Comments to the Panel on Modern Translations of the Septuagint (Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies,

Oslo, 31 July, 1998) by Natalio Fernandez Marcos and Arie van der Kooij on A New English Translation of the Septuagint. Responses by Albert Pietersma.

Part I: comments by Fernandez Marcos; responses by


FERNANDEZ: First of all I thank Albert Pietersma [NETS] and Cecile Dogniez [Bible d'Alexandrie] for their detailed expositions that explain thoroughly the different linguistic principles, approaches, and methods governing both translation projects. Hearing them we can appreciate the arduous task of translation and the additional problems inherent to 'translating a translation'. As a contribution to the following discussion I will put forward some reflections, comments or reactions to each project.

Concerning the 'New English Translation of the Septuagint' (NETS): what strikes me most is the decision to use the New Revised Standard Version 1990 (NRSV) as the English base and point of departure of the new translation (crystalised in the motto "Retain what you can, change what you must", p. 9 of the electronic text). In spite of its 'venerable' tradition among English speaking people, it is a faithful translation of the Masoretic Text, not of the Septuagint. Therefore using this translation for the NETS is difficult for me to understand for the following reasons: I come from a different linguistic tradition; I insist, a linguistic tradition rather than a religious one. The Spanish tradition of Biblical translations, and I think it is the case in France too, is not marked by a dominant translation such as the Lutherbibel (1521/1534) in Germany, or the Tyndale Version (1537) and the King James Version (KJV, 1611) in the United Kingdom. The equivalent of the KJV for England or Olivetan's Bible (1535) for the French Reformation, would be for the Spanish Reformation the translation of Casiodoro de Reyna (Basel 1569), revised by Cipriano de Valera (1602), with its subsequent reprints and revisions up to the present. But for several reasons this is not the dominant translation nowadays among Spanish speaking people: a) in this century there is a diversity of translations from the original languages into Spanish: the Nueva Biblia Espanola, the translations of Nacar-Colunga and Bover-Cantera with their subsequent editions, the Biblia Latino-americana etc., according to the different addressees, just like in France and. b) I speak of a linguistic tradition and not a religious or confessional one, because in the Spanish translations of the Bible from the Middle Ages up to this century, there has been a continuity beyond the different religious confessions. The Biblia de Ferrara (1553), first printed translation into Spanish of the Old Testament made by Jews, had a strong influence on the Casiodoro de Reyna Bible (Protestant), first translation of the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, printed in Spanish (Basel 1569). Indeed, they are Spanish translations in exile but both have had an enormous influence on the Catholic translations from the 18th to the 20th century, especially on the translations of Scio, Bover-Cantera and Alonso Schoekel as I have shown in a recent contribution.

PIETERSMA: The first question posed is why NETS uses the NRSV as base. The critique here is based on two assumptions: (1) that since the NRSV is a translation of the MT, it ought not be taken as a base for an English translation of the LXX, and (2) that the choice of the NRSV is religiously rather than linguistically motivated. NETS's response to the first observation is that, as the panel presentation makes abundantly clear, the decision to use an English translation of MT as a base for an English translation of the LXX is rooted in the perception that although the LXX in time became a text independent of its Hebrew original, and thus evolved into a body of literature in its own right, it was not that at its inception, but instead was a Greek translation of a Semitic original, and as such of a derivative nature. The second reason is based on the NETS desire to create a tool that can be used by readers of English for synoptic study of the Hebrew text and its Greek translation. Thus the choice of an English translation of the Hebrew as a starting point for an English translation of the Greek. The second assumption is, I would suggest, based on a misperception. The particular choice of the NRSV, again as the panel presentation explains, has nothing whatever to do with religious considerations, unless one subsume under the latter the relative popularity of the NRSV among English readers of the Bible. Thus while Fernandez's expose on modern Bible translations in Spanish et al. is not without interest, it is without relevance as a critique of NETS. In view of NETS's synoptic aim, it made sense to choose, all things being equal, an English translation that enjoys widespread use. Such was the practical consideration that informed the Committee's choice. From a linguistic standpoint the choice of the NRSV seemed acceptable because of its reasonably literal mode of translation, which was deemed to be compatible with much of the LXX. In sum then, there is no disagreement between NETS and its critic, namely, that linguistic considerations, not religious ones, must direct any translation of the Greek. Nor has that principle been violated by the choice of the NRSV as base text. All of this is not to say, of course, that the choice of the NRSV rather than some other English translation was the best choice that could possibly have been made, but simply that the choice was deemed to be a good one from a linguistic as well as from a synoptic perspective.

