A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")

ESV vs. …

John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry has an interesting discussion going on the strengths of the ESV over certain other translations. I thought I might weigh in on this for fun! I haven’t done enough with Hebrew in a while despite my JTS training, which I sorely miss.

At any rate, John is entertaining a question from a commenter, namely whether he thinks there are verses in the ESV which are translated better than other translations–a question the commenter says he asks other people who are pro-ESV (presumably because he’s not persuaded that the ESV is worth the hype, something to which John and I would agree I think). John himself is a proponent of all translations in part (a) since they all have their strengths and weaknesses, and (b) since he reads Greek and Hebrew anyway, so doesn’t have much of a dog in the fight. He picks 2 verses as examples: Ps 1.1-4 and 2.1.

Below I decided to pick up on the 2.1 example, particularly because the rabbis were invoked and I’m a rabbinophile. I tried to post my section below on his blog, but it wouldn’t go. So I post it here for your perusal.

The major point John was trying to make is that John was trying to make was that the ESV’s translation of the word רגש as “rage” (“Why to the peoples rage?”) is better than Alter’s (“arouse”) and the NRSV’s/NIV’s/TNIV’s (“conspire”). Rashi was invoked in the comments in order to explain translating “gather/assemble,” which is used in the JPS translation.

I confess, I’m not terribly persuaded that the 2.1 example is a great one, or that the case against Alter and the NRSV is really all that strong. I think the meaning of the word in question is actually pretty messy and not very clear.

1) John mentions HALOT, which translates the term as “restless” here in this passage. I think we should probably wonder where HALOT is getting its information from. It’s taking it largely from Aramaic sources (it’s a lehnwort) and the Sam. Pent., and in those texts the meaning shifts and is pretty broad. It looks like HALOT doesn’t entirely, therefore, know what to do with the word in Hebrew, which is understandable I think.

Note that “aroused” is among the options listed there. It seems to me that HALOT went for an encompassingly vague translation in “restless.” It could easily imply “being aroused,” or “raging,” or whatever. But also, in English surely “aroused” likewise can imply “raging.” There’s a lexical breadth and overlap here that’s worth taking note of. In the Hebrew, particularly given the HALOT information, I’m doubtful one can really insist on one or the other when it comes to Alter vs. the ESV. That said, when it comes to the NRSV, given the data “conspire,” as a direct translation does definitely seem off the table, and to a lesser extent so does “gather,” though IMO not as interpretive translations (see below). It certainly seems a little loose given the NRSV’s translation principles, but (a) nobody’s consistent, and (b) I don’t think it really makes a difference.

2) It’s worth pointing out that it’s not just Rashi that gives the רגש the sense of “gather.” It’s also the Metzudat Tzion (ענין קבוץ והמון רב וכו) and the Metzudat (להתקבץ ולדבר דברי ריק), and the targum (ואמיא מרננין סריקותא). But a couple points need to be made about this: (a) they’re not independent witnesses/translators. They’re all part of the same long tradition, of which Rashi is a “collector” or “synthesizer,” not an innovator. (b) In these comments, they’re not offering translations of גרשו. They’re offering interpretations of what that part of the pasuk means. That’s an important distinction–a given interpretation can imply a particular translation, but not necessarily, especially in rabbinic literature. There are important subtleties.

(3) That said, I do wonder whether they come to this conclusion because they’re viewing both גוים and אומים as subjects of רגשו (which is odd given the placement of the accent in the poetic line). Whatever the case, I guess what I’m saying is that the Miqraot Gedolot needs to be used cautiously here–both by people who want to use it to translate the Hebrew, and by those who don’t.

(4) It is also worth pointing out, though, that each of these rabbinic commentators presume a sense of “conspiring” or “plotting” given to the interpretation. It’s not hard to see why: why else would people gather (or rouse) against the king, given the context of the poem? At an exegetical level, I think it’s hypothetically fine to translate the text this way. It conspiring implies that people are getting upset and are making a plan to react, and if that’s the sense of the psalm then “conspire” isn’t that nutty. But doing so arguably makes an interpretive jump that would be lost on the English reader.

In any case, I don’t think this is a passage where which translation one chooses makes any difference in the world. And John, I completely agree that if this sort of issue really bothers you, learn the language. It ain’t that bad. Sure as heck ain’t as bad as some other ancient languages.


For folks who are super-fond of the ESV, I would encourage them to explain the book of Ephesians. I have to say, particularly the first 2 chs. are atrocious reading. If that jilting translating isn’t enough reason to just learn koine, I don’t know what is.


June 25, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Very interesting discussion, JD.

    But you need to look at DSS Hebrew examples of the verb in question. That settles it in favor of Jerome’s translation (which he probably developed based on rabbinic help, at least in terms of probability.

    The meaning of “conspire” can’t be right, though it isn’t nutty based on context, because waves of the sea (see DSS examples) don’t conspire. They are turbulent, they roar, etc.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it.

    Comment by John Hobbins | June 28, 2009 | Reply

  2. I don’t disagree w/ your analysis per se, I just don’t think it makes the ESV a decidedly better choice here over particularly Alter, though I agree w/ you on the NRSV.

    About the DSS, I think they’re a piece of the puzzle, but they are much later, and word meanings are dynamic and polyvalent (as in this case). That’s why I don’t think they solve anything.

    What I’m really curious is how the heck the OG came up with ἐφρύαξαν for רגשו.

    At any rate, I really appreciate what you’re doing by consistently not letting people have real strong preferences for this or that translation. I think people need to feel a distance between their translation and the “real” biblical texts.

    Comment by JD | June 28, 2009 | Reply

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