A New English Translation of the Septuagint


Albert Pietersma

For some decades now, possibly as long as the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies has existed, a desire has been expressed for a new, modern English translation of the so-called Septuagint. That such a translation would scarcely be a luxury is immediately clear from the dates of previous translations into English of the entire corpus: Charles Thomson 1808 and L. C. L. Brenton 1844. Thus a century and a half separates us from the more recent of these two (Brenton), which, one assumes for lack of anything better, is still in widespread use among students of the Bible in the English speaking world. Language, however, undergoes change over time and human perceptions are not what they were a hundred and fifty years ago. Not least importantly, much progress in the textual history of the Old Greek version of the Bible has been made since the days of Thomson and Brenton, and the famous discoveries in the Judaean desert, well within the memory of many of us, have given increased prominence to the work of the Seventy and their successors.

But let me no longer keep you in suspense: the dream of decades has begun to come true. Not only has the IOSCS decided to sponsor A New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) but in the course of the past two years important steps have been taken toward getting this translation project under way. In this paper I would like to discuss some of the underpinnings of the undertaking.

Since translating the so-called Septuagint into English is, as we have already noted, scarcely without precedent, NETS at an early stage had to confront the question of continuity versus discontinuity. That is to say, at least three options presented themselves: (1). NETS could revise and update an existing English translation such as Thomson or Brenton, who translated the Greek without systematic recourse to contemporary English translations of the Masoretic text (MT); (2). NETS could offer a fresh English translation of the Greek and thus continue the approach of the older translations; (3). NETS could blaze a new trail by producing a translation based on a current English translation of the MT and thus discontinue the tradition of the older translations. We decided in favour of the third option, namely, to base NETS on an existing English translation of MT. Especially since this decision breaks with precedence, it calls for some discussion.

Our decision, we believe, rests on considerations both of principle and of practicality. I begin with principle.

Though in secondary literature on the so-called Septuagint one not infrequently and quite properly encounters statements emphasizing that it is an entity "in its own right" that it possesses an independence vis-à-vis its parent, it is nonetheless undisputed historical fact that the Septuagint is a Greek translation of a Hebrew (or Aramaic) original. If that is in fact so, whatever else it may be considered to be--a repository of textual variants to the Masoretic Text, the most ancient commentary on the Hebrew Bible, Holy Scripture for Hellenistic Judaism (and later of Christianity)--its fundamental nature remains one of dependence and derivation. Due recognition of this fact, we believe, entails an important methodological directive, namely, that any translation of the Greek ought to stand in a dependent relationship to a translation of the Hebrew. Put another way, if we are to reflect the historical relationship between the Hebrew and the Greek Bibles, we can best do this by beginning with relating their translations into English in a similar manner.

Furthermore, alongside of the dictum of principle just delineated, there is an important practical consideration that leads one to the same conclusion. Surely central to any translation of the Greek corpus, in the current context of textual plurality, has to be its synoptic potential. That is to say, readers of such a translation should be able to use it to the greatest extent achievable in comparative study of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles. In our view this aim can best be realized if English translations of the Greek and the Hebrew are as closely interrelated as their sources dictate or allow, both quantitatively and qualitatively. In other words, ideally the user of NETS should be able to ascertain not only matters of longer and shorter text and transposition of material, but also details of textual and interpretational difference.

In our deliberations as to which English version of the Hebrew Bible might best serve as the base text for NETS, we were guided by two, we believe important, criteria, (1). compatibility of translational approach with that of the OG corpus and (2). wide-spread use and popularity in the English speaking world. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) was thought to satisfy both criteria, based as it is on the maxim "as literal as possible, as free as necessary" [Footnote 1: Zondervan Reference Edition 1993, Preface x.]
and reputed to be the most widely used version of the Bible among readers of English. It should be stated emphatically, however, that NETS aims to be not a slightly revised version of the NRSV but a thorough reworking ot it from the perspective of the Greek text. Thus NETS intends to be a translation in the full sense of that word.