FERNANDEZ: Briefly, my first objection or question directed to the NETS committee would be related to the main principle and point of departure of the translation: 1) Is the NETS in fact a new translation or rather a revision of the NRSV according to the Septuagint? In other words, if NETS' concern in translating Greek is primarily with NRSV and secondarily with MT (p. 1 of the Sample on Psalm 4), are we not risking converting the NRSV into a second MT? With these translation criteria does not the identity of the Septuagint as translation and as the first interpretation of the Scripture risk becoming lost or diluted?

PIETERSMA: Whether or not NETS will turn out to be a genuine translation and representation of the Greek or will instead be the NRSV once-over-lightly, can only be judged on the basis of the final product. The guidelines for translators stipulate that no concessions of linguistic importance be made to the NRSV in translating the Greek. If those guidelines are followed, there is no reason to fear that the NRSV will interfere with NETS's being a genuine translation of the Greek.

FERNANDEZ: As there is no definitive edition of the text, there can be no definitive translation either. Languages have their own history; they are living entities. Hence the necessity of periodical new translations and revisions. Nowadays the evolution of languages is even quicker. The diversity of translations into Italian or French is increasing according to the different addressees: for instance, in France since 1975 there coexist the Traduction Oecumenique de la Bible with the Bible de la P1eiade, the Bible de Jerusalem, La Bible en francais courant, Chouraqui's translation, etc. Is it not true that even in German or English tradition the ideal of a unique or official translation has decreased in popularity? (Let us remember the Good News Bible, the Message etc.).

PIETERSMA: That NETS is provisional since it translates provisional editions of the Greek is true but scarcely relevant. Even if the entire Goettingen Septuaginta had been completed we would still not be in possession of a "definitive edition." Moreover, it is equally true, but again scarcely relevant, that languages—in this case English—change and that future generations will need to modernize NETS or make their own translation. But is not such the nature of human knowledge?

FERNANDEZ: 2) The Septuagint translation originated and circulated as an independent literary work, understandable within the Greek linguistic system without recourse to the Hebrew (or 'the necessity of having an eye to the Hebrew'). The Septuagint was not a Targum, it replaced the original Hebrew in the liturgy as well as in education of the Hellenistic Jews. Consequently, the arbiter of meaning cannot be the Hebrew but instead, the context. At most the Hebrew is to be taken into account as part of this context but not as the only arbiter (pp. 5-6 of the electronic text). The translation of the Greek cannot be guided ultimately by the Hebrew (p. 13). There are cases of ambiguity intended by the translators; why pretend to eliminate that with the recourse to the original?. Meaning is determined by context and the set of relations and oppositions established within a linguistic system. Even a hapax legomenon in the Hebrew system does not mean nor evoke the same meaning than the same hapax inthe Greek system.

PIETERSMA: When our critic asserts that "the Septuagint translation originated and circulated as an independent literary work" and that it "was not a Targum" but "replaced the original Hebrew," he may be touching on a matter of fundamental disagreement between himself and NETS. What is being confused here, from the NETS perspective, is analogous to a claim that the text FORM of the original Septuagint is identical to its (later) textual DESCENDANTS. (If that were the case the Goettingen Septuaginta need never have been undertaken!) A basic tenet of NETS is that from an INTERPRETATIONAL as well as a textual perspective one needs to distinguish between the original Septuagint and its later descendants. Thus when Fernandez makes the claims cited above he (a) confuses the original Septuagint with its subsequent history of use and interpretation and (b) makes a statement regarding the Septuagint as a replacement translation, "an independent literary work," which can only be decided upon on the basis of internal linguistic information, namely, what the nature of the translation reveals about itself. (Interestingly, when subsequently Fernandez wonders in reference to Bible d'Alexandrie whether its approach does "not risk translating and interpreting the Septuagint through the lenses of the subsequent readers" he seems to recognize precisely the line of demarcation made in the NETS approach.) In NETS's view the linguistic evidence--which is furthermore the SOLE evidence on the basis of which "translator's intent" can be inferred--points to original dependence rather than original independence. Furthermore, when Fernandez states that, for NETS, the Hebrew is "the only arbiter" of meaning, he is in fact implying (perhaps inadvertently) that NETS simply superimposes the meaning of the Hebrew onto the Greek--a procedure would in fact make any translation of the Greek superfluous seeing that the Greek could only mean what the Hebrew means! What NETS does claim, however, that the Hebrew is AN arbiter of meaning, which the English translator invokes when the linguistic information of the Greek text dictates. Or to put it differently, an inherent aspect of the Greek text QUA TEXT is that it defers to its parent text (Hebrew), that it is not sufficient unto itself and cannot be fully understood within the Greek linguistic system.

