Another God coming along behind

I have been working my way through checking the Kasem translation of Isaiah for a few weeks now. The repetitive nature of Hebrew poetic form presents a challenge. Pairs of lines tend to repeat the same information, with some variation in the words used,  sometimes pairing a positive with an equivalent negative, or mirror image;  sometimes with the second line expanding or strengthening the idea contained in the first line. This has been described as rhyming ideas, rather than the rhyming of sounds, which we are more used to.

The challenge is that people not familiar with Hebrew poetry (such as most Kasena) will want to read a different meaning into successive lines–why say the same thing twice over? Here is an example from the English Standard Version:

… for the LORD will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
Isaiah 52:12b (ESV)
That surely must mean that one God (the LORD) is at the front and another (the God of Israel) is following at the rear. Of course those with a good Bible knowledge will know that these are one and the same, and that the LORD, the God of Israel will protect them in front and behind.
Recognising that it is the Israelites who are being addressed the Good News Bible gets around the problem with:
The LORD your God will lead you and protect you on every side. (GNB)
Surprisingly, the New Living Translation keeps the potentially confusing parallelism:
For the LORD will go ahead of you, and the God of Israel will protect you from behind. (NLT)
Omitting the and between the lines may help a bit, as New International Version and others:
… for the LORD will go before you, your rearguard will be Israel’s God. (Revised English Bible)

Once again, we are faced with the dilemma in translation between maintaining the dynamism of the poetic form (or at least a hint of it), and spelling out the meaning clearly in a rather flat and uninteresting way. A more ambitious alternative may be to research equivalent poetic forms in the target language and mould the text into those patterns, but this is moving further away from the cultural setting of the original.

One more example: Isaiah often interchanges the names Jacob and Israel in successive lines, referring in each case to the same people of God. The names refer to the founding ancestor of the nation, whose name was changed from Jacob to Israel. I count 23 instances in the book of Isaiah where the two names are used in parallel, but with essentially no difference in who they refer to. Here is an example:

But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
     he who formed you, O Israel:
Isaiah 43:1a (ESV)
In these cases it seems necessary to combine the two forms of address into one appellation, so as to avoid the inference that God is addressing two groups of people. There is the added complication that of course it is not the long-dead ancestor who is being addressed but his descendants, as a group. In Kasem it is possible to combine these and translate the above into something like:
Offspring of Jacob who are the Israel people,
God has created you and brought you into being.
This keeps a hint of the parallelism, but avoids possible ambiguity in who is being addressed, two groups of people or one. What do you think?
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4 responses to “Another God coming along behind

  1. Fascinating dilemma – of all the options listed I think I’d definitely go for the last one – “Offspring of Jacob who are the Israel people,
    God has created you and brought you into being.”

  2. just an extension of life then really… 🙂
    You have an awesome responsibility – ensuring the true meaning of the original gets across without somehow “slanting” the emphasis to reflect your own (or others’) interpretation.
    I suppose that’s the difference between translation and paraphrase. Both have their place but it’s imortant to know clearly which one is engaged in (not to mention which one is reading…)
    That last sentence doesn’t read particularly clearly… I was using “one” as a pronoun both times. But if you didn’t know that, then translating it could have been “interesting”…

  3. Pingback: Bible and Mission Links 5

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