Thursday, January 23, 2020

Review: Two Contemporary Translations of the Septuagint

The New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) is a “scholarly” translation that I think is worth having on hand for reference, but the translation is seriously flawed—both in terms of style and substance. Stylistically, the use of mostly unfamiliar transliterations for the names of people and places from the Greek make this text very awkward and practically unusable by the average layman. For example, you will search in vain in a Bible dictionary for Heua, Kain, Habel, Saoul, Dauid, or Nabouchodonosor—while the names of Eve, Cain, Abel, Saul, David, and even Nebuchadnezzar are generally familiar. The argument that using the standard forms of these names would be less than a faithful translation of the Greek is belied by the fact that translations of the New Testament are also from Greek, and yet we do not generally find the names “Iesous Christos,” “Petros,” “Paulos,” or “Iakovos,” but we do generally see the standard forms of the names found in the King James Version which have been the standard in English for four centuries. We will compare it more substantively, below. The binding is not bad, but the font is too small (about 8.5), the printing is not as dark as it should be, and the text goes into the gutter of the book, such that you sometimes have to hold it open with both hands to read the text that is connected to the gutter. The NETS used the New Revised Standard Version as its starting point, which is why it often reflects a gender neutral approach to the text.

The newer translation of the Septuagint -- which I find far more readable than the NETS -- is the Lexham English Septuagint (LES). The binding is a bit better, the font is a bit larger, and darker -- and a lot easier on the eyes. It uses the standard English forms of the names of people and places. I could never bring myself to sit down and read through the NETS, because of its odd choices in translation, and particularly because of their use of odd transliterations of nouns -- but I have been reading through the LES, and while it is not a beautiful translation, it not painful to read. It has section headings, and the names of the books generally conform to standard English usage, though when it comes to  the names of the books commonly known as 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings, they call them 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th "Kingdoms" (probably following the lead of the Orthodox Study Bible). I do not quibble with them not using the names "1st Samuel" and "2nd Samuel," since this is based on the Masoretic text rather than the Septuagint; however, they should have used the more standard English form “Kings,” rather the "Kingdoms." The NETS uses “Reigns,” which is more a more precise translation of the Greek name, but “Kings” is what we have used in English for as long as we have had English translations. And certainly, these books do not recount a continuous chain of distinct kingdoms, but rather of the reigns of various kings.

Rather than taking an existing translation of the Hebrew Old Testament text, and correcting it with the Septuagint, the LES is a fresh translation, unlike either the NETS or the Orthodox Study Bible (which used the New King James Version as its starting point). There are pluses and minus to either approach. In my opinion, since the Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew texts that existed at the time, and so when the Masoretic Hebrew text is clearly the same as the text being translated by the Septuagint, it seems perfectly reasonable to keep an eye on both texts. On the other hand, at least in the case of the Orthodox Study Bible, this caused them to miss some real differences between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint.

The LES has some texts that are not in the NETS. It contains the book of Enoch, as well as an alternate texts of Tobit (taken from Sinaiticus), and Daniel (including Susanna and Bel and the Dragon) from Theodotion’s Greek text.

The short-comings of the LES compared to the NETS is primarily in the area of footnotes. If there is a significant textual issue, the NETS is likely to mention it in their footnotes. The LES footnotes are much further and farther between. So you definitely get more scholarly information from the NETS, but the text is unreadable, in my opinion.

Here are some specific comparisons:

Genesis 1:1-2

NETS: “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. Yet the earth was invisible and unformed, and darkness was over the abyss, and a divine wind was being carried along over the water.”

LES: "In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth. But the earth was unseen and unprepared, and darkness was upon the deep. And the spirit of God rushed upon the water."

While the NETS translation is a possible translation of the Greek text, one has to ignore 2000 years of Christian interpretation of this passage to see this as merely a divine wind, rather than the Holy Spirit at work.

Genesis 3:15

NETS: "And I will put enmity between you and between the woman and between your offspring and between her offspring; he will watch your head, and you will watch his heel."

LES: “I will place enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he will watch your head carefully, and you will watch his heel carefully.”

Here, the fact that the NETS used the NRSV as its starting point results in a translation that seriously distorts the meaning of the text. "...the seed of the woman" becomes simply "the offspring" despite the fact that the Greek reads spermastos, and one does not have to be a Greek scholar to understand that this does not simply mean "offspring."

Genesis 6:2 

NETS: "Now when the sons of of God saw the daughters of humans, that they were fair, they took wives for themselves of all that they chose."

LES: “the angels of God, having seen the daughters of humans, that they were beautiful, took for themselves women from all whom they picked out.”

Here both translations use the gender "neutral" humans, rather than "men," but this is one example of the LES poorly translating the text. There actually is a Septuagint manuscript that reads "angels of God" rather than "sons of God," but this is not how most read, nor is it how the Hebrew text reads. It is true that normally "sons of God" is used in reference to angels, but this is not always the case. In this case, most of the Fathers are adamant that "the sons of God" here actually refers to the godly line of Seth, which began to intermarry with the sinful line of Cain (the daughters of men). In any case, a translation should not make the leap towards interpretation, but should convey as literally as reasonably possible, what the original text actually says, so that the reader doesn't assume that the text is unambiguous, when there actually are ambiguities that need to be considered.

Psalm 8:5-6

NETS “What is man that you are mindful of him or the son of man that you attend to him? You diminished him a little in comparison with angels; with glory and honor you crowned him.”

LES: “What is man that you remember him? Or a son of a man that you observe him? You made him somewhat less than angels; you crowned him with glory and honor.”

Stylistically, I think the LES is slightly better, but neither are beautifully translated. However, they both convey the meaning of the text well enough.

Isaiah 1:1

NETS: “A vision, which Esaias son of Amos saw – which he saw against Judea and against Ierousalem in the reign of Ozias and Ioatham and Achaz and Hezekias, who reigned over Judea.”

LES: “The vision that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw, which he saw against Judea and against Jerusalem during the reign of Uzziah and Jotham and Ahaz and Hezekiah who ruled Judea.”

This is an example of where the weird decisions for translating nouns in the NETS really grates on me. What sense does it make to use "Ierousalem" and not to use "Ioudaia." And few will immediately connect the names of "Ozias" and "Ioatham" with Uzziah and Jotham.

I would not recommend either text for liturgical use, but for personal Bible study, both are worth having for reference; however, I would recommend you actually read the LES, if you want a contemporary English translation of the Septuagint, that is relatively well done.


Here are two video reviews of these two texts that bring out some points that I didn't notice:

For More Information:

An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible

Beauty and the Bible

King James English and Orthodox Worship