Praise the Lord (of the Rings)

26 09 2009

I recently acquired The Jerusalem Bible: an authorised Catholic translation of the Old Testament (including the deuterocanonical literature) and the New Testament. To the best of my knowledge, this book has been out of print since 1966. Having been criticised for its lack of attention (in some cases) to the original languages, the Bible then passed through the hands of an editorial committee and emerged as The New Jerusalem Bible in 1985. This new edition features egalitarian language and is also generally considered to be more faithful to the underlying Hebrew and Greek. Nonetheless, the 1966 edition was the one that I sought and, after struggling with Amazon’s refusal to ship it to Australia, I eventually found a copy on eBay.

At 2,000 pages, plus introductions and supplements, The Jerusalem Bible is a bit of a handful. The prose, from what I have read, is sharp and eloquent and the poetry natural to my ears. It reads less like a translation of the Bible and more like something that I am supposed to be reading in English. But I did not purchase it simply because I wanted a fresh take on an ancient book. On the contrary, observe the opening page:


There are only two names on this list that I recognise. The first is Joseph Blenkinsopp, author of (amongst other things) A History of Prophecy in Israel. The second name, and the reason that I shelled out for this tome, is J.R.R. Tolkien: author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Grabbing my copy of Tolkien’s letters, which I try to never keep too far away, I remarked upon the following:

Naming me among the ‘principal collaborators’ was an undeserved courtesy on the part of the editor of the Jerusalem Bible. I was consulted on one or two points of style, and criticized some contributions of others. I was originally assigned a large amount of text to translate, but after doing some necessary preliminary work I was obliged to resign owing to pressure of other work, and only completed ‘Jonah’, one of the shortest books.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. H. Carpenter and C. Tolkien; London: HarperCollins, 1981), 377.

Having now acquired this Bible, I would like to comment upon Tolkien’s translation of Jonah, the contents of which will be read in synagogues all over the world this coming Monday. A comparison with the King James Version and the New Jewish Publication Society is illustrative:

Jonah 1:1-2 (KJV) –
Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.

Jonah 1:1-2 (NJPS) –
The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai:
Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.

Jonah 1:1-2 (Tolkien) –
The word of Yahweh was addressed to Jonah son of Amittai:
‘Up!’ he said. ‘Go to Nineveh, the great city, and inform them that their wickedness has become known to me.’

Aside from the very obvious editorial decision to render God’s name as Yahweh – a decision that has been effected throughout The Jerusalem Bible – there are some subtle elements of style that are worthy of elaboration. Both the King James Version and the New Jewish Publication Society have translated the Hebrew verb בוא (“to come, coming”) as “came”, and the Hebrew collocation עלתה… לפני (“… ascended before me”) fairly literally. Tolkien, on the other hand, has exercised a key translational principle that was developed by Eugene Nida. Termed, Dynamic Equivalence, this is the principle that texts must be translated on the basis of their primary meaning, rather than on the basis of the individual meanings possessed by the individual nouns and verbs that they employ. While it might behove us to tread softly when hunting the “primary meaning” of an ancient text, this methodology has much to recommend it.

In a verse such as the two above, Dynamic Equivalence allows for a useful presentation of the material. God’s word did not “come” to Jonah in any sense that bears meaning for English audiences. The verb, “to come”, denotes volition. Did the author of Jonah suppose that God’s word possessed a will of its own? Assumedly not; the phrase constitutes a collocation, and its original sense is altered or lost if we fail to render it into an appropriate collocation in English. This is the same problem with the assertion that “their wickedness is/has come (up) before me”. Again, Tolkien’s translation is less formally faithful to the precise Hebrew words, but more faithful to the import of the actual text.

