Translators and Ambiguities

English translations of the Bible reflect the learning, skills, and philosophies of the translators. With respect to translation philosophy, when ambiguities appear in the original text, some translators slant the wording towards a clearly-defined interpretation while others try to keep the wording as ambiguous as the original language leaving the interpretation up to the reader. The issue of ambiguity has both ethical and exegetical implications. 

Ethically, when does a translator have the right to alter the stated textual expression? There exists an assumption by the readers of the English Bible that the translator has accurately transferred data from the biblical language to English without adding to or subtracting from the original meaning of the author. This assumption borders on foolishness stemming from ignorance. No translation represents the original perfectly; all translations exhibit varying degrees of loss from the biblical text. But when the translator intentionally moves a text from obvious ambiguity to a clear interpretation, unproven and perhaps unprovable in the context, has he or she not crossed over an ethical boundary?

Exegetically, why do ambiguities in the biblical text arise? At least two sources exist: (1) what was unambiguous to the ancient readers becomes ambiguous to a later generation or people group because of culture and distance, and (2) Some ambiguities are intentional so that the text can be read and applied variously—a feature common to all literary societies (technically called polysemy). What this means exegetically, then, is that the baseline for translating ambiguities is to leave them intact unless undeniable contextual proof exists to turn an “apparent” ambiguity into a clear statement. Psalm 56:12a (Hebrew 56:13a) is a case in point regarding textual ambiguity: 

  • KJV and RSV — “Thy vows are upon me, O God”
  • NASB — “Thy vows are binding upon me, O God”
  • NIV — “I am under vows to you, O God”
  • ESV — “I must perform my vows to you, O God”
  • NET — “ I am obligated to fulfill the vows I made to you, O God”
  • NKJV — “Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God”  

Each of these translations struggles with the relationship between the noun “vows” and the pronominal suffix “Thy” (only evident in the KJV, RSV, and NASB). Is the suffix “Thy” ( ךָ), appended to the noun “vows” (נְדָרֶ֑י), subjective making God the subject of the verbal idea underlying the noun (vows made by God, KJV, RSV, NASB) or objective viewing David as the object of the verbal idea in the noun and introducing into the translation an implied but unstated subject “I” (vows made by David, NIV, ESV, NET, NKJV)? 

Commentators struggle with this as well. Tate (Psalms 51-100, p. 65) paraphrases the sentence with an objective interpretation, “I have bound myself with vows to you, O God.” A number of commentators follow suit. But Gaebelein (The Book of Psalms, p. 235) takes the subjective viewpoint, “Upon me are Thy vows, O God,” which he explains, “The very vows of God are upon him, which means that God Himself has vowed to keep the feet of His Saints.” Clearly from the standpoints of translators and commentators an ambiguity exists. 

The approach to the problem of biblical ambiguity must begin with what is possible and then what is probable. If the literal Hebrew phrase “Your vows” cannot reflect both objective and subjective ideas the translator/interpreter has no choice but to follow what Hebrew allows. In this instance, the genitive function in Hebrew allows both (see Arnold and Choi, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, p. 9; Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 2nd ed., P. 11; Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, p. 416). 

The investigation of probability may begin first with a question: Is God ever the subject of the verb meaning “to vow (נדר)”? Of the 31 occurrences of this verb in the Hebrew Bible, God is never the subject.  However, the semantic meaning of “vowing” differs little if any from “making a promise,” (Koehler, Baumgartner, Richardson, Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 674). The noun in Psalm 56:12 is a derivative from the verb, therefore one cannot rule out the subjective idea.  Second, can the broader context of Psalm 56 justify the concept of a divine vow/promise? With the emphasis on God’s word upon which David depends and upon which he finds comfort and encouragement in his trials (English verses 4, 10, 11), the subjective idea finds adequate justification. But also the objective interpretation can be supported by verse 12b where David clearly states that he will give “thank offerings,” the clause being understood as a parallel statement to or a resultative extension of 12a.  

A strength of the subjective interpretation is the contextual emphasis on God’s word from which David gains encouragement and strength. A strength of the objective interpretation is the preposition “upon me” (עָלַ֣י) that begins verse 12 and may be a preposition of “obligation” (Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 2nd ed, p. 52). Another source of strength for the objective view is an unambiguous parallel in Psalm 50:14, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving And pay your vows to the Most High” (NASB, a psalm by Asaph).

The apparent ambiguity dilemma in Psalm 56:12 leads to these conclusions:  The subjective interpretation (a) finds a basis in the contextual emphasis on God’s word as a source of strength for David, and (b) finds strength in the non-parallel grammatical structures of verses 12a and b—David could unambiguously have written,  אֲשַׁלֵּ֖ם תּוֹדֹ֣ת לָֽךְ/  נְדָרַי לך אלהים אדּר, “to You, O God, I will pay my vows / I will render thank offerings to You.” The objective interpretation (a) finds support in the prepositional phrase “upon me.” It also fits well with the parallel passage of Psalm 50:14.

If polysemy, intentional ambiguity, exists in this verse, a real possibility, the reader can take away both the truths (1) that God’s word is the source of encouragement (subjective) and (2) that God Himself is the object of praise (objective). But whether intentional or not, the fact of textual ambiguity has ethical and exegetical aspects that every conscientious translator/interpreter must consider. In the above translations of Psalm 56:12a, the KJV, RSV and NASB (omitting the added word “binding“) may best reflect the ethical and exegetical concerns discussed by maintaining a level of ambiguity evident in the Hebrew text. 

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