The best translation?

What’s the best bible translation? I recall being asked this question a couple of years ago, following a talk on Luther’s language. I’m not sure exactly how I answered. I know I probably said to read more than one version. (There is no such thing as a perfect translation.) I may have also acknowledged that for those studying academically, the NRSV tends to be the recommended port of call. I have a suspicion I also recommended a volume Athalya Brenner put together, that presents insights into contemporary biblical scholarship through the voices of biblical women. It turns the notion of translation upside down, and sometimes we need that level of freshness.

I got into studying translation because of a detail in Ruth, where centuries of English readers were advised that Naomi was preoccupied with the fate of her daughters-in-law. What follows is condensed from a chapter of my thesis, and made accessible for a general audience. 1

Naomi is, in Hebrew, a sweet woman. Her name suggests pleasure, delight. If a translator chose to convey that meaning, they might call her Sweetie. The circumstances in which we encounter her are not sweet. Famine forces her family to flee. They head to Moab, hostile territory.2 For a brief spell, all seems well. Her sons take up with local women. But by verse 5, all the men—her husband, her sons—are dead.

Journeying back toward Bethlehem, Naomi-Sweetie is determined that those two local wives should not come with her. Why? She seems to think that their best hope of security is to find new husbands in their homeland. Yet they are determined to continue, saying as if with one voice “we will return with you”.

So Naomi-Sweetie gathers all her energy to dissuade them. Why would you come with me? she asks. Have I more sons to be husbands? I’m too old for all that. And even imagine I met a man right now, got pregnant, had twins—are you seriously telling me you’d wait for newborn husbands? No, for—And at this point her speech reaches a climax, filled with alliteration: mar li me’od mikkem, ki yad yhwh yazah bi. In the King James Version, this becomes “it grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me”.

“it grieveth me much for your sakes . . .”

In the 1780s, the preacher John Macgowan told his congregation that Naomi here showed an “excellent lesson” for all parents, preferring what was good for the next generation (her daughters-in-law) over what seemed best for her. Naomi was concerned for their sakes, preoccupied with their wellbeing.

* * *

Orpah is convinced, turns, goes home. But Ruth nevertheless persists, sticking to Naomi and proclaiming her commitment with words so strong you might hear them as wedding vows. Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your god’s my god, your people, my people. Where you’re buried, I’m buried. Strong words to a woman who has lost husband and sons, buried in a foreign land. Naomi is silent.

Naomi, Sweetie. As she and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem, there’s a murmuring. The townswoman are wondering: Is this Naomi? Sweetie? Don’t call me that! she says. Don’t call me Sweetie! Call me Mara—Bitter. For the Almighty has embittered me. I left full and God has brought me back empty. The complaint continues, and there is no mention of her companion. No, empty Naomi, the woman who wants to be renamed Bitter, is silent about Ruth.

How might we reconcile this silence with that portrait of perfect parental concern? How, indeed.

* * *

I got to studying Macgowan & co. and the history of English bible translation because I was puzzling about Naomi and that climactic speech. Where did that “for your sakes” come from? About 9 months into my PhD, I gave a paper about Naomi called “Bitter and Twisted?” I was playing with different ways of understanding her character, influenced in part by the rather fun commentary David Gunn and Danna Nolan Fewell published in the early 1990s. In one of the readings, the Hebrew word mikkem, which underlies KJV’s “for your sakes” becomes a moment of blame. Naomi’s situation (the LORD’s arm stretched out against her) has happened because of these two women, on their account.

A passage in Deuteronomy bars Moabites and their descendants from “the congregation of the LORD”. Reading across the canon, the intermarriage of Naomi’s sons puzzled some readers, and their deaths were interpreted as punishment. Could the Hebrew bear this weight?

As it happens, Midrash Ruth Rabbah (ca. 9th century CE) and the Syriac Peshitta (an early Christian retelling) both facilitate this take on the text, rendering mikkem as “on your account” or “because of you”.

But it is not the most natural way to read the Hebrew, even as it depends on the same loose idea that Naomi is focused on Ruth and Orpah in this passage. It took me a while to make sense of that reality.

You see, mikkem is a compound involving the Hebrew word preposition min. If you look min up in Brown, Driver and Briggs’ Hebrew Lexicon—a book I like to characterise as the OED for Biblical Hebrew learners—then you will find that Ruth 1:13 has a specific entry. The Hebrew learners’ OED tells us that the meaning of the compound form mikkem in this verse is “for your sakes”.

Now you won’t get a PhD by regurgitating the dictionary. But, to reiterate, the twisted reading is reliant on the same basic grammatical interpretation as that dictionary one. “For your sakes” = “on account of you” = “because of you”. (Albeit with a bit of ideological slippage.)

