Sunday, August 22, 2010

“Resurrecting” an Image

Imagery represents a universal staple in poetry and Hebrew poetry is no exception. To consciously or unconsciously remove or disfigure images of a poem diminishes it. When translating Hebrew poetry errors of this sort sometimes occur because of the overwhelming desire to clarify God’s word, an admirable goal that sometimes leads to a mishandling of the Bible as written. Psalm 17:11 is one such passage. Consider these representative translations:

“They have now compassed us in our steps: they have set their eyes bowing down to the earth” (King James Version, KJV)

“They have now surrounded us in our steps; They set their eyes to cast us down to the ground” (New American Standard Bible, NASB)

“They have tracked me down, they now surround me, with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground” (New International Version, NIV)

Of these translations the KJV is the least problematic—

• It uses the antiquated term “compassed” whereas “surrounded,” as in the New King James Version, is better.
• The phrase “in our steps” that begins the clause, an accusative of limitation (see Waltke & O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, p. 173), is ambiguous because of the preposition “in. ” Wording such as “With respect to our steps” focuses the subject well, although the term “steps” could be sharpened to “tracks” as the NIV suggests and the conclusion will demonstrate (see Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 30).
• Finally, the narrow-focused term “ground” may fit the context better than the expansive word “earth” (see Holladay, p. 28).

The NASB takes second place in acceptability—

• The phrase “have now surrounded” translates well. This translation, however, uses the ambiguous “in our steps.”
• The phrase “set their eyes” could be taken as metaphorical especially in light of the following purpose-oriented infinitive “to cast us down.” However the phrase should be translated literally using “directed” or “fixed” (Holladay, p. 368) to eliminate any misunderstanding.
• The verb נטה does not mean “to cast down” but “to incline or bend towards” (Holladay, p. 235-36; Brown, Driver Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, pp. 639-41). Such a translation removes the purpose idea interpreted by the NASB (“to cast down”) and removes the necessity to add “us” to the last clause.
• The preposition “to” (ל) focuses the direction or fixation of the eyes (Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, p. 48).

The NIV places last in this series of translations—

• The paraphrase “they have tracked me down” captures the initial imagery but replaces “our” with “me,” a weak textual solution based on the principles set forth in The Text of the Old Testament, pp. 111-119, by Ernst Würthwein.
• The last clause is the biggest problem with the NIV. The clearly metaphorical translation,“with eyes alert,” instead of the literal, “they have set [fixed] their eyes,” is far too paraphrastic to enable the reader to understand the overall imagery.
• The verb נטה does not mean “throw.”
• The purpose idea, “to throw,” required because of the metaphorical translation “with eyes alert,” and the extra-textual insertion “me” combine to dismantle the biblical image.

A translation that “resurrects” the image follows—

With respect to our tracks, they have now surrounded us; they have fixed their eyes on the ground.

The picture is that of Saul and his forces searching for David and his men in the wilderness intently examining the ground for their tracks and possible location. They were successful according to this verse, and verse 12 both justifies and carries this image further with its stalking lion illustration.