The Travesty of Translation

Okay, the title of this post might be overstating my case a bit, but I find myself growing ever so weary of Septuagint Jonah’s translator. Overall he does a rather fine job. But some of the literary artistry is destroyed in the name of lexical diversity and/or specificity. Allow me to explain…

The Hebrew version of Jonah, through lexical repetition, creates a rather intriguing role reversal in the first chapter of the book. God commands Jonah to “rise and go to Nineveh.” Upon arrival he is to “call out against it.”

קוּם לֵ֧ךְ . . . וּקְרָ֣א עָלֶ֑יהָ

 Jonah, as I’m sure you know, did not go. Instead, he “arose” in order to “flee” to Tarshish. The Septuagint translator renders this section

Ανάστηθι καὶ πορεύθητι εἰς Νινευη . . . καὶ κήρυξον ἐν αὐτῇ

At first look, this is a perfectly acceptable translation. As a matter of fact, the translator indicates his understanding of the context. Right? Instead of translating קרא “*καλέω,” he recognizes the religious implications of Jonah’s actions. He is κηρύσσειν “t0 proclaim/preach.” The Greek rendering is altogether appropriate considering his prophetic role (see Johann Lust’s Septuagint Lexicon).

Where, then, is the issue? As the narrative progresses, we find an irresponsive Jonah. God sends a great storm. The sailors are panicked. Jonah does not care. He does not assist the soldiers to lighten the ship. He does not offer prayers or petitions for his life or the lives of his fellow shipmates. Instead, he goes into the innermost part of the ship and falls asleep.

After all their efforts have failed, the captain of the ship approaches Jonah and exhorts him. The Hebrew text reads:

 קוּ֚ם קְרָ֣א אֶל־אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ

“Arise, call out to your God”

The Greek text reads:

ἀνάστα καὶ ἐπικαλοῦ τὸν θεόν σου,

“Arise and call out/invoke your God.”

Granted, the distinction is small. But that small distinction makes all the difference. By using the κηρύσσω word group, he has translated himself into a corner. He cannot translate this section ἀνάστα καὶ κήρυξον πρὸς τὸν θεόν σου. Preaching or issuing a proclamation to God makes little to no sense. The translator is forced to translate קרא how he should have, in my opinion, translated it to begin with (with the *καλέω word group).

As the Septuagint text stands, the role reversal is all but destroyed. The repetition of קרא in the Hebrew original allowed us to make a connection between the roles of Jonah and the captain. Jonah is commanded by God to “arise and call out.” He is sleeping silently. The captain is the one who is calling out to Jonah. He tells him none other than what God has previously told him “arise and call out.” It as if the pagan captain has assumed the role of the prophet, and Jonah has taken the place of the pagan.

This characterization is further supported by the various strands of the narrative. Jonah has all the right knowledge about God, but he is irresponsive. He does not care about the lives of his shipmates. They show the utmost concern for his. Though the sailors do not initially know the God of “the sea” and “dry land,” they “pray,” “sacrifice sacrifices,” and “vow vows” in response to Jonah’s creedal confession.

The good news, in all this, is the fact that the translation of קרא in chapter three remains consistent throughout (κηρύσσω is used). The only instance of inconsistency regarding this specific instance of lexical repetition occurred in 1:6.

This forces us to answer a couple questions?

First, is the contextual rendering of קרא with κηρύσσω worth the cost? Translators have to make these decisions every time they approach the text. Often times the choice is more complex than the above instance. Words in the target language rarely, if ever, have exactly the same semantic range as to source language.

Second, how much has really been lost in this instance and others like it? At the very least I believe that the Hebrew propensity for lexical repetition as a means of creating meaning is lost. Yet, has the role reversal been altogether destroyed? ἐπικαλέω “to call upon” and κηρύσσω “to preach” are similarly related. But would the observant reader be able to make the connection without having it explicitly made for him through lexical repetition? Or must we have that repetition in order to make any confident claim about meaning?

Sound off in the comments section if you have any thoughts. There are countless instances just like this throughout the LXX edition of Jonah, and your thoughts would be appreciated as I work through it!

This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, Discourse Analysis, Greek, Hebrew, LXX, Old Testament Studies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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