And the troubling thing is that the dictionary is giving bad counsel, counsel based as I came to realise on tradition. Behind Brown Driver and Briggs, or BDB as it is colloquially known, stood Gesenius’ Hebrew grammar, a German reference text first published 200 years ago. Both Gesenius and BDB based their guidance on this point on the familiar bible versions—that of Luther, and that of King James’ bible translators (lightly revised).3

Now James’ translators were up to something, and at some level preacher Macgowan knew it. For as his sermon proceeds he acknowledges, “some read: more than you”. That “some” includes the margins of the King James Bible. And those words “more than you” represent a linguistically superior way of understanding the Hebrew, a more natural interpretation of mikkem.

“it grieveth me much more than you . . .”

This different translation can still be understood as empathy. As Naomi saying that this parting with her daughters-in-law is most painful for her. But she can equally be understood to be saying that her loss is greater. (Which it is: she’s a mature perhaps post-menopausal woman who’s lost two adult children as well as her husband.)

Consider the words of the mid-sixteenth-century scholar Johann Isaac (which I translate from Latin):

“I cannot help but wonder” (writes Isaac, in a very long footnote in a very short text designed to help Hebrew learners) “what should have come into the eminent scholar’s mind that he, a distinguished Interpreter of the Hebrew text, translates mar li me’od mikkem as ‘greatly for your cause I suffer’. For who is there of the learned in the Hebrew tongue who does not know that mar means ‘acerbic’ or ‘bitter’, li ‘to me’, mikkem ‘than you’!?”

The object of Isaac’s wonder is Sebastian Châteillon, a Francophone who published complete translations in Latin and French. Châteillon was a Hebraist, and he was also a humanist. His language is vivid, and in many ways entertaining. But Isaac was not impressed by his handling of the grammar here, and I take this as an effective indicator that there were people (albeit in this case an ex-rabbi) with good enough Hebrew to understand that mikkem functions here to make a comparison.4

Isaac’s remarks also highlight Naomi’s bitterness. The Hebrew mar precisely anticipates the bitter renaming (Mara) she will request on arrival at Bethlehem.

And doesn’t she have a right to be bitter? Why should that bitterness be subsumed into a tradition of exemplary parenting?

Now it is true that King James’ company had precedent for their “excellent lesson”, and as documented well enough elsewhere,5 they had instructions to follow the preceding authoritative version (the Bishops Bible in a 1602 edition) to the extent it was good enough and to use other existing versions to help them take the measure of English texts. And English Naomi had been sorry for her daughters-in-law from the moment the Ruth text hit print. And before that she had been oppressed by their anguish (attested in late medieval Wycliffite manuscripts), a reading founded on Jerome’s Latin authority.

So it is partly a matter of tradition, of conserving the familiar. But also, I think, of the convenience of the lesson. This was a socially acceptable bible, one authorized for the nation’s preachers, one that did not permit its audience to dwell on the bitterness a woman so acutely bereft as Mara.

* * *

For the record, at Ruth 1:13b, the NRSV reads “it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”

* * *

And if you were still waiting to find out the best bible translation(!), I refer you back to the beginning: use all the translations you can get your hands on, talk to scholars, and read some of the fun stuff.  And be kind!

Image credit: Still from video of a Research Storytelling event, courtesy of the University of Sheffield (May 2018).


I owe the accessibility to time spent workshopping with storyteller Tim Ralphs. Thanks to the University of Sheffield you can watch me telling much of what’s written here as a research story here or here, though I have been able to include a little more detail in writing. [BACK TO TEXT]

2  This point can be exaggerated. Traditionally, Moab was understood to be at odds with the descendants of Jacob, having failed to support them after 40 years’ wilderness wandering (see especially the Deuteronomy text, referred to later). There is no hostility indicated in Ruth itself, so I’m playing with canonical context here, to help set the ‘traumatic’ scene. At the very least, Naomi and family are hungry migrants. [BACK TO TEXT]

3  The first edition of Brown, Driver and Briggs’ Hebrew–English lexicon appeared in 1906, and they dove-tailed some of their entries with the then new(ish) Revised Version which had been completed in 1885 (or 1889 if we count the deuterocanonical parts, but they’re less relevant to BDB). [BACK TO TEXT]

4  The episode between Isaac and Châteillon—perhaps better known by his Latin moniker Castellius—fascinates me. I was delighted when I turned up this footnote in the British Library’s copy of Isaac’s commentary. The inclusion of such criticisms of his fellow Hebraist was advertised on the title-page (along with attacks on another scholar). The book is otherwise a fairly dull tool, carefully logging the Hebrew grammar of Ruth, a word at a time. [BACK TO TEXT]

5  As it is free and accessible, I’ll recommend the little study guide I prepared with Gillian Cooper on the occasion of the King James Bible anniversary. It’s intended for confessional use, because it was part of a bigger project in partnership with Sheffield Cathedral.  [BACK TO TEXT]

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