Peter J. Leithart
September 21, 2011
Category: Bible - OT - Deuteronomy,Hermeneutics
The NASB renders Deuteronomy 30:9 this way: “Then the Lord your God will prosper you abundantly in all the work of your hand, in the offspring of your body and in the offspring of your cattle and in the produce of your ground, for the Lord will again rejoice over you for good, just as He rejoiced over your fathers.”
If you follow the literal translations in the margin, it comes out this way: “Then the Lord your God will make you have excess for good in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground, for the Lord will again rejoice over you for good, just as he rejoiced over your fathers.”
What’s lost in translation? One might say nothing substantive is lost. But a great deal of the artistry of the verse is suppressed.
First, the NASB translation of the first clause as “will prosper you abundantly” makes it impossible to see that the verse is framed by references to Yahweh’s intention “for good.” The verse begins with “Lord will make you have excess for good” and ends with “the Lord will again rejoice over you for good.” The inclusio is elided.
Second, by translating “fruit” in two different ways – “offspring” and “produce” – the NASB translation again suppresses the poetry because it suppresses the poetic repetition. The reader then misses the opportunity to think of children, calves, and plants as varieties of “fruit,” and misses the opportunity also to consider how a mother’s womb is like the womb of a cow and like the womb of the earth that produces fruit.
Third, structurally, the use of “offspring” and “produce” instead of fruit misses the intriguing numerological structure in the center of the verse. ”The good” that Yahweh makes and rejoices over is unpacked with four phrases – work of hand, fruit of womb, fruit of cattle, fruit of ground. That fourfold good is a global good, a good to the four corners, to the four points of the compass, a good in four dimensions of Israel’s agrarian life. But that fourfold good is divided by a 1 + 3 structure. Why? Why not use “fruit” throughout? Why not “fruit of the hands”? Whatever the answer to that question, the hand and its work is distinguished from the fruit that comes from womb, cattle, and ground. There’s a reason for that, but the reader of the NASB is never invited to consider that reason because the translation obscures the 1+ 3.
This text is an example of bad translation because there appears to be no rationale for the non-literal translation. We may not readily talk of the “fruit of the womb,” but the phrase is perfectly sensible. Why change it? ”Yahweh your God will make you have excess for good” is awkward, but it’s also perfectly sensible. I’m baffled by the translators’ decisions here.
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