Is this always the case? Unfortunately not. A prime example of a text that aimed for a reasoned amount of Dynamic Equivalence is the New International Version: a translation that I cannot recommend weakly enough. Eschewing the heavy-handed dynamism of such translations as the Good News Bible, the editors at Zondervan sought an appropriate balance. I commend them for their efforts, for the intention is a good one. Nonetheless, as men and women of faith, their rigid adherence to evangelical Protestantism belies their intention to present the Bible with its ‘original’ meaning, and even draws meanings from the Bible that are patently absent in the Hebrew altogether. Their license to convey the message, rather than the formal rendering of every word, has given them license to rewrite the Bible as they see fit. The most explicit example of this is in Jonah 3:3b:

KJV: Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.

NJPS: Nineveh was an enormously large city a three days’ walk across.

NIV: Now Nineveh was a very important city – a visit required three days.

Neither of the first two of these translations are particularly surprising, given that the Hebrew in this instance is not at all ambiguous. The third translation, however, is a radical departure from the sense of the clause! They have appended a footnote: “Archaeological excavations indicate that the later imperial city of Nineveh was about eight miles around.” In other words: the author of the book of Jonah was wrong. It cannot possibly take three days to cross a city with an eight mile circumference, so the good folks over at Zondervan have happily corrected the original author’s mistake. It is only a very relaxed definition of the term that would enable somebody to refer to this as a “translational” decision. It’s really more of a commentary, so overtly dynamic is their “equivalence”. Compare Tolkien:

Now Nineveh was a city great beyond compare: it took three days to cross it.

Tolkien has adopted a literal reading of a literal clause, but has also appended a footnote of his own. Tolkien notes that there is “hyperbole in the ‘it took three days to cross it’, to evoke the fabulous size of Nineveh.” In other words, Tolkien also doesn’t think that Nineveh was actually so large, but he does possess the capacity to appreciate that this is still what the original sources were saying. In other words, even though Tolkien is concerned with translating the sense of the passage, he has the sense to know not to change it. Perhaps it takes a great author to translate great literature.

A final note:
My review of Tolkien’s translation is not without criticism. Tolkien, like the individual editors at Zondervan, was a man of faith. A devout Roman Catholic, he believed that the Bible constituted the inerrant word of God, and that the Old Testament segued into the New. I would like to take a moment to consider the final line of the book of Jonah (4:11) in Tolkien’s translation. At this point in the story, God has forgiven the Assyrians and promised to forestall the destruction that, at the time of the text’s composition, had already occurred. Nineveh, the great capital of the Assyrian empire, fell to an uprising of Babylonian nationalists in the 7th century, BCE. It is after this event that a fairly creative author saw fit to invert the standard portrayal of Assyrians in his authorship of Jonah: a book that declares the simple premise that God’s forgiveness is attainable by all. Much like Jesus’ later inversion of the ‘wicked Samaritan’ motif, Jonah’s author portrayed the bad boys of the Bible (those evil, slaughter-hungry Assyrians) as individuals receptive to God’s messengers and as creatures deserving of compassion.

For Tolkien, whose appreciation of this fact would have been mingled with conceptions of grace and salvation, the emphasis in the book of Jonah is upon the universality of God’s doctrine and the importance of spreading the good news. When Jonah despairs of the Assyrians’ repentance, God causes a plant of some description to grow over Jonah and provide him with shade. When God subsequently destroys the bush, Jonah receives a homily on the importance of compassion: if Jonah can grieve for the loss of a plant, over which he did not labour, how can God not grieve over the imminent loss of his own creatures, the penitent Assyrians? In reality, Jonah never grieved over the loss of a plant, but over his own discomfort in the wake of its absence. Nonetheless, God has the final word, and God’s final word closes the book:

KJV: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

NJPS: And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

The curious feature of both of the above translations is that, despite both being fairly formal in their equivalence, they have both managed to capture the sense, here, of the Hebrew. The emphasis in this verse is on the stupidity of the Assyrians. In addition to not knowing their right from their left, they are being equated with livestock in the final clause. This is not at all a departure from their earlier portrayal in the third chapter. Having heard the dire warnings of Jonah, the Assyrian king imposes a mandatory fast upon people and livestock alike, and even has the animals cry out to God as well as his human subjects. Tolkien’s translation of the final verse seems to miss this element of mockery:

And am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?