FERNANDEZ: 3) The interlinear paradigm of Septuagint origins, that is, the Septuagint as an interlinear text of the Hebrew, never existed physically except perhaps in the layout of the Hexapla. And I doubt if it ever existed at a deeper level. A different thing is the bilingualism of the translators. Even the Polyglot Bibles respected the different linguistic traditions in their integrity.

PIETERSMA: In light of our critic's view on the original Septuagint as an independent text that replaced the Hebrew, it is only natural that he would reject the linguistic relationship of the Greek to the Hebrew symbolized by the interlinear paradigm of NETS. It is a misperception, however, to read the metaphor as a statement about a physical interlinear entity in e.g. iii BCE. Not only is this a misreading of metaphor but it attributes a position to NETS which it emphatically does not hold, as is clear from the panel presentation as well as the general introduction. When our critic then further expresses the doubt that "it [interlinearity] ever existED [emphasis added AP] at a deeper level" he is even further confusing history and linguistic relationship. NETS is not claiming that the linguistic relationship existED, but that it existS in the Greek as we have it! Again, in NETS's view, though the Greek text after the ambilical cord to the Hebrew had been severed was PERFORCE read as though it were an original composition, was not so read at its inception, judging from its linguistic character.

FERNANDEZ: 4) Concerning the two altematives proposed in p. 7 of the electronic text: a) translate the MT into English and then use this translation as a basis for an English translation of the Greek, and b) use an existing English translation of the MT as a point of departure, there exists a third alternative: just to translate the Septuagint, to do a good stylistic translation of the Septuagint. This is what I, and many other readers, would like to expect: a readable, literary translation of the LXX and not only a working instrument once more at the service of the Hebrew text (p. 16). Even in the realm of textual criticism we are reacting against such a restricted, subsidiary use of the Septuagint, as an instrument to correct or restore the MT. I think that it is possible to do a dynamic, not merely formal, translation of a translation, precisely directed to the second grouping of the Nida and Taber classification, that is, to a biblically well educated audience.

PIETERSMA: That our critic's third option is, in principle, a live option is fully recognized by NETS, as the panel presentation makes clear. This option was rejected, however, because (a) it presupposes a Septuagint intended to replace the Hebrew (i.e. an independent Septuagint), (b) the focus would then not be on the incipit of the Septuagint (i.e. the original text) but on some stage in its history of interpretation (whatever stage be selected—NO stage is suggested by our critic!), and (c) it fails to safeguard the vital distinction routinely made in terms of TEXTUAL form, namely, that between the MEANING OF THE ORIGINAL TEXT, on the one hand, and SECONDARY INTERPRETATIONS of it, on the other. For NETS, "primary" and "secondary" are in principle distinct, even though in practice they MAY TURN OUT TO BE indistinguishable or identical. To suggest that NETS is somehow treating the Septuagint in a restricted manner can only be maintained from the, to NETS, erroneous perspective of the Septuagint as a REPLACEMENT of the Hebrew. Within the parameters of interlinearity NETS does full justice to the Greek qua Greek, as the section "How NETS Determines What the Greek Means" makes abundantly clear." One might furthermore argue that it is precisely the concept of interlinearity that forces the modern translator to treat seriously the Greekness of the Septuagint.

FERNANDEZ: 5) The translation will be made from the Goettingen critical editions, when these exist, and from Rahlfs' manual edition for the rest of the books, except the Margolis edition for Joshua. My last question: is it sound, after Barthelemy's Devanciers d' Aquila (Leiden: Brill, 1963), to take as a basis. of the translation, Rahlfs' manual edition for the books of Kings, when we know that the printed text is heterogeneous and for important parts of these books a revised text? If the Alpha-Text of Esther is to be translated (p. 17), and I agree with this decision, why not translate the Antiochene text for Kings? And concerning Judges, what kind of text will be translated?

