Sunday, December 11, 2011

Translating or transliterating
the Tetragrammaton in Bible translations? /

Μετάφραση ή μεταγραμματισμός
του Τετραγράμματου στις Βιβλικές μεταφράσεις;

In order to correctly translate a word, phrase, or sentence, one must know what that word, phrase, or sentence means. But is the same true for names? Although many common biblical names have meaning, and their meaning is often clearly stated when a person first comes on the stage, the name is normally not translated, because a name's function in the narrative of the Scriptures is to identify the individual, not to continually refer back to the original meaning of the name.

Translators tend to transliterate these common names, even if the name has meaning. Take for example the names of the twelve patriarchs. Many translations will add footnotes to the verses where the name first occurs to explain the reason each of Jacob's sons got their special name. Once a name has been given to a person, though, the meaning of the name is no longer referred to; you could say that the meaning of the name is replaced by the meaning of the person. For example, when we think about Joseph, we think of the young man sold as a slave to Egypt and the story that follows. We seldom think about the meaning of his name, found in the GNB footnote at Gen 30.24: "Joseph: This name sounds like the Hebrew for 'may he give another' and 'he has taken away.'"

But in the case of names that occur only once or twice, translators vary in the way in which they treat such names. The translators of the NIV treat many of these names in the same way as they treat more common names. For example, in Gen 16.14 they transliterated the name Beer Lahai Roi and added a footnote explaining the meaning of the name: "Beer Lahai Roi means well of the Living One who sees me.'"

The GNB translators on the other hand chose to translate rather than to transliterate this name in the verse itself:
That is why people call the well between Kadesh and Bered "The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me."
The phrase "that is why" in this verse indicates there is a reason the well was given that particular name. For audiences not familiar with Hebrew, the logic behind "that is why" in this verse would be lost unless it is made clear in some way, either in a footnote (as in NIV) or by translating the name itself. [...]

From the context in which this name is used in the Old Testament we have established that the meaning of YHWH 'Elohim is that it is the name of the God who dwells with his people. The Old Testament authors apparently did not deem it necessary to make the meaning of the name YHWH Elohim explicit; maybe this meaning was abundantly clear to them since this name was used so prominently in the story of Adam and Eve.

It seems to me that the first thing translators would need to do is to represent this name as a distinct name, thereby indicating that it is truly a unique name of God with a specific meaning.

The translation of this name should not carry meanings that are in conflict with the meaning of the name, such as components of lordship, as in nearly all modern English translations; that component is simply not there, and it is not taken away by capitalising it. I understand full well the problem faced by translators working in places where there is a long-held tradition of using a word like "LORD" for YHWH. It is always hard to find the right balance between producing a translation that is both accurate and acceptable to the target audience, but misrepresenting the name of God seems to me to be erring on the side of acceptability. (See also my article "Translating YHWH' [Daams 2005] for a more complete description of how to translate the name of God.)

But even if the name is translated accurately and consistently, the meaning will not necessarily be obvious to the reader. Maybe a footnote explaining the meaning of the name in the various places where this name occurs might help here. In English the footnote would say something like, "The name Yahweh-God is the name of God that the Old Testament writers used when they focused on the God of Israel dwelling with his people."

* Nico Daams,
"Translating YHWH 'Elohim"
Πώς μεταφράζεται το ΙΧΒΧ 'Ελοχίμ»],
The Bible Tranlsator: Practical Papers,
Vol./Τόμ. 62, No./Αρ. 4 (October/Οκτώβριος 2011),
pp./σσ. 227, 233.

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