Lest we be in any way confused by Tolkien’s reading of this verse, his footnote explains it: “This final chapter ends with the note of God’s mercy on all his creatures. He has mercy on Jonah in the sea, 2:7, on repentant Nineveh, on the prophet in his self-pity; and now, 4:10-11, he explains with gentle irony how he is thoughtful even for the brute creation, still more for men and little children, ‘who cannot tell their right hand from their left’. The whole book then prepares the way for the revelation of the Gospel: God is love.” In other words, this final verse is simply listing the different sectors of Assyrian society and showing how God has mercy on all alike. On the children (who do not know their right hand from their left), the adults – and even the livestock.

This is not what the Hebrew says. In the Hebrew, it is all Assyrians who do not know their right hands from their left: a civilisation that is portrayed as brutish and ignorant, likened to cattle. The point of the story is that God’s forgiveness extends even to people such as these, which is a point that can only safely be made after such people have ceased to exist. For Tolkien, nobody is truly evil. As he had Elrond inform Boromir, “For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so”. Evil, manifested in Tolkien’s theology as a turning away from God, was not a characteristic of the Assyrians. This idea, informed by centuries of Christian theological exegesis, is anachronistic in the book of Jonah. It is only by considering the lowly and despised status of the Assyrians that we are able to appreciate the profundity of the book’s message. These people are stupid and ignorant and evil and despised, yet even they would have been forgiven had they only repented. What’s stopping you?




21 responses

27 09 2009
John Hobbins

What IS stopping you, Simon? Sorry, just having fun.

This is a great post. I’ve picked up on it here:

27 09 2009
Simon Holloway

It’s alright, John: God already knows that I don’t believe in him.

28 09 2009
Tolkien’s translation of Jonah « Better Bibles Blog

[…] translation of Jonah Simon Holloway has the […]

28 09 2009
R. Mansfield

Great post. One comment though–you mention that the Jerusalem Bible has been out of print since 1966. This is not true. In fact, it is still very much in print. It may have gone briefly out of print with the publication of the New Jerusalem Bible in 1985, but the original still has a small but strong following who prefer it over the revision, and this has been enough to keep it in print.

28 09 2009

I enjoyed reading this post. But I would raise two questions. First, you say that Tolkien, a “devout Roman Catholic…believed that the Bible constituted the inerrant word of God….” Biblical inerrancy is not, to my knowledge, a Roman Catholic doctrine. Do you have some knowledge that Tolkien adhered to such a doctrine?

Second, you say that Tolkien wrote not only the text, but also the footnotes for Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible. Are you sure that this was the case?


28 09 2009
Simon Holloway

R. Mansfield: Would this be the Reader’s Edition? I did see a copy on sale, although was not aware that it constituted an unedited version of the 1966 edition. I did note, however, that it lacked the various commentaries, so didn’t pursue it further.

Brant: You raise an excellent point. I made an assumption that the individual translators also wrote the footnotes to their translations, but nowhere in the book is their authorship made clear. I am perhaps incorrect to assume that Tolkien read Jon 3:3 hyperbolically, although the point still stands that, whether or not he took it literally, he did translate it in accordance with its literal meaning.

As for Roman Catholic doctrine, you would have to enlighten me. I made that statement, thinking that was the case, but I stand corrected. I am not aware of any text by Tolkien in which he discusses his relationship to the Bible, or his views on the extent to which the Biblical authors may or may not have been mistaken. I am surprised that inerrancy is not a Catholic doctrine, but shall take your word for it that it is not.

28 09 2009
R. Mansfield

Yes, the reader’s edition lacks the commentary, but the entire translation is included. I bought my copy of the full edition of the Jerusalem Bible (with commentary) in the early eighties right before the revision was released.

29 09 2009
Peter Kirk

Thanks for rediscovering a lost work of Tolkien! And for demonstrating his support for dynamic equivalence.