PIETERSMA: In conclusion, Fernandez returns to the question of critical text. Underlying his question seems to be the mistaken perception that NETS somehow aims to produce a new edition of the Greek text. As the Statement of Principles already makes clear (as well as all subsequent NETS statements), NETS instead aims to produce a modern translation of the best available editions of the Greek. While many incisive studies may have been made about Septuagintal texts and details thereof, where such studies have not resulted in improved editions of the Greek, they can clearly not function as base text for NETS--and that includes the books of Kings. Such is the status quaestionis. The only realistic alternative to the NETS approach would seem to do no translation at all, since all texts (including critical editions) are by their very nature provisional. NETS is, furthermore, scarcely unique in having to face the question raised by our critic! Why the Alpha-text of Esther but not the Antiochian text of Kings? Clearly because of the respective status they have been assigned in the best available editions! As for Judges—since Rahlfs' manual edition prints the so-called A and B texts and since no better edition is available, Rahlfs edition must form the basis for NETS.

Part II: comments by van der Kooij; responses by Pietersma

VAN DER KOOIJ: It is important to note that basically both projects agree on the principle that the text of the Septuagint as Greek text should be taken as seriously as possible in order to be able to produce a translation of it. However, there are a few points where the two projects have a difference of emphasis. I will give my comments on two of them, namely, (a) the role of the Hebrew Vorlage; (b) the role of reception history. On (a) [the role of the Hebrew Vorlage]: Since the LXX is a translation itself, the question arises whether, and if so to which extent, the Hebrew parent text may help our understandingof the Greek version. According to NETS, "what the LXX says, and how it says it, can only be understood fully with the help of the Hebrew" (To the reader of NETS, e-mail document, p.3). This seems to apply to the meanings of words, and more in particular to syntactical issues, as is indicated by the following remark, "Perhaps the most ohvious examples of Septuagintal dependence ... are cases in which, due to the ambiguity inherent in Greek grammar, only the syntactic relationships ... of the Hebrew can guide the English translator to what the Greek text means" (ibid., p. 6).

PIETERSMA: What both statements, cited from NETS documentation, mean is that, from the perspective of NETS, unintelligibility of the Greek text qua Greek text is a CONSTITUENT ELEMENT of the Septuagint NETS seeks to translate. In other words, interpretive dependence--linguistic and semantic-- on the Hebrew is part of the very essence of the Septuagint qua text, rather than being accidental to it.

VAN DER KOOIJ: I agree that the Hebrew parent text can be of some help for understanding to its Greek version; particularly the issue of 'hebraisms' is at stake here, both on the level of syntax as on that of late/post-biblical idiom (one misses a discussion of both items in the documents of NETS and BA). However, we must realize that it is our understanding of the Hebrew text which easily comes into play, i.e. an understanding based on the masoretic interpretation and/or on modern philology and exegesis.

PIETERSMA: When vdK agrees that the Hebrew text CAN BE of some help, he is clearly speaking, not of the ESSENTIAL, OBLIGATORY role of the Hebrew (see preceding response) but of an ACCIDENTAL, SUPPLEMENTARY or OPTIONAL role of the Hebrew. Inherent in this position is that the Septuagint at its very beginning was a text sufficient unto itself, i.e. a translation that replaced the parent text. Though NETS agrees that the Septuagint in time and perforce BECAME such a self-sufficient, independent text, it holds as well that the Septuagint was NOT such a text at its ininitial stage. When he contends that "our understanding of the Hebrew" may come into play, he is (a) not touching on a question of principle but instead (b) on the practical limitations of human knowledge. NETS fully agrees that one must strive to obtain as objective an understanding of the Hebrew text at the time of its translation into Greek as is humanly possible.

VAN DER KOOIJ: Here I would like to quote another statement of NETS, "NETS aims to focus on what the translator himself evîdently thought the text to mean" (ibid., p. 3).

The question arises, how does this statement, to which I fully subscribe, relate to the above quoted one ('what the LXX says, and how it says it, can only be understood fully with the help of the Hebrew')? Our understanding of the Hebrew text has to do with the meaning of this text at the early stage of its authors or redactors. The LXX in its interpretation of the Hebrew text, however, does not, of course, testify to that 'original' understanding, but reflects a moment in the reception history of the Hebrew text. So one should be cautious in using our understanding of the Hebrew text. Basically, the LXX is the only means we have for the way the translator understood his Hebrew parent text.

