20 August 2014

No Wives, Only Slaves: On the Necessity of Retranslating the Bible

a guest post by David Tuchman

OMGWTFBIBLE is a new translation of the entire Hebrew Bible as a comedy. But that doesn’t mean I don’t take my translation very seriously. Beyond all the jokes, in retranslating Genesis, I’ve discovered two trends that reveal the approach to women and property taken in the culture surrounding the text that are not apparent in existing translations.
One of the earliest decisions I made when writing the OMGWTFBIBLE was to maintain an almost megalomaniacal consistency. If a word was translated a particular way, I stuck with that translating, regardless of context or traditional approaches. This led to some striking discoveries in Genesis, particularly regarding the words usually translated as “wife” and “servant.” I discovered that, depending on how the book is translated, nobody gets married in Genesis. And everyone owns slaves. And it’s not a coincidence those two words are so controversial.
Traditionally, Genesis is filled with marriages and wives. Adam makes Eve the first wife, Abraham takes a wife and then a concubine, and, after a veil-assisted switcheroo, Jacob ends up with more wives than he can handle. But none of those men necessarily have wives. In Hebrew, the word for “wife”—אשה [isha]—is identical to the word for “woman.” And at no point in Genesis does anything described explicitly as a wedding take place.Nearly every time a man and woman get together, the phrase used is ויקח אשה  [vayikach isha]—“and he took a woman”—forceful language that at one point, in Genesis 34 (Episode 16), is assumed to connote rape. It seems clear to me that women in Genesis are treated merely as property traded by the men who own them. In fact, the word usually translated as “husband”—באל [ba’al]—can actually mean “owner.”

There’s no dearth of owners in Genesis either. Every single one of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—is a slaveowner. Once again, this is a case of selective translation. In most translations, we’ll read of these men’s many servants. But like women, servant is translated from a word that has more than one meaning. עבד [eved] also means “slave.” This word is evoked every Passover, in the traditional reading of the Haggadah, when Jews sing עבדים היינו [avadim hayeenu]—“we were slaves”—during the ritual Passover meal. I translate it only as slave to ensure it’s clear that these men owned slaves. Abraham and Isaac not only owned slaves but received them as payment.
Throughout Genesis, women are repeatedly treated as property as slaveowning is casually mentioned as attributes of the book’s heroes. Theses two strands meet in Genesis 24 (Episode 9), when Abraham sends a slave to search for a woman for his son Isaac. When the slave, who remains unnamed throughout the episode, finds a suitable woman, he spends most of his energy trying to convince Rebecca’s father and brother to give her to Isaac as his woman. Asking her consent in the matter seems merely an afterthought, which speaks to the status of women in this world. Usually, this character is referred to as a “servant,” but as a slave, his story becomes much more interesting. As a man in bondage, what are his feelings about acquiring yet another piece of property for his master’s son? The answers are nowhere in the text but the question is nevertheless compelling.

At the moment, I’m nearly finished with my translation of Exodus, which, like Genesis, is full of surprises. To me, these shifts in understanding emphasize the need to retranslate the Bible. We must criticize at every turn. We can’t merely accept that traditional historical readings are correct. It’s crucial to our engagement with the world that we question everything we are told.

If you are in New York City, you can catch a live recording of OMGWTFBIBLE at 8PM on August 25th at the Beauty Bar on 14th street. More details here

If not, David is in the middle of an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money to take his podcast on the road. If you donate enough, I'm sure he'll come to your city. Check out his video below. 


Unknown said...

1. Just a quick note, you misspelled בעל as באל.

And it's not just that it's from the same root as owner, it's also the form of a verb for a man having sex with someone (well, technically the grammar is doing sex *to* someone rather than with someone).

2. As far as I know עבד is always for slave, not servant. You have משרת for servant, which is used in the bible, including in chapters that also use עבד. So while I'm not really familiar with the etymology I'm pretty sure that any translation that doesn't consider עבד and שפחה as slaves is doing it wrong.

3. All that said, in general an insistence of always using the same translation of a word regardless of context is bad translation work, because some words do have multiple meanings.

Of course by context here I mean the context used in the text, not later cultural context.

Unknown said...

2. Yes, I guess all translations to English were done at times when slavery was less common (even if existing), so they figured they'll make things "nicer".

3. I do agree about אשה. Definitely current marriage practices and rituals are not what is described in the bible. Then again no religious Jew I know of thinks that these cases involved the same sort of marriage that exists now, it's more of a hand-wavy "these were different times, why are you being petty about it?" than a "no, marriage was marriage even then".

but you still have a relatively clear disambiguation in cases when you have it as לאשה, which does very strongly imply a role (i.e. לקחת אשה certainly can be taking a woman and not taking a wife, but לקחת לאשה works better as taking "for/as a wife" than "for/as a woman").

Similarly, there are cases where in the same chapter/topic the text also mentioned כלה or כלתו, (bride, daughter in law), which again probably mean that a related אשה can be wife rather than just woman.