Our Sunday School teacher, Prof. Jim Edwards, is now taking us through the book of Genesis. As Jim did with the book of Acts, which we completed last Spring, he reads directly from the biblical language text, which, of course, fascinates me no end, as a Bible translator. The teaching is great–some previous classes are available for download from the church website.
Last Sunday Jim pointed out that a Hebrew phrase of Gen. 2:17 is emphatic. Literally, it is translated as “dying you will die” (or for the purists, “dying you shall die”). That repetitive construction–called an infinitive absolute–is quite common in Hebrew. If we kept its literal translation in an English Bible version, users of that version would not understand its Hebrew meaning, because English uses other ways to express emphasis and intensity.
The Next Bible webpage (a new resource from the NET Bible folks) for Gen. 2:17 displays not a single English version which literally translates the Hebrew idiom. Even the NASB, which is one of the more literal of recent English versions, translates the Hebrew idiom to the appropriate, accurate, meaningful phrase, “you will surely die.” From the Next Bible webpage you can read the NET Bible notes on the Hebrew:
Heb “dying you will die.” The imperfect verb form here has the nuance of the specific future because it is introduced with the temporal clause, “when you eat…you will die.” That certainty is underscored with the infinitive absolute, “you will surely die.”
The Hebrew text (“dying you will die”) does not refer to two aspects of death (“dying spiritually, you will then die physically”). The construction simply emphasizes the certainty of death, however it is defined. …
In debates over Bible versions, there is often the assumption, and sometimes the claim, that literal Bibles are better or more accurate. But even translators of literal and essentially literal translations recognize that if a literal translation does not adequately communicate the original biblical meaning, it should not be used.
In my opinion, Bible translation debates over literalness should be reframed to ask: “How would we express this biblical text meaning in normal English?” With this approach we need not go to extremes of interpretive translation or paraphrase or translating as a commentary. Instead, we would translate within a range of normal, standard English which uses forms that are translationally equivalent to the meaning of the forms of the biblical language texts. Within that range, some Bible versions would be closer to the forms of the biblical texts and others would be less so, but all would be accurate and understandable. Bible translations within that range are better Bibles.