Monday, August 23, 2010

Changing Biblical Sexual References in Translation

Mentions on translation pop up in all sorts of unexpected places. I was reading Jonathan Margolis’ book O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm and was surprised to see him refer to the way Bible translators changed sexual references. For example:

“Generally speaking, when Bible translators have happened upon sexual references, they have been assiduous in seeking out neutralizing euphemisms like men with a mission to protect unborn generations of virginal Sunday School teachers. Thus is ‘penis’ changed in every instance to ‘thigh’. ‘Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh,’ Abraham asks his servant in Genesis, ‘and I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of earth.’ (This is a reference to the custom of ‘testifying’, by which anyone taking a vow places their hand on their testicles.” (138)

Of course, he doesn’t specify which translations and translators he’s talking about, but at least it’s good to see issues of translation crop up in a variety of works. And it’s important to remember that ethical issues, in terms of what translators change and why, have been around for a very long time and still are.


Anonymous said...

In this example it is the bible, not the translators, that is being euphemistic. The phrase "Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh," (Genesis 24:2) is a literal translation of "sim na yadkha takhat yerekhi," with the word "yarekh" (the "i" ending creates the possessive) meaning thigh (not penis). The reference, it is true, is to the practice of testifying (i.e. putting one's hand on someone else's testicles) but it is a euphemistic reference in the original.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for the clarification!

Best wishes,