Unveiling Old Testament Women With Accurate Translation -- By: Elizabeth Ann R. Willett
PP 33:4 (Fall 2019) p. 13
Unveiling Old Testament Women With Accurate Translation
Elizabeth “Libby” Willett serves as a Senior Translation Consultant for SIL International. She trains and consults for mother-tongue Bible translators in Latin America. She coordinates the Huichol Old Testament Project for The Seed Co., a Wycliffe Bible Translators affiliate. Earlier, she and her husband, Tom, facilitated translation in the Southeastern Tepehuan language of Mexico. Libby has an MA in linguistics from the University of North Dakota and a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona.
Hebrew nouns have grammatical gender, either feminine or masculine. Hebrew verbs distinguish masculine and feminine plurals as well as masculine and feminine singulars. English translations generally mirror the gender of such verbs in narrative and usually, but not always, when the female metaphor is inescapably gendered—for example, childbirth. However, if the image is out of the ordinary for female roles in the translator’s cultural context, or if the metaphor seems to obscure the word it stands for, feminine verb marking, as well as feminine nouns, are often ignored. Cleansing the Bible of counter-cultural female roles not only masculinizes history, it also deprives women of a broader picture of how God has and might use women and their gifts in church, home, and society.
An Army Of Women Messengers
For example, Ps 68:11 (v. 12 in Hebrew) reports that a large army of women messengers announce God’s word of victory. Literally, “the ones spreading the good news [are] a large army,” in which “the ones spreading the good news” is a feminine plural participle. The KJV, followed by many modern English language translations, ignores the participle’s feminine ending:
KJV: The Lord gave the word: great [was] the company of those that published [it].
Shortly before the KJV, Mary Sidney (1561–1621) published free translations of the Psalms as Renaissance lyric poetry. She highlights women’s roles often glossed over by men and translates Ps 68:11–12, both poetically and more accurately, as follows:1
There taught by thee in this triumphant song
A virgin army did their voices try:
“Fled are these kings, fled are these armies strong:
We share the spoils that weak in house did lie.”
Later, in v. 25, Sidney refers to them as battle maids:
In vanguard marched who did with voi...
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