PIETERSMA: The two statements which vdK cites are in fact of one piece. When NETS refers to "the translator himself," it does not mean that one tries to read the mind of an individual who lived at a certain time in a certain place. In other words, NETS does not pretend to engage in mind-reading. Instead, what the translator understood or intended can only be inferred from the linguistic record he has left us. Thus it is only the linguistic evidence in the text itself that can tell us what was "in the translator's mind." Since, in NETS's view, the Septuagint text itself shows a dependence on and subservience to the Hebrew, it may be safely inferred that such reflects the understanding and stance of its translators. Of course, this understanding represents a specific moment in the reception history of the Hebrew text, BUT IT ALSO REPRESENTS THE INCIPIT, THE INITIAL POINT, IN THE HISTORY OF THE GREEK TEXT. It is this (fosilized) point that NETS attempts to uncover---basing itself solely on the internal evidence of the Greek text.

VAN DER KOOIJ: Therefore, I do not subscribe to the following dilemma as is stated in the NETS documentation, "One can either treat the LXX as though it were an original or (italics mine, vdK) one can treat it as a translation of an original in a non-Greek language" (ibid., p. 6). It is my idea that one should do both. In this respect one can start, as the Paris project BA does, with a thorough analysis of the Greek as it stands.

PIETERSMA: Though NETS readily agrees that both MAY be undertaken, and under certain circumstances might further agree that both SHOULD be undertaken, it scarcely follows that the two undertakings are in fact one and the same thing! To treat the Septuagint as an original means that one treats it as a translation that REPLACED the parent text, that is to say, as an independent, self-sufficient, autonymous entity. To treat it as a translation (of the interlinear variety) means that one treats it as a translation that FUNCTIONED AS CRIB to the parent text, that is to say, as a dependent, subservient entity. The (modern) translational approach one takes to these two entities is patently different in principle, even if in counless detail they coalesce. In historical terms, NETS views the original Septuagint as an entity of the latter (crib) variety, but later representations thereof as the former (autonymous) variety. Correspondingly, though one may choose to access both within the covers of a single book, the undertakings remain nonetheless quite distinct.

VAN DER KOOIJ: On (b) [the role of reception history]: NETS stresses the point, apparently over against BA, that one should not consider the reception history of the LXX for the analysis of the Greek text, because "what the original translator thought his text to mean differed from what later interpreters made of it" (ibid., p. ). We all agree on this, as does also BA. (Personally, I would nuance this statement by saying: '... may have differed ...'.

PIETERSMA: It should be borne in mind that NETS, in the cited sentence, is making a statement of PRINCIPLE. That is to say, methodologically one must begin by positing a difference between the translator's understanding, on the one hand, and that of his later interpreters, on the other, EVEN THOUGH THE TWO MAY TURN OUT TO COALESCE. Thus there is here no disagreement in essence.

VAN DER KOOIJ: Yet it is my experience, and in this respect I agree with BA, that the reception history may be of some help; it can give one an idea about ways in which a given text was read and understood, particularly as far as the reception history of the LXX in Jewish traditions is concerned (e.g., the use of [quotations from] the LXX in the books of Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Josephus, Philo). At the same time, I propose to widen the horizon by not limiting the matter of reception history to the LXX, but by including also the reception history of the Hebrew text, as is actually the case in some of the volumes of BA. I think here of the history of interpretation and reception, first of all in the Hellenistic period (Qumran), but also in later documents such as the Targumim and rabbinic commentaries.

PIETERSMA: There is no question but that later literature which draws on the Septuagint can and must help us understand the original Septuagint. How would we know, for example, that certain Greek words with Hebrew meanings were not translationese but part of the living language when the translators employed them, if it were not for the fact that we find them so used in non-translation literature? It should be borne in mind, however, that this is a question of using all available sources, for the purpose of delineating WHAT THE TEXT IS LIKELY TO HAVE MEANT ORIGINALLY. Reception history, on the other hand, in its very nature focuses on what that text meant, AT A GIVEN STAGE IN ITS HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION. Again, both undertakings, namely, what the text meant originally and what it meant at some later stage are worthy undertakings---but they remain in principle distinct.

Albert Pietersma
Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations
University of Toronto
Toronto M5S 1C1