January 11, 2010

Nephi's "horoshikh rodityelei," or "goodly parents"

Part 1 of the ongoing series, "Ya Nyefii," comparing the Russian and English translations of the Book of Mormon. Throughout this series we employ Russian Cyrillic (Я, Нефий), Romanization (Ya, Nyefii), and English (I, Nephi) characters. All translations are by Kristen Hodges.

In comparing the English and Russian translations of the Book of Mormon, we didn't get past the first sentence without confronting a small example of what might be at stake when a scripture is translated from one language to another.

"I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents..."

Consider Hugh Nibley's discussion of this phrase:

The opening verse of the Book of Mormon explains the expression "goodly parents" not so much in a moral sense as in a social one: Nephi tells us he came of a good family and "therefore" received a good traditional education: "I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father" (1 Nephi 1:1). He was of the tribe of Manasseh, which of all the tribes retained the old desert ways and was most active in the caravan trade...Lehi was a man possessed of exceeding great wealth in the form of "gold and silver, and all manner of riches" (1 Nephi 3:16; 2:4). He had "his own house at Jerusalem" (1 Nephi 1:7); yet he was accustomed to "go forth" from the city from time to time (1 Nephi 1:5-7), and his paternal estate, the land of his inheritance, where the bulk of his fortune reposed, was some distance from the town (1 Nephi 3:16, 22; 2:4). He came of an old, distinguished, and cultured family (1 Nephi 5:14-16).1
Of course, Nibley is taking this statement quite far, but it illustrates the point that translation can obscure a subtle meaning depending on the culture(s) of the writer, translator, and audience. The Russian translation takes the verse at face value, as I suspect most readers of the Book of Mormon do.

"Я, Нефий, родившийся от хороших родителей"

"Ya, Nyefii, rodivshisya ot horoshikh rodityelei"

"I, Nephi, having been born from good parents"

"Goodly" seems to hold slightly more potential to make sense according to Nibley's view (in a context indicating the status of the parents, including wealth). The fact that "goodly" is seldom employed today lends a little rhetorical weight to Nibley's observation. In the Russian translation it is simply rendered as "good" in the basic sense; a positive view of Lehi and Sariah as good people. "Good" is the translation of the English "goodly," which is the translation of an unknown "reformed Egyptian" original word that could contain much more meaning than an English or Russian rendering can convey.  

Just as a native English speaker today wouldn't be likely to describe their parents using Nephi's somewhat awkward phrase, there are more intuitive ways to express the thought in Russian. The translation is literal at the outset, adhering closely to the English text even when running counter to what might be considered typical Russian vernacular.

This is one reason why, in both cases, the phrasing has the potential to give the reader the feeling of an ancient text. A Russian who is familiar with the Bible would be more likely to recognize this prose as scriptural language, especially as they read further into the chapter. English readers usually do better with the Book of Mormon when they have some familiarity with King James idiom. The Russian and English translations are easier to understand if the reader already has some background in the text of the Bible.

Phillip Barlow has noted that until relatively recently, "translators of ancient texts [in the West] have commonly attempted to approximate the lordly style of the KJV, particularly when the text was religious." Taking a somewhat loose theory of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Barlow argues that Joseph Smith's translation is cast in "seventeenth-century prose, though his own vocabulary and grammar are evident throughout."2 In a somewhat analogous way, the Russian translation of the Book of Mormon is clearly Biblically influenced, perhaps to express the "feel" of scripture, occasionally at the expense of what might have been a "plainer translation." This carry over is just as likely the result of the Russian translator's attempt to mirror the style of the English Book of Mormon, which in turn, mirrors the KJV. 

In this opening line about goodly parents, nothing doctrinally crucial is at stake, of course, but it indicates the possibilities one small word can contain. In upcoming posts we'll identify areas where the interpretation is especially strong and illuminating, or faulty and misleading in either the Russian or English versions. (This includes a popular verse in which an entire phrase has been inadvertently left out!)

Hugh Nibley, "Lehi as a Representative Man," Approach to the Book of Mormon, p. 46. See also Nibley's Teachings of the Book of Mormon, vol. 1, Nibley, p. 16. Another blog discussion on this issue is Kevin Barney, "I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents," ByCommonConsent.com, 1 March 2008.

Phillip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, Oxford University Press (1997), pp. 25-27. Such a loose view of translation contrasts with the views of other Latter-day Saint scholars, including Royal Skousen. See the discussion and footnotes by BHodges, "Gardner on Ostler's Expansion Theory," LifeOnGoldPlates.com, 10 September 2008.


Kevin Barney said...

Some prior commentary on "goodly parents" that may be of interest:




BHodges said...

Thanks, Kev, you are a goodly fellow. Or a good fellow?

I remembered that first one in the footnotes but missed the two other ones.

Steven Montgomery said...

look at the following word pairs and consider their meanings:

good ----- goods (such as dry goods, etc.)

proper ----- property (or proprietor or proprietary)

well (or weal) ----- wealth

The first word in each word pair relates to some property of good while the second word relates to property.

Next consider this English play on words: "he is a good man who is a man of goods," In other words, Property and its importance in western culture as a positive (good) force is reflected in our language, expressions, and in words and their meaning. Therefore, I believe Nibley was on to something.

BHodges said...

Steven, I do too, and thanks for your comments. Pragmatically, I think the verse works just as well when the common idea of "good" is assumed, as it is in the Russian translation, but it is interesting to think about how translation can obscure such meaning.

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