The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Translating Genesis: Repetition

The novelist Milan Kundera criticized the French translations of Kafka thus:

Translators tend to enrich the vocabulary: “never ceased to experience” (for “have”); “thrust,” “advance,” “go a long way” (for “be”); “walk” (for “go”); “find” (for “have”). What terror the words “be” and “have” strike in all the translators of the world! They’ll do anything to replace them with words they consider less routine.

Kundera connected this point with the unwillingness of many translators to submit to the repetitions of the original:

The need to use another word in place of the more obvious, more simple, more neutral one (have – experience; go – walk; sweep – whip) may be called the synonymizing reflex – a reflex of nearly all translators. Having a great stock of synonyms is a feature of “good style” virtuosity; if the word “sadness” appears twice in the same paragraph of the original text, the translator, offended by the repetition (considered an attack on obligatory stylistic elegance), will be tempted to translate the second occurrence as ‘melancholy.’ But there’s more: this need to synonymize is so deeply embedded in the translator’s soul that he will choose a synonym first off: he’ll say “melancholy” if the original text has “sadness” and “sadness” if the original has “melancholy.”

The original’s repetitions deserve respect. That is especially true in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, for other scholars have shown in convincing detail that repetition is central to how meaning is constructed in biblical stories. (Examples include Martin Buber, Robert Alter, Edward Greenstein and Meir Sternberg. Especially see Chapter 11, “The Structure of Repetition: Strategies of Informational Redundancy,” in Sternberg’s “The Poetics of Biblical Narrative.”)

In this post, the fifth in a series on “Genesis 1–11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators,” I want to ponder a few of the repetitions of vocabulary and syntax in these chapters, showing how they can be handled by the contemporary English translator. Consider five kinds of repetition.

First, the repetition of a single word. In Genesis 3:5, the serpent promises that eating of the one forbidden fruit will make the man and woman “like gods, knowing good and evil.” They eat. In verse seven, “the eyes of the two of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” The knowledge they gained is not the knowledge they expected. The repetition makes the irony bite. But some translations vary the rendering of the Hebrew word. One example is the New Jewish Publication Society translation. In it, the serpent promises the man and woman that they will “be like divine beings who know good and bad,” but upon eating “they perceived that they were naked.”

Second, consider the repetition of a sequence of words. In Genesis 3:6, the woman, later named Eve, “saw” that the fruit was “good” and “took” it. In Genesis 6—in what is surely one of the most mysterious passages in the Book of Genesis — we read of “the sons of God” marrying “the daughters of man.” We offer the following translation of 6:2: “the sons of God saw the daughters of man, that they were good. And they took for their wives whomever they chose.” This rendering preserves the repetition of three words from the description of Eve’s taking of the fruit, in precisely the same order: “saw,” “good,” “took.” As we say in our translation note on these lines, “For an attentive reader, the parallel offers a clue that this will not end well.”

Third, consider the repetition of synonyms. Genesis 7:13–14 describes the entrance into the ark of Noah and his family and the animals. In verse 14, a number of stock taxonomic terms get repeated: “beasts,” “cattle,” “darting things,” “flying things.” But the received Hebrew text of Genesis (the Masoretic Text) does not stop with “all the flying things after their kind.” It continues with “all birds, all winged things.” There is an exuberant delight in the abundance of flying things. (Contrast the sense of loss in remembering the moth snowstorm.) Nor is this an isolated occurrence. Repeatedly throughout Genesis 1–11 the flying things are lovingly singled out, the sort of thing one might expect if “J” and “P” stood for John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson. But in most translations, that repetition of synonyms disappears. The ancient Greek translation called the Septuagint has one term alone, and many translations split the difference between the three terms of the received Hebrew text and the one term of the Septuagint. For example, the English Standard Version has two terms: “every bird, according to its kind, every winged creature.” Our translation follows the received Hebrew text more closely, preserving the threefold “all the flying things after their kind, all birds, all winged things.”

Fourth, consider the repetition of phrases. Throughout Genesis, the seams between major structural units are marked with a recurring phrase called the toledot formula: “These are the generations of x.” That is the traditional rendering, and it is quite literal. We use it. But many recent translations vary the rendering. Sometimes, especially before a genealogy, they have “These are the descendants of x.” But other times they have “This is the tale of x or “This is the story of x.” Those renderings hide from the reader the use of the phrase as a structural marker. They also make modern genres — anachronistic ones — intrude into the text instead of letting the text describe itself. As Ronald Hendel has said: “modern,” “inexact categories” do not do justice to the genre of Genesis; with the toledot formula the book presents itself as “a genealogy of the world, which moves toward the teleological focus of the genealogy, the people Israel” (pp. 76–78 here).

Finally, consider repetition of syntax. At the end of Day 6 in the Creation Overture (1:1–2:3), the divine summation is: “And God saw everything that he had made, and lo, it was exceedingly good.” That syntax is repeated in Genesis 6:12, immediately before the Flood: “And God saw the earth, and lo, it was ruined.” The parallel is precise: Once the divine craftsman examined his work with delight, but now he examines it with sorrow. One might think the parallel is too obvious for a translation to mess it up. And some translations do carry it over (e.g., Alter). But for many, the synonymizing reflex described by Kundera is too strong. In the New Revised Standard Version, for example, the syntactic repetition disappears and the echo grows faint: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (1:31a); “And God saw that the earth was corrupt” (6:12a).

Does repetition in the original matter? Does the question really need to be asked? Should Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose” be translated “a rose is a flower, a red bloom surrounded by thorns”?

(Page references: Repetition is discussed in “To the Reader” on pp. 6–8. The Index of Subjects includes nearly a page of subentries for repetition; see pp. 281-282.)