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The Creation (of the Translation) of “Eve”

April 30, 2012

Something poet Courtney Druz wrote about translation, about Eve, in her original comment after a previous post, has inspired this one.

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?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2012 9:46 am

    Kurk, I’m glad you went on to look at this too! Lots to think about.

    Craig’s version of 3:20 is an interesting commentary on the original, but it’s worth noting it contains some serious changes. While some translations put the gloss on Adam in parentheses, like Koren’s “Adam (Man)”, Craig puts it in the voice of the narrator. But there is no naming-event for Adam in the text. God names the first elements of creation, but does not name Adam in an event separate from the creation of Adam. That is, Adam is described as being made in God’s image, male and female, but with no division between existence and naming. In contrast to this, Adam names Eve this second time at a moment many steps after her first creation and her first naming as Woman, again with a human-made explanation of the name, in the explanatory style in which many other individuals later in Genesis are named by a parent after their births.

    I think whether Craig’s translation is actually more egalitarian depends on whether the original is viewed as being already egalitarian or as being inherently sexist. This can be clarified by looking at what Craig is doing in translating “his woman” as “the woman”. Whose woman is it? Is Eve a female belonging to a male, of is she the female part of humanity? In the latter interpretation, the possessive pronoun is not inherently offensive.

    At its first appearance, the female element is not separately created but derived from undifferentiated humanity. From that point male and female are distinct but not so different, and Adam’s first naming Woman reflects that—not Adam and Chava, but Ish and Isha. After the eating of the Tree and the subsequent divine pronouncements, a more complicated individuality of each partner is achieved, including the imposition of gender roles. Adam, now gendered, renames his female counterpart Eve, acknowledging her new role as the generator of future human life, not merely the result of divine creation. At that point, God steps back in to provide clothing, acknowledging that the two humans will now see each other as sexual opposites. Is this prescriptive or descriptive? Is it a devolution or an evolution or a step to future evolution? I think those questions are intentionally left open, which is probably too much for any one translation to hold.

  2. May 1, 2012 9:52 am


  3. May 1, 2012 12:16 pm

    I love your questions, especially “Is this prescriptive or descriptive? Is it a devolution or an evolution or a step to future evolution?”! I’ll be asking these, maybe forever, and surely right now for a very focused while. May I leave your questions and observations about Craig’s translational choices to, well, to Craig? I hope he can find some time to respond.

    In the meantime, you’re getting me to recall what Elie Wiesel asks:

    Why do Scriptures offer us two different versions of Adam’s birth? Where there two ‘first men’ at the beginning of history? Or are we to understand that even in the early days of his solitude Adam was already two — as though to warn us that while man aspires to oneness, he will never attain it. But then we have the right to ask the question: Why such a split, such an explosion of the self, which inevitably must lead to endless conflicts and contradictions? Perhaps God intended to begin His work with a question. Perhaps He sought, through Adam, to continuously interrogate His creation.

    Here Wiesel is having his wife, Marion Wiesel, translate these words of his from his French into her English (in Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends).

    Now, taking the following sentence totally out of their context (and the context before and after of this sentence is just amazing since they also ask why Adam was created, but also why Eve), I want to recall how Elie and Marion say this:

    Without Eve, Adam would have been a man but not human.

    Midrash and translation also are critical. They are critical to our understanding of the Hebrew Genesis account (which has an author — anon? Moses? — a Creator, His (His and Her?) creations, and voices that mediate and present and re-present). Midrash and translation, similarly, are interpretive, like any reading of the Hebrew must be.

    The role of gender, of sexual bodies too, is tremendous. So now I think of how Simone de Beauvoir (as Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier translate her Second Sex) recalls the arguments, the rhetorical interpretations, of Cornelius Agrippa:

    Eve means Life and Adam Earth. Created after man, woman is more finished then he [sic]. She is born in paradise, he outside. When she falls into the water, she floats; man sinks. She is made from Adam’s rib and not from earth. Her monthly cycles cure all illnesses. Eve merely wandered in her ignorance, whereas Adams sinned, which is why God made himself a man; moreover, after his resurrection he appeared to women.

    .Yes, Simone de Beauvoir is repeating some of Cornelius Agrippa’s arguments that are derived from sources beyond Genesis. She asks a Christian question: parce que la femme a conçu Dieu, ce que l’homme ne put faire? and thereby emphasizes the French feminist language play between l’homme vs. la femme and l’homme as la femme. Borde and Malovany-Chevallier are stuck with English “man, woman” in which the prefix of the latter marks the fe-male as wo-man.

    You’ve already asked (and I’ll leave this too for Craig) “whether the original [Hebrew] is [to be] viewed as being already egalitarian or as being inherently sexist” if and when “male and female are distinct but not so different, and Adam’s first naming Woman reflects that—not Adam and Chava, but Ish and Isha.” I’m nearly out of time, but when I have more, I’d like to look at the binary of the Patriarchy, especially as Aristotle divides the sexes, in his Greek, and how the New Testament, notably Paul, runs with such divisions in his aristotelian and rhetorical/logical Greek (i.e., Jew/Greek and male/female and “Adam”/”Eve” and “Christ”/”first Adam”). By bringing in Simone de Beauvoir, I really would like to question how one might read Genesis, how one looks at language as ontological rather than representational and interpretational. I think I’m not far from what you’re saying, and I do wish to hear from Craig. (I know I’m saying other things here too, related.)

  4. erin jeskey permalink
    May 1, 2012 3:47 pm

    you picked my favorite subject, and although my approach is more lighthearted I appreciate the depth of knowledge you have on this subject. 🙂

  5. May 1, 2012 5:05 pm

    Glad you stopped by to read. In turn, I found your blog and your announcement about your upcoming fictional Eve stories. We here at this blog do like to laugh, to be lighthearted as well: I’m looking forward to reading what you write.


  1. how are some more certain of everything than i am of anything?…. » Blog Archive » to confuse the dead & irritate the living

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