Before an audience of biblical scholars it is surely carrying coals to Newcastle to emphasize that translating an ancient text, a "permanently fixed expression of [ancient] life", [Footnote 2: J. G. Droysen pace H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method . New York, 1986 (1975), p. 349.] can only be described as a profoundly difficult undertaking. For not only are translators of ancient texts confronted with the gulf that naturally exists between languages and with the absence of the author who wrote the piece in question, but they also suffer from the lack of native speakers who might be cajoled into giving some much needed help in the process of transformation. To make the NETS project even more precarious, it undertakes to translate an ancient translation of an ancient original into a modern language. Thus if translating is an act of hybris, as a recent writer has called it, [Footnote 3: Burton Raffel in The Craft of Translation p. 35.] translating a translation must then be labeled an act of hybris agan .

If translating is indeed interpreting, transforming, and not simply reproducing, as linguists insist it is, a Greek interpretation of a Hebrew original can only be expected to reflect what a given Greek translator understood the Hebrew text to mean. The result is, therefore, inevitably a biblical commentary written at a specific historical time and place by a human whose understanding of the Hebrew will often have been at variance with our own (and perchance with that of the NRSV as well) though perhaps equally viable. At this point, then, we can sound the note of Septuagintal independence vis-à-vis the Hebrew, though an independence that is circumscribed and relative.

But as troublesome, for the English translator, as gauging the extent and impact of a substitution of meaning from Hebrew to Greek are the freshly introduced problems and infelicities based on the Greek translator's partial or complete misunderstanding of the source text.and/or his (to us) faulty linguistic method. Furthermore, we early on decided properly we think to translate the Septuagint, not in the first instance as its reading public would or might have read it, but rather as the ancient translators themselves presumably understood and intended it.[Footnote 4: The importance of this point has been well emphasized by E. Tov, "Three Dimensions."]

Thus we asked ourselves what precisely it was that we should aim at capturing in our translation. Theoretically one can readily distinguish two alternative approaches to the Greek text. That is to say, one can either try to render the meaning of the text as it was or could be understood by the Greek-hearing/reading public (therefore, based on audience perception), or one can seek to uncover the sense of the Greek text from the perspective of the translator (therefore, in accordance with the translator's intent). For those who hold that one's interpretive approach to (ancient) texts is properly informed by the principle of authorial intent, the choice between these approaches is not difficult to make. Ostensibly, all one needs to do is to substitute "translator's intent" for "author's intent."

Although theoretically it is perfectly simple to make a distinction between audience perception, on the one hand, and translator's intent, on the other, in practice such a contrast is decidedly more difficult to make. Furthermore, since neither authors nor translators do their work in isolation, but instead target a more or less specific public, the concept of author's/translator's intent, must to a large degree be made to include that of audience perception. In other words, in reality translator and audience belong to the same language community. Yet the distinction is a valid one and constitutes an important methodological stance for NETS translators of the Greek, with not infrequent practical consequences. Obvious examples are subject/object relations, possibly ambiguous in the Greek but explicit in the Hebrew, in light of which one can infer the translator's intent. Other examples are instances in which specific semantic components of Greek lexemes are selected (for translation into English) on the basis of their Hebrew counterparts. As a case in point one might cite Greek DYNAMIS, which in Psalms translates four different Hebrew lexeme: xyl "strength/efficiency/wealth/army", (Z "strength/might", CB) "army/war/warfare," GBWRH "strength/might" ranging in meaning from "army" "war" to "strength" "power" "wealth." When the (Greek) context of DYNAMIS is unclear, it is the Hebrew counterpart that should direct one's choice of semantic component.[Footnote 5: Martin Flashar, "Exegetische Studien zum Septuagintapsalter."]

In my work on the Greek Psalms for NETS I have developed a number of practices and procedures that we plan to follow, mutatis mutandis, in the rest of the Greek corpus.

As a NETS translator, I have found it useful to think of lexical meaning in terms of a spectrum or semantic scale. Here I will use the latter phrase, but whatever the precise image, its essential characteristic is that of a continuum extending from fully contextual segments of meaning at the one end of the scale to completely isolate segments at the other. That is to say, at the one end of the scale we find meaning as defined predominantly by context and, at the other end, meaning that is wholly restricted to the individual word or phrase (hence the term isolate). Not surprisingly, isolates often stand in tension with or even in contrast to their context. One might argue, in fact, that the more a given translator retreats into an isolate mode of translation (i.e., a translation which pays scant attention to context), the less he is able to perform his translator's duty to the reader, namely, to convey the total linguistic meaning of the source text.

