|March 30, 2010
THE POLITICS OF BIBLE TRANSLATION
This essay was later published in revised form as “Satyrs or Wild Goats. The Politics of Translating the Bible” in the Fourth R 25.6 (November-December 2012): 21-22, 24.
The Great God Pan, a lesser deity in ancient Greek Religion, was born in the region of Arcadia (in the central Peloponnese) with the upper body of a man and lower body of a goat—horns, a beard, a tail, and goat hind legs with hooves. He was a god of the woodlands who lived in caves and wandered through mountains and valleys. In appearance he resembled Greek satyrs and Roman fauns, who were similarly portrayed in early art. Today in western culture we regard these figures as mythical. But were they? In the latter part of the nineteenth century satyrs survived in popular belief in the Greek islands of the central Aegean Sea.
Satyrs even appear in some Bibles. Passages that mention these figures are: Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14 where they are portrayed as dancing among ruined cities and crying out to each other. In 2 Chronicles 11:15 Jeroboam appoints priests to serve satyrs and in Leviticus 17:7 the Israelites are forbidden any longer to sacrifice to them. The Hebrew word (sa’ir) receives a range of translations—satyr, wild goat, he goat, shaggy goat, field spirit, demon, goat-demon, shaggy goat, devil.
Such a wide array of translations, suggesting different figures, does not seem justified by Hebrew Lexicons, which uniformly identify this figure as a satyr. The standard Hebrew Lexicon by Brown, Driver, and Briggs (1968) describes this figure as “Satyr, demon (with he-goat’s form or feet),” and the 1810 German Hebrew Lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius identifies sa’ir as a goat-shaped forest figure that appears in legends and fairy tales.
The ancient Greek Septuagint translates sa’irim in Isa 13:21 and 34:14 as a “donkey-like” centaur. Centaurs were creatures with the lower body of a horse, including tail and the upper torso of a man—similar to a satyr but a completely different mythical species. In 2 Chron 11:15 the sa’irim are “idols” and in Lev 17:7 they are rendered “vain (things).” In Isa 13:21 Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translates se’irim as hairy shaggy creatures (especially satyrs), but renders Isa 34:14 as “ass-centaurs.” In 2 Chron 11:15 and Lev 17:7 they are “demons.” Jerome says these shaggy creatures, who dance among the ruins, are incubones (the demon incubus, or another spirit), or satyrs or fauns or certain figures regarded as deities of the fields or forests.
Martin Luther renders sa’ir as “field spirits,” and Smith-Goodspeed (1964) renders it as “satyr,” as does the Bible of the Jewish Publication Society of 1945. The New International Version (1970) renders both Isaiah passages as “wild goats” and Leviticus and 2 Chronicles as “goat idols.” The New American Bible (1970) translates in all four cases as “satyr.” The New English Bible (1970) renders both Isaiah passages as “he-goat” and Leviticus and 2 Chronicles as “demon.” The New Revised Standard Version (1991) renders all four passages as “goat-demons.”
So how should sa’ir be translated? The root idea of the word is hairy or shaggy, and because the contexts suggest that these figures are human-like but other than human—not simply wild animals, the Hebrew lexicons have quite reasonably associated sa’ir with the widespread ancient belief in satyrs. Apparently some modern translators, however, prefer to avoid attributing a mythical character to the text and render sa’ir as he-goat, wild goat, shaggy goat or goat idol and/or demon, which avoids having the Bible affirm the existence of mythical figures.
The issue raised by sa’ir is not whether figures of Greek mythology ever existed. They did not—and neither did demons! The issue raised is the politics of translating the Bible. Unless modern readers of the Bible know the ancient languages, they are always at the mercy of translators. The Bible is a very “human” book. It is always subject to its many users—whether scribes who recopy and inevitably change the texts by error or deliberately, or lexicographers who rescue the vocabulary of its ancient languages, or translators who convert the ancient text into modern linguistic equivalents, or ministers who purport to explain the meaning of the ancient texts. If you only know the Bible in modern translations, you really don’t know it—you know what the translator wants you to know. Given the ambiguity of ancient languages, room exists for great variety in translation, and how they are translated depends on the bias (both admitted and unrecognized) of translators. English-only readers are best advised to read several translations, which may reveal problems a single translation conceals—either inadvertently or deliberately.
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:03am
Dear Dr. Hedrick,
These are interesting observations. I might suggest that “politicizing” textual interpretation and translation is not a phenomenon exclusive to **canonical** Christian writings.
This reminds me of a wonderful poster I once saw:
Hi, Dr. Hedrick,