Many thanks to Will Ross, a Cambridge PhD student working on the Greek Old Testament, for his guest review of the Old Testament part of Nicholas King’s one-person translation, The Bible.
The Old Testament in Translation: NETS and King’s Compared
A few weeks ago Steve invited me to contribute a post to his blog evaluating Nicholas King’s recently published The Bible: A Study Bible Freshly Translated (Kevin Mayhew, 2013). I have been overviewing several modern language translations of the Septuagint on my own blog (see here for the initial post), so, not knowing much about King’s work, I happily agreed.
What I will do here is outline King’s preface in The Bible, and then provide a series of examples of his work set against the latest English translation, the New English Translation of the Septuagint (= NETS; for my summary of the NETS methodology, see here). [Ed. For a free electronic version of NETS and more information about it from the editors, see here.] Hopefully this will provide an interesting study in contrast when it comes to the practice of translation in general, but more specifically also our approach to the Greek Old Testament.
Deducing the Approach of King’s Translation
King’s statements about his work are brief, spanning only two pages. He says simply that his translation is “from the Greek” for both Testaments (xi). Apart from that, King only mentions his translation approach with a sentence or two in the introduction to each book, which otherwise focus on themes and structure.
To evaluate King’s translation approach in general, then, I give selections from OT books that in their Greek versions occupy different positions on the translation “spectrum.” Scholars have long noted that different books in the LXX more or less closely followed Hebrew word-order, which frequently produces non-idiomatic Greek. The texts below begin with a more “literal” book and finish with a “free” translation. As we will see, the more “literal” LXX books show a greater number of differences in translation between King and NETS, since NETS aims to preserve the oddities of the Greek more than King does.
(For the best treatment of the state of scholarship on these books, see Aitken’s Companion).
Song of Songs
King notes that his translation of the Song “for the most part keeps close to the original, but without some of the woodenness that such a policy can bring about” (1266). This is evident in his rendering of Song 8:11:
ἀμπελὼν ἐγενήθη τῷ Σαλωμων ἐν Βεελαμων
ἔδωκεν τὸν ἀμπελῶνα αὐτοῦ τοῖς τηροῦσιν
ἀνὴρ οἴσει ἐν καρπῷ αὐτοῦ χιλίους ἀργυρίου (Rahlfs)
“There was a vineyard of Solomon’s at Baal-Hamon;
He gave the vineyard to those who keep it;
Each man will bring fruit worth a thousand pieces of silver” (King)
Compare this with NETS:
Salomon had a vineyard at Beelamon;
he entrusted the vineyard to keepers;
a man was to bring for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver
There is a considerable amount of stilted Greek in this verse. For example, γίνομαι + dative renders the Hebrew hayah + lamed preposition, ἀνήρ is meant to represent distributive ‘ish in Hebrew, and ἐν represents the beth preposition with the notion “in exchange for.” At each of these points we note variation between King and NETS (see boldfacing), which render the final clause quite differently.
King notes in his introduction to Judges that he follows the B-text of Greek Judges (Codex Vaticanus), an intriguing choice considering it is known to have undergone considerable Greek revision. An interesting verse is Judges 18:6, which reads:
καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ ἱερεύς πορεύεσθε ἐν εἰρήνῃ ἐνώπιον κυρίου ἡ ὁδὸς ὑμῶν ἐν ᾗ πορεύεσθε ἐν αὐτῇ (Rahlfs)
“And the priest said to them, ‘Go in peace: the journey on which you are embarked is before the Lord.’” (King)
Now consider NETS:
“And the priest said to them, ‘Go in peace. Your journey, that on which you are going, is before the Lord”
The Greek here has a few oddities. To focus on just two, the priest’s salutation is distinctly Semitic, as εἰρήνη was not used in Greek to refer to someone’s wellbeing, as was the Hebrew shalom. Secondly, notice the prepositional phrase at the end of the verse, ἐν αὐτῇ, rendering the resumptive Hebrew asher clause in a way that is uncommon in natural Greek usage. Interestingly, despite these exceptions to conventional Greek, King and NETS wind up with almost the same translation, except that NETS attempts to reproduce the resumptive clause.
Job is known to be one of the “freer” translations in the Septuagint (and perhaps for that reason quite a bit shorter than the Masoretic text). This plays out in a variety of ways, but one is a tendency to shift words about from the near context, perhaps for clarity or style. This occurs in Job 3:5-6a, which read:
ἐκλάβοι δὲ αὐτὴν σκότος καὶ σκιὰ θανάτου ἐπέλθοι ἐπ᾽ αὐτὴν γνόφος
καταραθείη ἡ ἡμέρα καὶ ἡ νὺξ ἐκείνη ἀπενέγκαιτο αὐτὴν σκότος (Rahlfs)
“Let darkness and the shadow of death seize it; let gloom come upon it.
Let that day and that night be cursed and let darkness carry it away” (King)
“But may darkness and deathly shadow seize it. May gloom come upon it.
May that day and night be cursed; may darkness carry it away!”
Here the Greek has entirely omitted the Hebrew phrase “let the blackness of the day terrify it” in v. 5 and joins “the day” at the end of the verse with its translation of v. 6. This verse demonstrates that the more idiomatic Greek of Job allows King and NETS’s translations to be nearly identical, except for the modals they employ to express the imperatives (i.e. “let” v. “may”).
Summing Things Up
This is just a taste of what King has done, of course, but from my own reading it looks to me that in general King has rendered his text in smoother prose than the Greek sometimes warrants. This is fairly clear when one looks at the Greek itself and contrasts King with the NETS version, the latter of which typically aims to mirror the “awkwardness” of the Greek.
Certainly the Septuagint has a great deal of unconventional Greek when you compare it with Koine literature like that of Polybius. But in my view, NETS often overdoes things by producing an unnecessarily awkward English version where the Greek could make better sense according to its natural usage. This is due, I think, to the fact that certain expressions (e.g., γίνομαι + dative, above) cannot adequately be rendered into English in a way that mirrors the syntax of the Greek, even as the Greek mirrors the syntax of the Hebrew! To that extent, I am glad to see King’s efforts to render the Septuagint sensibly, and I think it will certainly provide a useful resource to those who read and study the Old Testament.