Friday, 12 August 2011

The Shibboleth and translation technique

A dialectal difference in Hebrew between the Ephraimites and the other tribes gave rise to the English term 'a shibboleth' as a means of distinguishing an out-group from the in-group, whether by a mispronunciation specifically - as in the original instance - or, more generally, by a custom or fashion, by a catchphrase or password, or by a characteristic manner of speaking (and sometimes by a moral standard).

Until I can read Hebrew, here is the English Standard Version's rendering of the incident in Judges 12: 5-6:

"And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” (6) they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell."

The Old Greek versions differ in their treatment of 'shibboleth', which apparently means "a flowing stream" or "an ear of corn". The codex Vaticanus (showing so-called καί γε Hebraising features) takes a verbum e verbo approach and employs στάχυς, "an ear of corn" (note the first aorist forms of εἰπεῖν).

κα προκατελάβετο Γαλααδ τς διαβάσεις το Ιορδάνου το Εφραιμ, κα επαν ατος ο διασζόμενοι Εφραιμ Διαβμεν, κα επαν ατος ο νδρες Γαλααδ Μ Εφραθίτης ε; κα επεν Ο. (6) κα επαν ατ Επν δ Στάχυς· κα ο κατεύθυνεν το λαλσαι οτως. κα πελάβοντο ατο κα θυσαν ατν πρς τς διαβάσεις το Ιορδάνου, κα πεσαν ν τ καιρ κείν π Εφραιμ τεσσαράκοντα δύο χιλιάδες.

However, the codex Alexandrinus (with Antiochene or Lucianic features) takes a sensus de sensu approach (note the pluralisation too):

κα προκατελάβοντο νδρες Γαλααδ τς διαβάσεις το Ιορδάνου το Εφραιμ, κα γενήθη τι επαν ο διασεσσμένοι το Εφραιμ Διαβμεν, κα επαν ατος ο νδρες Γαλααδ Μ μες κ το Εφραιμ; κα επαν Οκ σμεν. (6.) κα επαν ατος Επατε δ Σύνθημα· κα ο κατηύθυναν το λαλσαι οτως. κα πελάβοντο ατν κα σφαξαν ατος π τς διαβάσεις το Ιορδάνου, καπεσαν ξ Εφραιμ ν τ καιρ κείν δύο τεσσαράκοντα χιλιάδες.

That is, 'and they said to them, "Then say 'password'!"' (cf. 2 Maccabees 8.23, 13.15).

There was no attempt in either version to reflect the phonetics involved, altough ἄσταχυς existed (and was known in Hellenistic Jewish circles - at least, those of Philo and Josephus). Something along the lines of the <σι-> for <θε-> found in Laconian might have been possible.

The Vulgate gives a version with an attempt to reflect the word requested and the word spoken in answer.

occupaveruntque Galaaditae vada Iordanis per quae Ephraim reversurus erat cumque venisset ad ea de Ephraim numero fugiens atque dixisset obsecro ut me transire permittas dicebant ei Galaaditae numquid Ephrateus es quo dicente non sum. (6. ) interrogabant eum dic ergo sebboleth quod interpretatur spica qui respondebat tebboleth eadem littera spicam exprimere non valens statimque adprehensum iugulabant in ipso Iordanis transitu et ceciderunt in illo tempore de Ephraim quadraginta duo milia.

Note also the explanation of sebboleth, quod interpretatur spica, "an ear of corn". All this seems closer to Vaticanus. Jerome may have drawn on Symmachus' translation, which combined fidelity to the Hebrew with natural Greek idiom and constructions.

There is one further detail of interest. Field's Hexapla has a note on στάχυς: σεβελω * και ειπεν ταχυς z. The * is a hexaplaric asterisk (an 'x' with a dot in each wedge) indicating an addition to the LXX text from another version. The
Larger Cambridge Septuagint notes from the margin of cod. 85 : καὶ εἶπεν τάχυς. Perhaps, someone somewhere wanted to reflect the difference of pronunciation with a minimal pair... but note that the accent on "swift" would be ταχύς.

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