bowe and arrowes." The Hebrew term thus translated is kelim, plural of kli, a term with a broad range of application. Other words used to translate it in the KJV in various contexts are "jewels," "stuff," "vessels," "furniture," "thing," "instruments," "weapons," "armour," and "bag." There is no single English word that covers the same range; kli basically refers to any thing useful that can be carried by a single person.

Another interesting KJV rendering of the same word is in 1 Sam 17:22: " David left his carriage in the hand of the keeper of the carriage," a sentence that is liable to be misunderstood. Here "carriage" is again Hebrew kelim, referring to what we would call today "baggage." The Bishops' Bible for the same verse reads " Dauid left the thinges which he bare, vnder the handes of the keper of the vessels," the italicized words rendering kelim. Geneva has " Dauid left the things, which hee bare, vnder the handes of the keeper of the cariage."

Modern translations of 1 Sam 17:22 are generally like the NRSV: "David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage" (also ESV). I'm not sure why there is a tendency to translate kelim by two different English words. JPS (1985), like KJV, does not: " David left his baggage with the man in charge of the baggage."