The semantic scale might be represented as follows:

------------- Isolate

Transliterations, including most names, have, of course, not been included in the scale, since these simply carry the meaning of the source text (Hebrew) and as such are not subject to translation into English. Visually one may place them to the right of the isolate end of the scale.

The vertical line on the scale marks an important line of demarcation between two different sorts of semantic representation. Words or lexemes ranging from Contextual to Stereotypes inclusive are dealt with in terms of their normal Greek meanings; those ranging from Calques to Isolates inclusive are effectively assigned the meaning of their Hebrew counterparts (= so-called "Hebraisms"). By "normal Greek meaning" is simply meant the semantic components that fall within the usual semantic range of a given word and hence would be included in its dictionary definition. We will return to Stereotypes and Calques at a later juncture.

There can be little doubt that the entire range of the semantic scale is represented in all translated books or units of the Septuagint, though each different unit may be expected to show a distinctive distributional profile. That is to say, the relative concentration (clustering) of lexemes along the continuum may vary from book to book. The book of Psalms is no exception. It too has its own profile. The number of isolates or virtual isolates is relatively high and in more general terms the Psalter features a relatively high number of items that tend toward the isolate end of the scale. To that extent the Greek translator's interest in the formal detail of the Hebrew text is sometimes at the expense of communicating its meaning. It might in fact be argued that the Greek translator's starting point is at times almost directly opposite to that advocated by modern linguists. Not atypically he begins with the individual word and its supposed core meaning rather than with meaning as it is conveyed by the interrelationships of words in syntactic units. Differently put, one could say that the Greek translator at times maximizes the individual lexeme and minimizes the context in which it stands. In illustration one might point to the titles of individual Psalms. Often bolder than modern translators of the Hebrew, the Greek translator seemingly felt obligated to translate into Greek whatever he found in his Hebrew text. What did he think his text meant, for example, when he translated jxnml by eij" to; tevlo"? Admittedly we are dealing with an item in limited context; yet it is very difficult, to say the least, to make sense of this Greek phrase in relation to the Psalms in question. Other examples in the Psalms per se are not difficult to find. [Footnote 6: Cf. 4:7 SEMEIOO (for NSH) arrived at via SEMEIOSIS = NS in 59(60):6.]

But if the Greek translator's approach to the Hebrew Psalms is all too often what I have alleged it to be, namely, based on a one-word-one-meaning understanding of language, what are the options of the modern English translator who tries to reflect the Greek translator's intent and convey his understanding of the source text? The answer seems disturbingly clear: the English translator, in such instances, is basically locked into the same approach. When, for example, the Greek with rigid consistency translates XPC + cognates by THELO + cognates (thus creating a stereotype), is the English translator not compelled to render the latter consistently by a narrow range of synonyms, all of which exclude the semantic component of "delight," even though in some settings this causes a certain amount of tension with the context? [Footnote 7: Cf. e.g. 1:2.] Rather worse than such stereotypes are cases in which the Greek translator, because he could not understand his Hebrew, resorted to an etymological translation or rather to a presumed isolate meaning of a Hebrew root. Typically, such renderings stand in some tension to their immediate context.

