Sunday, 17 May 2015

Genesis: Saga of the Groundlings

At the start Elohim created the skies and the earth
- the earth was tohu-bohu
darkness on the face of the deep
and the breath of Elohim
hovering on the face of the waters -

So begins the book called Genesis in the 1992 translation by Mary Phil Korsak. Here's her rendition of 2:7.

YHWH Elohim formed the groundling, soil of the ground
He blew into its nostrils the blast of life
and the groundling became a living soul

In a world filled with bad English translations of the Bible, Korsak's Genesis (At the Start: Genesis Made New, published by Doubleday) stands apart. I confess that I'd never heard of it till very recently, stumbling across a copy in a second-hand book store in Hamilton. The translator describes herself as "a feminist scholar who has spent many years with the Hebrew text of Genesis in an attempt to produce a faithful word-for-word rendering in English."

My initial impressions are positive. Translating adam as 'groundling', for example, seems (if you'll forgive the term) inspired. I also liked some of the comments by A. D. Moody (York University) in the foreward:
In English [Genesis]... has become little more than a label and a handle: a means of referring to the book, not a way into it. It can be used as unthinkingly as the collective title, The Bible. When did it become simply The Book, as if there could be no other book in question, no other history? How did Genesis come to be read as a record of the origin of the human race, rather than of the Jewish nation? ... The English tradition of translation, which is of course also a tradition of Christian interpretation, has appropriated this book of YHWH's people and made it all too familiar, while effacing much of its distinctive character.
Genesis is the product of another age, one very foreign to modern readers. Moody reminds us that "there are no abstractions" in the Hebrew and that "this is a text rooted in oral performance". Translations that try to simplify the text, or present it as propositions rather than poetry, do little justice to it. Conveying those differences in modern English is obviously no easy task. Korsak's Genesis seems to be a step in the right direction.


  1. I was startled to find a couple of years ago that many words in the OT Hebrew scriptures are of deduced meaning. Translators really have no certain information on how these words were originally defined. There is no dictionary contemporary to the OT writers to consult. A Jewish scholar wrote a book on this topic and used the example of the word in OT Hebrew that is translated as "heart". There was no direct definition of this as used by the original writers. So scholar/translators looked at all the places it was used and made a deduction from context. The Jewish scholar claimed that the word translated as "heart" in the KJV really means something like "everything about a human being that is intangible."

    I must remind myself when I look at the definition of OT Hebrew words in published sources that I am only a small step away from HWA looking in Merriam Webster's Dictionary to determine what the Bible really meant.

    -- Neo

  2. Cool post. I love translations that lift the lid on the cultural foreignness of the Bible. Translating Adam as "Groundling" is sheer brilliance. I wonder if "Earthling" would work too.

    A favourite translation of mine is Edwin M. Good's translation of Genesis 1–11.

    When Elohîm began to create the sky and the earth, 2he earth was shapeless and empty and darkness across the abyss, and Elohîm’s wind swept across the waters. And Elohîm said, “Let light be.” And light was. (1:1-3)

    And Elohîm said, “Let a bowlshape be in the middle of the waters, and let it make a division between waters and waters.” And Elohîm made the bowlshape, and it made a division between the waters that were underneath the bowlshape and the waters that were above the bowlshape. And it was so. And Elohîm called the bowlshape Sky. (1:6-8a)