The release of a new Bible translation in English hardly seems worthy of notice, particularly one that covers just eleven chapters. But this recently published translation is well worth noticing, not just as a translation, but as an apology for a particular kind of translation: one that is close to the Hebrew, traditional in wording, and attentive to the rhythms of English prose.
The book is divided into three sections, aptly named “Before the Translation,” “The Translation,” and “After the Translation.” The first section comprises an essay setting forth and advocating the authors’ guiding principles. Next comes the translation itself, running from Genesis 1:1 to 12:9, from Creation to the Call of Abraham. The text runs in long paragraphs following the divisions of Codex Leningradensis; chapter and verse numbers appear in the outside margins for reference purposes. The third section, by far the longest, contains another essay, “To the Persistent Reader,” discussing additional aspects of the translation, some literary, some technical. This is followed by 136 pages of commentary on the translation with extensive comparison to other major translations, as well as several additional helps and indices.
Key to this translation and its notes are the three qualities set forth in the opening essay: “close translation, traditional renderings, and aural quality” (p. 4), virtues found in the great tradition of English translation exhibited especially by William Tyndale and the King James Version. The rest of this review will examine the translation in light of these features.
The first quality, close translation, means to “reproduce not only the conceptual content of the original, but also its form and structure” (p. 3). Form matters, because “Meaning in biblical stories is typically constructed through a series of deliberate repetitions, sometimes with subtle variations” (p. 7). These repetitions, both of word choice and syntax, are diligently reflected in the translation and commented on in the notes. For example, in Genesis 3:6, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was to be coveted to make one wise, and she took of its fruit, and ate.” Then in 6:2, “the sons of God saw the daughters of man, that they were good. And they took for their wives whomever they chose.” Commenting on the decision to describe the daughters of man as good rather than beautiful (CSB, NIV) or attractive (ESV), the authors say: “these renderings silence an echo. This word was rendered “good” throughout the preceding chapters of Genesis, including in Genesis 3:6, where Eve saw something good and took it. In this verse, that sequence is repeated: the sons of God saw (וירא) that the daughters of man were good (טבת) and took (ויקחו) them. For an attentive reader, the parallel offers a clue that this will not end well” (pp. 146–47). This rendering also highlights a corollary of close translation: if the original has a simple word like good, it ought not be replaced by a specific word like beautiful; the authors call this corollary “terrible simplicity” (p. 44).
The second quality of this translation is traditional renderings, or as the authors say, “the ties go to tradition” (p. 9). Thus, when two or more options are viable (a tie), the authors choose the one supported by the Tyndale-KJV tradition of translation, also taking account of much older translations such as the Septuagint and Vulgate. Thus, 1:1 is translated, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” rather than “when God began to create” (NRSV margin). The note on 1:1 observes that strong grammatical arguments can be made for the latter rendering, but “for a translation that also considers how the text has been understood by more than two millennia of readers, Jewish and Christian, the advantage lies with the traditional rendering” (p. 67). Note that the authors consider not just the tradition of translation, but also the tradition of Jewish and Christian interpretation, which is richly represented throughout the notes. The reader will find many references to interpreters such Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, not to mention numerous NT citations.
The third characteristic of Genesis 1–11 is aural quality, that is to say, paying “close attention to how it fares when read aloud” (p. 11). Consider the end of 11:3: “And brick was their stone, and tar was their mortar.” Then compare the ESV, another translation that gives conscious attention to literary style: “And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.” The meaning is the same, but notice how Bray and Hobbins offer two rhythmically balanced lines, whereas the ESV is neither rhythmic nor balanced. Bitumen, too, is hard to pronounce, and means nearly the same thing as tar. The global effect of these seemingly minor choices is a translation that is a pleasure to read aloud, or hear.
The qualities aimed at in this translation are worthy ones, and they deserve a place alongside the contemporary concern for idiomatic style and easy comprehension. As Bray and Hobbins note in their preface, all translation decisions involve tradeoffs, and they have often been willing to sacrifice contemporary concerns—especially quick comprehension—for other principles.
Not every translation choice in Bray and Hobbins commends itself to me. For example, while reading the translation aloud, I found the word firmament in 1:6–8 rather difficult to pronounce clearly—those two m’s followed by an n. In 1:20–21 and subsequently, animate in “animate living things” (נפש חיה), is intended “to better capture the word’s (נפש) connotation of life that is breathing” (p. 175), but it carried no such connotation for me, and it struck me as odd. In 1:21, God creates “the great whales” where I would prefer “sea creatures” (a translation the authors complain is “bland,” p. 77).
Whatever cavils the reader may have, this translation offers a fresh presentation—representation—of the Hebrew text: not fresh because it is contemporary or shocking or chatty, but fresh in its oldness, its transparency to the Hebrew, in all of that ancient text’s splendor and strangeness. And Genesis 1–11 is far more than a translation: it is a statement of first principles and, in its notes, a window on the interplay of those principles. That is why it is so valuable—for readers, for Bible translators (like myself), and for scholars—for everyone, really, who will slow down and hear the text. “In this translation, Genesis is a book that tarries, allowing itself to be caught by a reader willing to make the pursuit” (p. 16).