Ambiguity and Translation: Judging Judges and Midrash

Students of Hebrew will be delighted to know that the rabbis felt their pain in advance. Hebrew is an ambiguous language. And ambiguous phrases in the Hebrew text are an occasion for playful midrash (with a serious message).

Take Ruth 1:1
‏וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה לָגוּר בִּשְׂדֵי מוֹאָב הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּשְׁנֵי בָנָיו׃

That first phrase (va-yehee beemay shefoat ha-shoa-feteem) in the plain sense (using context and common sense as a guide) means, “It happened in the days of the judging of the Judges” (back when there were Judges ruling Israel). But the phrase could also be taken to mean: back when Judges were judged [by others]. In other words, it could refer to a time when people used to hold judgment on the Judges instead of obeying the judgments of the Judges! The rabbis make a midrash on this with a serious moral:

So in the days when the judges judged, when a man had been guilty of idolatry and the judge wished to pass judgment on him, he came and flogged the judge, saying, “I have done to him what he wanted to do to me.” Woe unto the generation whose judges are judged! That is the meaning of the verse AND IT CAME TO PASS IN THE DAYS OF JUDGING OF THE JUDGES.
-Ruth Rabbah, Soncino Edition, Proem.

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2 Comments

Filed under Extra Insight, Translation Insight

2 responses to “Ambiguity and Translation: Judging Judges and Midrash

  1. Lovely.

    It is also the case, as you note, that the plain sense of the phrase is that the judges ruled, not that they adjudicated cases, though they would do that, too, no less and no more than a king like Solomon did, and a king like David was supposed to do (though he might neglect his duties in that sense).

  2. There is a lot on interest syntax here a vav yehi followed by an infinitive construct followed by a participle in the same verb. I didn’t find any other examples of this scenario in the MT (but see 2Chr. 26:5 ).

    The opening adverbial construction ויהי בימי vav yehi beymei is common (e.g., Gen. 14:1 , Gen. 26:1 , Judg. 15:1 , 2Sam. 21:1 , Is. 7:1 , Jer. 1:3 , Ruth 1:1 , Esth. 1:1 , 2Chr. 26:5) but the infinitive construct followed by a participle in the same verb is not so common (2Kings 3:15 , Jer. 49:8 , Jer. 49:30 , Ruth 1:1).

    The construct chain made up of beymei + a noun/substantive in the construct state is not rare (Gen. 30:14 , Gen. 47:9 , Judg. 15:1 , 1Kings 21:29 , Ezek. 16:60 , Joel 1:2 , Job 29:4 , Eccl. 7:15 , Eccl. 11:9 , Eccl. 12:1).

    Ambiguity here is not much worse than you would expect to find in Greek. The LXX of Ruth 1:1 Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ κρίνειν τοὺς κριτὰς, one way of reading this is the accusative τοὺς κριτὰς as subject of the infinitive as found in NETS Ruth “It was when the judges were judging.” It is also possible but less probable that the accusative could be object of judging.

    I got a lot of flack recently when talking in a theology forum about ambiguity in New Testament greek and MT Hebrew. It appears that some folks assume that a “high view” of scripture is incompatible with the notion of ambiguity in natural language. From a linguistic standpoint this is nonsense. Machine language, which was my introduction into linguistics 30 years ago, is intended to be non-ambiguous. If it is ambiguous you have a problem. On the other hand, the semantics of an ancient natural language text is radically underdetermined. The papers published by a number of bible translation consultants in the last 20 years working within some flavor of a cognitive linguistics (e.g., relevance theory, scenarios, cognitive frames, etc.) have put natural language ambiguity into formal framework. There was a lot resistance to this early on within the translation subculture. But were 20 years out now from E. A. Gutt’s unsettling first book. The framework of Gutt’s 1992 book now looks kind of old fashion. My Favorite recent publication is:

    Scenarios, Discourse, and Translation
    The scenario theory of Cognitive Linguistics,
    its relevance for analysing New Testament Greek
    and modern Parkari texts,
    and its implications for translation theory

    Richard A. Hoyle SIL 2008, available for download

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