Biblical Beginnings 3: What’s In a Translation? Interpretation!

Recently, I was listening to CBC Radio 1–that’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for my non-Canadian readers–and the host was interviewing a woman who translates novels and graphic novels from Korean to English. In that interview she said, “Translation is an art” and went on to explain. There is no one-to-one correlation between any two languages. Choices have to made by the translator, based on her interpretation of the base language, of which English words would best convey the author’s meaning or intent. It is impossible for the translator to not have her “voice” affect those choices to some degree. Even the translators who are the most aware of their own biases and the most determined to not let those biases creep into their translation cannot avoid it entirely.

All Translation Involves Interpretation

When it comes to Genesis 1–11, it is obvious, with certain specific words and phrases, how the translators of various versions have consciously or unconsciously allowed their biases to affect their translation. I make this statement not as a judgement of the translators’ motivations or capabilities but as an observation of reality. It is my observation that those translators who are most affected by their biases are (1) those who see these chapters as historical, whether to a lesser or greater degree, and (2) those who interpret these chapters through the lens of their own, mostly Christian, beliefs. Rather, these very ancient stories were written with full awareness of the various and previously written creation and flood accounts from other cultures. Also Genesis 1–11 was written for an audience that existed hundreds of years before the time of Jesus and his earliest followers.[1] Let me demonstrate, with just a few examples, how drastically translator bias has impacted the choices made by translators.

Adam is a fundamentally important person in Christian teaching, due to (1) Luke’s genealogy, (2) Paul’s discussion of Adam and Christ in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, and (3) the discussion of Adam and Eve and the role of women in 1 Timothy 2. In addition, there are many other direct quotes and/or allusions to the first three chapters of Genesis that are foundational to the entirely Christian concepts of “the fall of humanity” and of “original sin.” However, Paul refers to Adam far more than the rest of the Hebrew Bible combined. After Genesis 5, the name “Adam” is referenced by the Jewish authors only once (see 1 Chronicles 1:1). However, we see a definite uptick in references to Adam in the non-canonical writings, of the late Second Temple period, leading up to the time of Jesus.[2]

In Genesis 1–11, the name “Adam” appears for the first time in the Hebrew text in 4:25. The name “Adam” appears five more times in Genesis 5:1–5, then not again until 1 Chronicles 1:1. However, many popular committee translations have the name “Adam” appearing as early as Genesis 2:20. The Hebrew word “adam” appears in Genesis 1–11 forty-four times; thirteen times it appears without the definite article (thus, “adam”) and thirty-one times with the definite article (thus “ha’adam;” “ha”=”the”).

When it appears with the definite article, it is definitely cannot be the name “Adam.” That leaves thirteen times where “adam” might best be understood as the name “Adam,” but not necessarily. The basic meaning of “adam” is “human, person, man (non-gendered)” or it can also mean, when understood collectively, “humanity, people.” Only occasionally and only without the definite article could it possibly be the name “Adam.” Context must then determine the translator’s best choice. So what? How one chooses to translate “adam” demonstrates the translator’s interpretation and impacts the reader’s understanding of who or what is being referenced. My approach would be to translate “adam” as “human” or “person” unless it is clear that the name “Adam” makes the most sense. And I would translate “ha’adam” as “the human” or “humanity.”

The only other example I would call attention to would be how to translate the words for “man” (the gender) and “woman” (the gender). The Hebrew words are “ish” and “ishah” respectively. While in some contexts they can be translated as “husband” and “wife,” respectively, within the context of Genesis 1–11 the institution of marriage is not being discussed. For example, I would translate Genesis 2:21–25 as follows:

  • And Yahweh Elohim (or “LORD God”), caused a deep sleep to fall on the human and he slept. And he took one of his ribs and he closed flesh below it. And Yahweh Elohim built the rib that he took from the human into a woman and he brought her to the human. And the human said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one will be called woman because from man this one was taken. Therefore, a man will leave his father and his mother and he will cling to his woman and they will become one flesh. And the two of them were naked, the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed.[3]

If you read this far, then I would encourage you to get a copy of Alter’s book on Genesis and Good’s book on Genesis 1–11 and compare their translations to your favourite English translation (NIV, NRSV, NKJV, ESV, etc) and see whether the difference in translation makes any difference to how you understand the biblical stories of creation. For me, it makes a huge difference.

[1] In a future article (or two) I will compare and contrast the Genesis accounts of creation and of the flood with similar (and much earlier) creation and flood stories told in other ancient Near Eastern cultures.

[2] For a thorough discussion, see Amy-Jill Levine & Marc Zvi Brettler in The Bible with and without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2020), Chapter 4.

[3] the human translates “ha’adam,” woman translates “ishah” and man translates “ish.” BTW, I’m not going rogue here as a translator. Many scholars, Jewish and Christian, differ considerably with the more popular modern committee translations of these, and other key, words in Genesis 1–11.

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