Information Structure and the Translation of Exodus 3:2

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve spent a good deal of this past semester working on an independent study of Biblical Hebrew linguistics. As part of the course I had to prepare a major (30-50 pages) research project that applied modern linguistics to a text in the Old Testament.

For my paper I chose to analyze information structure in Exod 3:1-4:17, the call of Moses at the burning bush. Information structure, as I argue in my paper, is one of those concepts that is frequently discussed but rarely if ever is it approached consistently. From the Prague School linguists (e.g. Jan Firbas), to Systemic Functional Linguistics (i.e. M.A.K. Halliday and those following after him), or the cognitive linguistics of Wallace Chafe, different and often contradictory models of information structure have been proposed. But the basic idea is that in any communication between different people there will be some information that is new, however that newness is defined, and some information that is old or given. Typically new and old are defined in relation to the hearer/reader, and, in Halliday’s terminology, is based on whether a particular referent (i.e. the thing being referred to) is identifiable or not in a person’s background knowledge. If it is, then the information is old; if it isn’t, then it is new.

It gets more complicated than that, of course, when you are trying to actually analyze information structure in a particular text. This is particularly so with old texts like the Bible: Is given/new defined in relation to us or to the original reader, or both?

Although studying information structure in the Bible may seem like an esoteric, impractical, and, dare I say, useless way to approach what many see as a sacred text, its value is particularly evident if we look at how the Bible is translated. Consider the following example from the first half of Exod 3:2:

Then the messenger of YHWH appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush.

Now look at how the same passage as it is translated in the NRSV:

There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire from out of a bush;

Notice any differences? Besides a different translation of what the NRSV says is an “angel” and a rendering of the conjunction as “There” instead of my “Then”, anything stand out? The difference I want to highlight is in the translation of הַסְּנֶה – The NRSV wants to translate this as “a bush”, but I, based on the presence of the article, preserve a (better) rendering of the Hebrew by translating this noun phrase as “the bush”.

Now I know what you’re saying: So what? In the English it’s the difference between an indefinite and a definite article, hardly the end of the world. Well, dear reader (or, hopefully readers), it actually reflects a difference in information structure.

In English, the definite article (or an intrinsically definite expression like a proper noun) is typically used when a referent is identifiable. Conversely, when a referent is new, it is typically expressed by means of an indefinite form. Thus, it would invite confusion on the side of the hearer if a speaker introduced a referent to a conversation with a definite expression, since it presumes that the hearer would have some particular entity in her background knowledge to associate with the referent just mentioned.

This explains why the NRSV translates the Hebrew expression above with an indefinite article; having never been mentioned before in the canonical scriptures it stretches credulity to propose that the bush mentioned here would be known to a reader. Thus to a certain degree it is preferable in English to use an indefinite article here instead of preserving the definiteness of the Hebrew. (Note that for my translation and my project my intent was to render the Hebrew as literally as possible.)

But, for evangelical Christians this creates a problem. If, as is commonly asserted, the Bible is completely inspired in the original manuscripts, can we justifiably use the NRSV when it so obviously deviates from the Hebrew? In this case, I would say that it is preferable to use the translation “the bush”. This is based on my analysis of the patterns in the introduction of new entities into Exod 3:1-4:17; particularly, with new referents of this type (i.e. “brand new [unanchored]”), it is, as in English, typical for the author to use an indefinite expression. Thus by deviating from this pattern the author is drawing attention to this particular entity by making it, in linguistic terms, “marked” for information structure. In so doing, moreover, there is intrinsic linguistic meaning tied to the choice of expression. In my paper I speculate that this choice may be an attempt to present the bush as if it were old information known already to the reader, thereby highlighting that there is a particular bush being referred to.

The NRSV, however, obscures this feature of the text and, in so doing, hides what appears to be the author’s attempts at creating meaning. In effect, we may say that the meaning of the text is changed in the translation. Therefore, if one is concerned with fidelity to the original text, one should revise their reading of Exod 3:2, or at least be extremely skeptical of what the NRSV is doing here.

My point in this discussion is twofold. First, that my readers should amend their Bibles to the translation I have proposed here. Second, that linguistics actually helps us to shed greater light on the biblical texts by revealing things that may not have even seemed like an issue before. Here, as elsewhere, my intention is to be a better student of the scriptures. To that end, linguistic analysis of information structure facilitates attempts to unearth the meaning of the text in question.

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