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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Conjectural emendation and Bible Translation

Conjectural emendation, strictly speaking, refers only to making changes to an extant text. Textual critics for the most part avoid a process so fraught with opportunity for excess. But for all practical purposes, conjectural emendation is the bread and butter of Bible translators, who emend the meaning, if not the actual words, whenever they struggle to make sense of a corrupted original.

We have to go no further than the sixth verse of the New Testament for our first example. Leaving aside other variants here, the Greek text reads:

Δαυὶδ . . . ἐγέννησεν τὸν Σολομῶνα ἐκ τῆς τοῦ Οὐρίου
David . . . begat the (m) Solomon by the (f) of-the (m) Uriah

Now, it's pretty obvious that a word is missing here, right between the two 'the's: γυναικός (wife/woman/widow). And thus do most modern versions render it, as far back as the 1611 King James Version, which read:

David . . . begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias.

Notice the outright conjecture of γυναικός, even whilst the translators admitted that there were no tense markings in the original. Later editions of the KJV admit that everything between 'her' and 'of' was supplied by the translators. The tense markings, however, had long since been supplied by one of the earliest translators of Matthew, Jerome:

David . . . genuit Salomonem ex ea, quae fuit Uriae.
David . . . begat Solomon from her, who had been of Uriah.

Not having any articles to get in the way, the Latin flows smoothly enough without uxor. But when Wycliffe translated the Vulgate to English, he felt the need to tack it on to the end, in addition to translating the tense indicator:

Dauid . . . bigat Salamon, of hir that was Vries wijf.

And thus all English translators ever since have, for all practical purposes, conjectured πρότερα as well as γυναικός in this verse.

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