Camouflage Equivalence: another example

Back in April I somehow missed Bryan Bibb’s interesting post Camouflage Equivalence1 it focuses on places where translators:

…seek to obscure rather than reveal the meaning of the original. He [Robinson] defines the term as “rearranging the semantic elements of the original… in a plausible way that disguises their dynamic meaning” (p. 6).

The idea, like the term used to describe it is really helpful. It neatly describes those places where translators soften the offense inherent in Scripture. The NIV regularly does this when a more “literal” translation leads to theological difficulties. One example is the rendering of ha’almah in Is 7:14 as “virgin”. Whether ‘almah can carry this meaning is at least debatable. As far as I can see the logic of Isaiah’s speech however demands a present focus and a translation like “young woman”. NIV has exercised camouflage equivalence.

I am less convinced by Bryan’s example. He claims that the ambiguous language (full of sexual double entendres) in Ruth 3 contains at least one such camouflage equivalence translation in almost all English Bibles. “Uncover his feet” in Ruth 3:4 is (Bryan thinks evidently, I’d say possibly) a euphemism. While most translations diminish the sexual tension in Ruth 3, where there are a string of words and phrases like this one that might carry sexual connotations, sometimes a foot is just a foot! The whole point (I think) of using that concatenation of ambiguous, possibly sexual, terms in Ruth 3 is surely to remain ambiguous. To uncover what the text deliberately leaves veiled but suggested is as “bad” as to cover what the text reveals…. So, “uncover his feet” (NIV, NAS, NRSV) gets it right neither camouflage, nor sex for the sake of shocking the horses, but a good serviceable translation.

On the other hand in Psalm 90:2 common translations are split, some opt for camouflage equivalence:

NET Psalm 90:2 Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God.
NRS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

While others dare to reveal the clear implication of the Hebrew:

NAS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born, Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.
NIV Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

For both verbs yalad and hul speak of procreation and birthing, and though yalad might refer to the father’s role hul cannot, but clearly refers to birthing.

  1. I had also missed Douglas Robinson’s book, Translation and the Problem of Sway, from which he apparently got the fine phrase. []

3 Comments

  • Another example is the way NIV deals with the discrepancy in the story of the Flood. Did Noah take two of every animal into the ark or one pair of unclean animals and seven pairs of clean animals? NIV, presumably on the ground that the Hebrew word for “two” is plural in form, translates it as “pairs”. I would be interested to know whether most Hebrew scholars would see this as a fair interpretation.

  • What I find interesting in the NAS and NIV translations is that they keep the syllables equivalence of the original Hebrew. For, “meolam ad olam” which in the syllables meter of the psalms comprise: 4 and 4 syllables (hence equivalence of syllables) they translate “from everlasting to everlasting” where also there is an equivalence of meter as 5 and 5 syllables.
    This idea that time is all the same to God is expressed rather interestingly in this psalm for the terms “thousand years” and “are like one day that passed” (verse 4) are also 4 syllables long.
    For an explanation of the syllables regular meter of the psalms please see:
    http://www.guyshaked.com/the-syllables-meter-of-the-psalms/

  • Gary, the me-‘olam ad-‘olam example makes it likely a translator aiming for as near word for word as they can will echo the rhythm as it’s balancing grammar with the long word repeated. In the other example the translation comes no where near reflecting the rhythmic nature of the original (as is, perhaps, more often the case).

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