You will be glad to hear that the Committee for Bible Translation who produced the NIV text (and who are strictly independent of Zondervan) had by 2002 abandoned the rendering “a visit required three days”, and changed it in TNIV to the more literal “it took three days to go through it”. Very probably this change will also be in the 2011 NIV update now in preparation.

29 09 2009
John Hobbins

The only trouble, Peter, is that TNIV made a change for the worse in this case. Sure, it’s nice that TNIV is more literal than NIV is in some places. NIV wandered from the diction of the Hebrew more than necessary – this remains true of TNIV. But what’s needed in this passage is a translation that captures the hyperbole of the source text. If it doesn’t, it isn’t functionally equivalent.

29 09 2009
Peter Kirk

Well, John, my meaning was simply that TNIV would be more to Simon’s taste than NIV at this point. I certainly don’t claim that TNIV is perfect, although I do think it is better than NIV’s attempt which is equivalent neither formally nor dynamically, instead making Jonah sound like a tourist guide book. But if even the literary genius Tolkien couldn’t find “a translation that captures the hyperbole of the source text”, without resorting to an explanatory footnote, then what hope have the CBT, or you and I?

29 09 2009
Simon Holloway

This TNIV translation of Jon 3:3 is more to my taste, although I appreciate John’s functional concerns – and especially John’s functional translation, on his own post. In many respects, I think this highlights the different applications of a translation. The Committee for Bible Translation (and I apologise: I thought that they are Zondervan were one and the same) aims at reproducing the Bible in another language. In other words, they aim at presenting a text that can serve as the Bible for a group of people. Their translation, therefore, should be more functionally equivalent, and less rigid in its rendering of the Hebrew and Greek.

For those who, like myself, ultimately prefer to be reading the Bible in Hebrew, but who also enjoy having an English translation on side as a commentary to the text, a less dynamic equivalence is preferable. I like to know how the translators have rendered individual words into English and, even though I think that a measure of dynamism is crucial for translating collocations, I prefer my translations, if they have to err, to do so on the side of formalism.

29 09 2009
Peter Kirk

Simon, when I commented I hadn’t actually seen John’s rendering. I have now. Well, it certainly gets the attention and most people would understand it as hyperbole – although I’m sure some literalistic fundies would start discussing how Nineveh could have been 600 miles east to west and 500 miles north to south, or however big Texas actually is. It wouldn’t work well here in the UK as we are not so used to the idiom, and might have to measure Texas from an atlas (as I just did, roughly). It’s the sort of rendering which would work in a version like The Message or the Cotton Patch Bible (better than The Message’s untypically prosaic “it took three days to walk across it”). But I can’t see it being acceptable in a general purpose translation.

3 10 2009

Thanks for the nice post on Tolkein and the Jerusalem Bible. Just a couple of points:

1) There are other editions out there of the JB, including a newly released CTS New Catholic Bible which is published in Britain and includes the Jerusalem Bible translation, minus the JB Psalms which is the Grail Translation, and the lack of the use of YHWH. It comes in various editions:

2) Also, the Catholic Church does hold to Biblical innerancy. It is a bit more layered but the most recent statement about it comes from the Second Vatican Council document Dei Verbum 11: “Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scripture. ” There has been a debate as to how far that goes, but that is the basic statement from the Catholic Chuch.

4 10 2009

Thanks, Tim for clarifying the Roman Catholic position on inerrancy. It is a bit more nuanced than the usual, Evangelical take on inerrancy.

6 10 2009

I really enjoyed reading this post.
I also feel that Dynamic Equivalence is often necessary with translating most texts. (This irks me re foreign films, lehavdil, where subtitle authors often neglect to translate idiomatically, usually due to them having learnt one or both of the languages formally rather than being native speakers of either or both).
I also agree with Simon that I prefer a translation to err on the side of formality.

