The Creation (of the Translation) of “Eve”
In this post, I don’t want to show the many and the different translations of the Hebrew Bible that translate חַוָּה (Chava), since there’s really not that much difference between them on this particular word. Instead, I do want to show how a few translators appreciate the complexities of this phrase, this name that the first human presumably gave the second.
Let’s just get out of the way a couple of rather obvious facts or so. First, as already suggested, the name Eve is the usual, common, fairly uninteresting rendering in most English translations of the Bible. It sort of captures the sounds made in Hebrew by the namer giving this name to the one named; and it’s more likely the English attempt at sounding the Greek attempt at sounding out the Hebrew, or Εύα. But Eve in English glosses over so much more than the sounds. Second, the Hebrew word is uncommon, appearing in the Bible twice only. In Bible translations, in the Septuagint Genesis, in Tobit, and in the New Testament, and therefore in English from the Greek, Eve appears much more. Third, the topic of “the historical Eve” is related to the creation of the translation of Eve (and for more on the historical Eve, bloggers can find lists of books being collected from others by Brian LePort, here).
Now, let’s get to the translators who appreciate the complexities of חַוָּה (Chava). Willis Barnstone, in The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, and Practice, has a page (page 82) on which he plays with the implications of the personal, generative, creative wordplay. There, Barnstone writes:
- Between the creation and its translation is the inviolable tie of God the original creator of void into form and light to his servants Adam and Even in the garden who must faithfully obey. His utterances are theirs to copy into their behavior.
- The mother of us all is known for not obeying the Scout Law.
- A woman of taste, Eve chose to pick wisdom, and with her courage for the unknown translated eternity into time, her word into memory, and her entire self into the eternally ticking earth.
- Eve has given the world her gift of translation. A translator steals and gives.
- Eve is the mother of translation. She transformed forbidden fruit into knowledge, secret sperm into children, and the text of her story into us.
- Eve’s word continues when her offspring read her meaning through their eyes.
- Eve doesn’t mind a reader who steals what she has stolen. Fulfilled as mother of the world, she laughs when her children arrogantly make her invisible translation their own immaculate and holy creation.
Notice how Barnstone is admitting, is attempting to get translators to admit, that they actually start with Eve.
Now, let’s look at how astute translators have chosen to bear the meanings of the Hebrew and deliver them in translated terms. Let’s look at how some translators have translated what we call Genesis 2:20.
The Septuagint translators’s Hellene -
καὶ ἐκάλεσεν Αδαμ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς γυναικὸς αὐτοῦ Ζωή, ὅτι αὕτη μήτηρ πάντων τῶν ζώντων.
Brenton’s literal English translation of this Septuagint Greek -
And Adam called the name of his wife Life, because she was the mother of all living.
Julia E. Smith’s two translations (as Athalya Brenner compares them) -
And Adam will call his wife’s name Life, for she was the mother of all living.
And the man called his wife’s name life, for she was the mother of all living/life.
God’s Word translation -
Adam named his wife Eve [Life] because she became the mother of every living person.
Joseph Gaer’s translation -
Adam named his wife Eve (Life) because she was the mother of all the living.
Everett Fox’s translation -
The human called his wife’s name: Havva/Life-giver!
For she became the mother of all the living.
Robert Alter gives this footnote:
Like most of the explanations of names in Genesis, this is probably based on folk etymology or an imaginative playing with sound. The most searching explanation of these poetic etymologies in the Bible has been offered by Herbert Marks, who observes, “In a verisimilar narrative, naming establishes and fixes identity as something tautologically itself; etymology, by returning it to the trials of language, compromises it, complicates it, renders it potentially mobile.” In the Hebrew here, the phonetic similarity is between ḥawah, “Eve,” and the verbal root ḥayah, “to live.” It has been proposed that Eve’s name conceals very different origins, for it sounds suspiciously like the Aramaic word for “serpent.” Could she have been given the name by the contagious contiguity with her wily interlocutor, or, on the contrary, might there lurk behind the name a very different evaluation of the serpent as a creature associated with the origins of life?
Alter, like Barnstone (not to mention the translators already noted), is aware of the ambiguities, the complexities, of the Hebrew phrase. Clearly both translation theorist/practitioners associate the word with imagination, creation, and life. Alter suspects something slippery in the sounds and the associations. This smooth talk, and the snake, reminds me a bit of how Bible translator/theorist Craig Smith, one of my co-bloggers, has begun a recent post. Craig starts in:
I am inordinately fond of etymologies, particularly etymological puns.
One of my favorites is in Genesis, when the serpent is introduced to Adam and Eve. Most translations say, correctly, that the woman and the man were both naked but unashamed, but totally miss the pun in the next line, where it says that the snake was the most cunning of all the animals that YHWH had made. The word “naked” (עָרוֹם) literally means smooth, as in unclothed skin; spelled almost exactly the same is עָרוּם, which is usually translated “cunning” but literally means smooth in the metaphorical sense, the way we would call someone “a smooth operator.” Adam and Eve were smooth, but the snake was smoother. Alas, some puns don’t translate very well.
Craig, in his Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, really gets this generative, creative, funny, punny, slippery wordplay in the Hebrew אָדָם (‘adam) and חַוָּה (Chava). Here’s his first mention of “Adam” and his first of “Eve,” both in Genesis 3:20 -
Adam, or “Humanity,” named the woman Eve, or “Life-giver,” because she became the mother of all the living.
Now, looking back, I guess I really should have named this post, “The Eve of the Creation of Translation.” There’s something of Life in these words, isn’t there?