In conclusion I would like to return briefly to the semantic scale I delineated earlier. It may be recalled that we made distinction, with semantic consequences, between Contextual Stereotype renderings on the one hand and Calque Isolate on the other. The vertical line of demarcation we drew was based on the applicablity of semantic range, Greek for Contextual Stereotype, (effectively) Hebrew for Calque Isolate. Thus the two pivotal terms are stereotype and calque. We begin with the former. In line with its etymology, the term stereotype is widely used in our literature to describe a rigid or wooden equating of, say, a Hebrew root with a Greek root in most of its occurrences. Problem is, however, to decide when a given equation becomes stereotypical? How high does the percentage count have to be before one can speak of a stereotypical equation? From the perspective of a (NETS) translator, I have found it more useful to look at the phenomenon of stereotypy in terms of meaning. Thus what is determinative is not the percentage of consistency in a given equation but whether in some of its occurrences the Greek lexeme stands in tension with its context. Since stereotypes clearly arise from a perceived one-to-one Hebrew-Greek equivalence, it should come as no surprise that they share this feature with what we have termed isolate translations. An example would be EIS TELOS used as a standard rendering of Hebrew LNCX. While the Hebrew phrase clearly includes the notion of temporal duration (e.g. "forever"), the Greek phrase does not. [Footnote 8: T. Muraoka appropriately gives it as "until a process begun reaches its logical conclusion, utterly, completely" A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint. Twelve Prophets . Peeters, 1993, p. 230.] As a result a passage such as 73(74):3 "Raise your hands totally against their acts of pride" (NETS), ("Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins" NRSV) would come off better if one could inject the notion of temporal perpetuity, for example: "Raise your hands forever against their acts of pride." Or 15(16):11 "in your right hand are pleasures, completely" (NETS) "in your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (NRSV).[Footnote 9: That in these two passages, due to contextual pull, the meaning of EIS TELOS may well have been stretched, by subsequent readers, to include a temporal component is, of course, not at issue here. But such stretching, if it occurred, would be specific to the passages in question and would scarcely become a regular component of the phrase.] Another example of this kind of stereotype would the earlier cited equation of Hebrew XPC and Greek THELO in Ps 1:3: "but his will is in the law of the Lord," (NETS) "but their delight is in the law of the LORD" (NRSV).

In this perception, a true stereotype, in which the semantic range of a lexeme in the source language is so filtered by its counterpart in the target language that it becomes a poor fit in some contexts this kind of stereotype can only exist for its creator. That is to say, a given translator may create a stereotype (due to his rather wooden one-to-one approach) but if such an item becomes fully contextualized, fully acclimatized, through continued use within the Greek speaking/reading community, it then turns into a calque, a Greek word that has taken on the meaning of its Hebrew counterpart. Calques (= French "close copy, tracing" < Lat calco "to stamp") in the Greek Psalter are plentiful and include such well known items as DIATHEKE (BRYT), ELEOS (XSD), KYRIOS (YHWH), deictic IDOU (HNH), recitative LEGON (LM)R) and many more. In all of these cases we are dealing with linguistic items that have been moulded and acclimatized by prior (to the Psalter) usage.

Whether or not one fully agrees with the precise use of terms such as stereotype and calque suggested above, the semantic determinations that they entail are, I believe, fundamental to the translation work NETS has embarked upon. Yet no matter what one does, translating an ancient translation remains a profoundly difficult task and one which must be concluded at some point, since it can never be called finished. As a recent writer has put it, translating is like the figure on the box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix, a figure within a figure within a figure on to infinity.[Footnote 10: Gregory Rabassa in The Craft of Translation, p. 7.] The NETS undertaking has begun but also plans to conclude within the foreseeable future. May you all live to see that day dawn.[Footnote 11: I am grateful to my fellow members on the NETS Translation Committee, R. A. Kraft, B. Wright, M. Silva and B. Taylor for their input on the subject of this paper.]

The following bibliographical items, though not necessarily cited in this paper, have helped the author immeasurably in writing it:
Barr, J. The Semantics of Biblical Language . Oxford, 1961.
Chamberlain, G. A. "Method in Septuagint Lexicography," Uncovering Ancient Stones. Essays in Memory of H. Neil Richardson. Lewis M. Hopfe (ed). Winona Lake, 1994. Pp. 177-91.
Flashar, M. "Exegetische Studien zum Septuagintapsalter" ZAW 32 (1912) 81-116, 161-89, 241-68.
Kraft, R. A. (ed) Septuagintal Lexicography . (Septuagint and Cognate Studies 1.) Missoula MO, 1972
Louw, J. P. Semantics of New Testament Greek. (SBL Semeia Studies.) Atlanta GA, 1982.
Nida, E. A. and Louw, J. P. Lexical Semantics of the Greek of the New Testament. (SBL Resources for Biblical Study 25.) Atlanta GA, 1992.
Nida, E. A. and Taber, C. R. The Theory and Practice of Translation . Leiden, 1982.
Schulte, R. and Biguenet, J. The Craft of Translation . Chicago, 1989.
Silva, Moisés Biblical Words & their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics. Grand Rapids, 1983.
Tov, E. "Three Dimensions of LXX Words," RB 83 (1976) 529-44.