Re the Catholic hold on Biblical inerrancy: Why then don’t they hold its instructions? For if they did, they would not eat certain animals, they would not extinguish or ignite a flame on the Sabbath (Saturday, not Sunday) and they would wear fringes on their four-cornered garments, etc. just like their messiah did and advocated (I suspect this is a topic for another day, though…)

6 10 2009
Simon Holloway

That’s a good question, Ariel, and thank you. I’ll have to leave it to a religious Christian to answer you, but my two cents for what they’re worth:

Religious Jews also hold to the inerrancy of scripture, yet forgo many of its precepts. They either do this by reinterpreting them (cf: the monetary value of an eye for an eye, etc) or by dismissing them altogether (eg: a rebellious city never existed and never will). For a religious Christian, scripture also includes the writings of Paul, according to which, God subjected himself to human law in order that subsequent generations of people need not do so. I imagine that I may now get a lot of people telling me that I’m wrong but, as I see it, Judaism modifies or abrogates the law on the basis of the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmudic literature, while Christianity does the same, on the basis of the Gospels, Pauline epistles, and the writings of the church fathers.

That Judaism retains more of the Biblical law than does Christianity is a matter best left to historical anthropologists to explain but, for my part, I’m pleased that both religions found a means of sifting out or “clarifying” the really nasty bits! Kashrut, Shabbat and Tzitzit, I can live with.

7 10 2009

I don’t believe that religious Jews dismiss precepts. On top of the commandments which you give, there is a commandment to wipe out Amalek. Or is there?
The commandment is to erase the memory of Amalek, whatever that means. Also, I wouldn’t stand outside my synagogue asking passers-by if they are Amalekites and if they answer in the affirmative to then stab them to death and lop off their private parts as they are said to have done to Bnei Yisrael in the midbar. The reason for this is twofold:
a) I am a lover, not a fighter
b) Amalek does not exist in any quantifiable sense

Another favourite is the commandment to kill a child who strikes his parent/s. Rabbi Akiva interpreted “strike” in such a severe way as to make it impossible for a child to inflict one.

As you say at the end, I would call this clarification rather than negation. It appears that Paul was very much into negation, even though Jesus can be said to have been the first advocate of mivtza’im – encouraging fellow Jews to keep the Biblical ordinances, but to carry out the message of the prophets: be nice to each other.

7 10 2009
Simon Holloway

‘Fraid I don’t really understand, Ariel. Firstly, the Torah never says that Amalek lopped off the penises of the Israelite men: that’s a midrash, based upon the root of a particular verb in the narrative. Secondly, your assertion that Amalek does not exist “in any quantifiable sense” is also of rabbinic extraction. Believe me, Amalek exists in a very real sense within the Tanakh. Furthermore, the author of Samuel certainly presupposed that the Biblical injunction to wipe them out was to be taken literally, and has Saul divested of kingship for failing to do so.

Finally, I think that the distinction between negation and clarification is semantic. If the end result is a Biblical law that cannot be put into practise, what difference does it make? Jews negated undesirable laws by reinterpreting them in such a way that they either meant something else, or that they could no longer be put into effect; Christians negated the same laws by applying a particular theological hermeneutic that informed them of the text’s obsolete status. Both are very different approaches that reflect on very different attitudes to the same corpus of literature, but the end result of both of them is not so different as you might like to suppose.

8 10 2009

We’ll have to agree to disagree on clarification/negation. Especially since I believe that the Jewish clarification was based on an Oral Tradtion from Moses and the heads of the Tribes and not simply made up out of convenience…

15 10 2009
Lue-Yee Tsang

On the other hand, It has come to my attention comes to mind. Still, Tolkien’s rendering has a nice robustness to it.

24 12 2013

I too was surprised recently, to discover Tolkien’s involvement with the JB…namely the book of Jonah. It doesn’t take a bible scholar or indeed a keen Tolkien fan to notice strikingly obvious biblical themes throughout his works.
Simon, I really enjoyed reading some of your work on here….good site. Thanks :)

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