Why Translations Differ, Part 6: Putting It All Together. Mostly

To summarize the first five parts of the series (linked below) and apply what we’ve learned to the original question-

Translations can vary for multiple reasons:

1) Different underlying texts (MT vs DSS) and influence of the versions (LXX, Targums, etc.)
2) Different understandings of the text on the grammatical and syntactic level
3) Different understandings of the text on the semantic/word level
4) Differing philosophies of how to best express one’s understanding of 1, 2, and 3 in English

Translators must examine, weigh, and make decisions on each of these issues before actually getting on to providing a translation.

With those issues in mind, let’s look at the original passages in question.

KJV Isaiah 9:1 (followed by 2 Nephi 19:1) reads negatively, “Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations” (my emphasis).”

At first, the lands are lightly afflicted, and then more grievously afflicted.

By contrast, most modern translations such as the NET, NRSV, JPS, etc. read positively, “The gloom will be dispelled for those who were anxious. In earlier times he humiliated the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali; but now he brings honor to the way of the sea, the region beyond the Jordan, and Galilee of the nations.”

This difference is largely accounted for by #3. The verbal root is kbd, which has a broad range of meaning. At it’s simplest, kabed means “to be heavy” but often in functional weight, not physical weight. As we know from English, weight can take on a variety of meanings. “He’s a heavy-hitter” “He’s a lightweight.” “This is a heavy (=difficult) burden.” “Doc, this is heavy.”

In Hebrew, kbd has a range of meanings from positive to negative. When the Ten Commandments tell us to “honor our father and our mother,” it literally tells us to “attribute weight to” them, take them seriously, kbd. One of the verbs for cursing someone, speaking of them negatively, is the opposite, qll “to be light.” He that curses (or “treats lightly” or “insults”, qll) his father and mother is in serious trouble.

kbd can also be used negatively. When the heart of Pharaoh is repeatedly “hard”, it is actually “heavy,” kbd.

Other semantic extensions of kbd include the nouns “worth,” “liver” (being the “heavy” organ), “difficulty,” and “valuable.”

The Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament informs us that kbd “may be semantically ambivalent: the weight of something can be experienced positively or negatively.” And this is the difference between interpretations in this passage. TLOT goes on. “In this regard, it is not accidental that the linguistic expression of the negative experience is the more developed and the more frequent. The primitive person experiences weight (1) as a burden that must be born bodily, or (2) as that which comes upon one, weight falling upon one.”

In other words, the primary difference between translations here falls under reason #3, different understandings of the text on the semantic/word level. KJV read it negatively, modern translations take it positively.

The second passage in question is 2 Ne 19:5/Isaiah 9:5.

NASB: “For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire.”

KJV: “For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.”

My questioner says, “I find KJV to be stultifying and I can only barely see how underlying texts might be the same (which may itself be a strong assumption).” Well, this passage combines several of our problems, and the following is simplified somewhat.

I don’t see any underlying textual differences, so the first issue has to do with #2, deciding what words are doing what functions. One of the problems with poetry (discussed in relation to #2) is it tends to elide a good bit. Verbs or other parts of speech are often not repeated (“gapping”), and we are left to fill them in. Except sometimes, we’re not sure if a verb should be supplied, if we’re dealing with a poetic sentence fragment, or what (again, issue #2). Added to this is that Hebrew does not use a verb “to be” in the present tense.

Note that KJV decides that the first phrase is a complete sentence, and supplies an “is” to render it thus in English. This is a good place to start paying attention to the KJV italics, which indicate where translators were consciously rounding out or filling in what they thought necessary (part of #4, translational philosophy). I’ve added a gapped “with.”

KJV: “For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and [with] garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.”

The second phrase they also read as a complete sentence, supplying a “this” as the explicit subject. Of course, “this” refers back to the first phrase, the conditions accompanying the first phrase.

The NASB, by contrast, reads the entire first phrase to be the subject of the second phrase, one long sentence.

There are also some semantic issues, #3. Obviously “garments rolled in blood” = “cloak rolled in blood, “battle tumult” = “confused noise”, but how do we get from “every boot of the booted warrior” to “battle of the warrior”? A combined hapax legomenon. We have a unique verb (a present participle) with a unique related noun, occurring nowhere else in the Old Testament. Essentially, it says, “For every X [is] X-ing with…” or “for every X of an X-er [is] with”.

From glancing at HALOT (the scholarly Hebrew standard), an Akkadian cognate noun means “boot,” and a Ugaritic cognate verb something like “to march.” Neither of those languages were available to the KJV translators, but they did know of the cognates in Jewish Aramaic. In any case, cognates are not determinative, only suggestive. We can’t really resolve anything there, and a responsible modern translation would footnote with “Hebrew uncertain” or “translation uncertain”

There’s a third issue we really haven’t addressed, namely the Book of Mormon following the KJV against other translations.
In many and perhaps most cases when reading the Hebrew, I’d likely follow modern translations over the KJV, for various reasons. See my Institute handout on the KJV.

It’s a tricky question, and not really within the scope of this post, but I’ll give two quick thoughts. As a result of his text-critical work, Royal Skousen has determined that many Isaiah variants in our 1981 text result from copying errors in the Book of Mormon publication history, not a different underlying Hebrew text. This suggests that the Brass Plates version was closer to the MT than LDS have often assumed. Second, I don’t have problems with the Book of Mormon following a flawed English translation, or Joseph Smith using the KJV language when it sufficed, but I don’t have strong opinions on the subject. I don’t think the “most correct book” statement entails anything about grammar, translation, word choice, etc. per se. Since I have never felt compelled to spend much time on Isaiah and the Book of Mormon, for further reading, I’d recommend Kevin Barney’s lengthy discussions here and here.

Obviously, many of the technicalities here are beyond the capability (and let’s be honest, interest) of the average reader, so in one final post, I will make suggestions for the non-specialist in dealing with this kind of thing.

Final part 7, coming soon.

4 comments for “Why Translations Differ, Part 6: Putting It All Together. Mostly

  1. Contra your friend, the KJV is a little easier to understand in the second section because it doesn’t indulge in one long much sub-claused clause.

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