Word choices in the Hebrew Bible, as in all great literature, are often quite deliberate. The way in which a simple idea is expressed, especially when combined with word repetition or allusion, frequently has a profound bearing on major ideas. This needs to be reflected in translation, if English readers are not to lose an important aspect of the Hebrew text.
A case in point occurs toward the beginning of this week’s reading, where the Flood story is introduced in a few lines. Here the Bible makes use of a technique in which a Hebrew word or root signals a significant concept in the text. I would call this small-scale repetition. In this particular instance, the repeated word occurs three times in rapid succession:
Now the earth had gone to ruin before God; the earth was filled with wrongdoing.
God saw the earth, and here, it had gone to ruin,
for all flesh had ruined its way on the earth (Gen. 6:11-12).
The repeated verb (sh-ch-t) that I have translated as “ruin” is usually rendered by others as “corrupt,” which does fit the meaning in its immediate context; yet in the light of what follows in v. 13, it does not fully illustrate what is occurring in the text. That verse reads,
God said to Noah:
An end of all flesh has come before me,
for the earth is filled with wrongdoing through them;
here, I am about to bring ruin upon them, together with the earth. (6:13)
An examination of over thirty English translations reveals that the phrase “bring ruin upon them” (mashchitam) in v. 13 is universally rendered by “destroy them.” While this is not an unreasonable translation of the hif’il verb form of sh-ch-t, it severs an important connection in the text, one which is obvious to a close listener. The threefold repetition of “ruin” in vv. 11-12 has paved the way for what is to come, namely, a statement of imminent consequences in the very terms that had described the crime. To put it succinctly, those who have been engaged in ruining the world are now to be brought to ruin themselves. This is not “strict justice” in the absence of mercy, but something akin to the saying, “What goes around, comes around.” The Bible frequently adheres to this principle.
Allusion is another approach used by the Bible to point out significant ideas, where a word or phrase will hark back to an earlier text. This is also illustrated by the second line above: “God saw the earth, and here, it had gone to ruin.” These words are reminiscent of a moment earlier in the Creation story, where the optimistic “God saw all that he had made, and here, it was exceedingly good” (1:31). The echoing of the earlier passage here suggests that what we have in the Flood story is the Creation in reverse, as many have observed, a return to the chaotic situation that prevailed before God exercised control and established order in the opening chapter of Genesis. The use of tehom, the primeval “Ocean” (7:11), and the appearance of ruach, “rushing-wind” (8:1), allude to their presence in the very opening moments of Creation: “darkness over the face of Ocean, / rushing-spirit of God hovering over the waters” (1:2).
These observations depend on an English reader being a listener, provided that the translator is motivated to try and reproduce what is heard in the text. Paying attention to the connections between texts, whether by carefully used repetition of a word or a Hebrew root, or by verbal allusion, will often point the reader in a fruitful direction, one which might otherwise be obscured, and almost always is in translation. These techniques are often bypassed by translators in their desire to vary English vocabulary and provide a smoother style, and something is always lost in the process.
Translation cannot always preserve what is natural and effective in the original. But, judiciously applied, it can often provide an echo of the ways in which the original conveys its message. That is a major goal of my Bible translation. In the ideal instance, the old Italian proverb, “the translator is a traitor” (traddutore traditore), should give way to the concept that “the translator may be a facilitator.”