Making the pot boil and bubble

Posted: 2nd May 2011 by ElShaddai Edwards in Translation
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Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1

Examples of bubbling cauldron scenes — with or without witches — in classic literature are seemingly innumerable, and in the heart of the book of Ezekiel, we find that even the Bible contributes to the genre. The parable of the boiling pot graphically illustrates a message of judgement from God on the leaders of Jerusalem, who had been set siege upon by the king of Babylon. The parable itself is turnabout on an earlier vision, cf. Ezekiel 11:1-12, where the prophet hears the corrupt leadership compare the safety of the city to a boiling pot of meat.

In this post, I am looking at the first part of the parable, Ezekiel 24:3b-5, comparing the classic KJV with two modern translations, the Revised English Bible (REB) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). My intent is such: compare the KJV to a translation example that emphasizes literary language (REB) and to an example of a translation that offers idiomatic English grammar (HCSB), with the idea to see what is gained or lost from an English styling perspective.

First, I offer this caveat: I don’t know Hebrew, so I will not be comparing these translations to the original text, nor will I be referencing Strongs or somesuch tool. I wish to only consider the approach of the English translations and how they compare to themselves.

Ezekiel 24:3

Set on a pot, set it on,
and also pour water into it;
Set a cauldron on the fire,
set it on and pour in water.
Put the pot on the fire —
put it on,
and then pour water into it!

While each of the translations retains a sense of the repetition — Set on a pot, set it on, — both the REB and HCSB have introduced changes to the KJV text. First, in flipping the order of the noun (“pot/cauldron”) and preposition (“0n”) in the initial phrase, both translations saw fit to introduce a prepositional object (“the fire”) that is not in the KJV (or in most other non-functional translations that I consulted). While grammatically correct, the choice of “the fire” as the object may be viewed as somewhat arbitrary (unless there is a textual variant out there with this word choice) since there are other objects that could be equally used, e.g. “the pit”.

The change in the HCSB seems entirely motivated by creating a more natural order to the English grammar. While this creates a phrase that sounds correct, I would argue that the addition dampens the immediate effect of the repetition. If the HCSB had simply translated the phrase as “put on the pot, put it on”, I might have suggested that the alliteration of “put/pot” created an even stronger reading than the KJV’s rendering.

The same addition in the REB can perhaps be defended by considering the other changes in this verse. The REB has connected the second repetition of “set it on” to the last phrase, “pour in water”, creating a second line phrase that is equally yoked to the expanded phrase of the first line. Furthermore, the translation now begins each line with the same repeating verb, a strong device in English poetry.

Ezekiel 24:4

Gather the pieces thereof into it,
even every good piece,
the thigh and the shoulder;
fill it with the choice bones.
Into it collect the pieces,
every choice piece,
fill it with leg and shoulder,
the best of the bones;
Place the pieces of meat in it,
every good piece —
thigh and shoulder.
Fill it with choice bones.

Compared to the KJV, the HCSB is fairly conservative in its treatment of v4. The verb “gather” has been updated to “place”, to a lesser effect to my ears, and dropping the word “even” fails to convey that the leaders of Jerusalem – the good pieces – were being included in the judgement along with people of the city. By dropping articles like “the” from the translation, the HCSB destroys the line meters — for example, the KJV finishes with verse with two lines of six syllables, while the HCSB now has uneven lines of 4 syllables and 5 syllables. It seems like it would have been a simple matter to selectively use articles to fill out the meters or just to preserve the KJV wording.

The REB has again manipulated the wording to create stronger poetic effects in the English. First, in line 1, by shifting the phrase “into it” to the beginning of the line, the translation now ends lines 1 and 2 with the variants of “pieces”, creating another repeating effect. Next, perhaps this is a stretch, but if you read “every” in line 2 as “ev-er-ry”, then the REB translators have embedded a haiku in lines 2-4, with syllables of 5-7-5. Finally, using “best” instead of “choice” creates another alliterative effect with “bones”, something that’s echoed in the first line of verse 5 (see below).

Ezekiel 24:5

Take the choice of the flock,
and burn also the bones under it,
and make it boil well,
and let them seethe the bones of it therein.
take the pick of the flock.
Pile the wood underneath;
seethe the stew
and boil the bones in it.
Take the choicest of the flock
and also pile up the fuel under it.
Bring it to a boil
and cook the bones in it.

The HCSB throws a curveball to the tongue with the superlative “choicest” standing oddly out from even the KJV. I’m not entirely sure what to think about that, other than to note that it is shared with the ESV and NASB, so it is presumably rooted in the ASV/RSV lineage, something that I would not have expected from the HCSB as a new translation.

The REB’s rendering of “the pick of the flock” is a consonance effect with the “ck” sound and plays off of the alliteration of “the best of the bones” at the end of v.4, a connection that is underscored by the choices of punctuation that alter the actual construction of the phrases (compared to the KJV).

I have to confess at this point that my interest in this overall passage was initially piqued by the REB’s alliterative rendering in v5: coming across “seethe the stew” was a magical bit of reading and I was curious to find the root of it in the KJV, though in true NEB/REB fashion, the words have been transformed into perhaps more idiomatic English poetry, though it’s doubtful that stew was in mind here (though spices are added later in v.10). Boiling meat bones to create soup stock is a time-tested practice that deserves something more inspired than the HCSB’s simple “cook the bones”…

Finally, I would also bring in the venerable Jerusalem Bible (though sadly not its successor) at this point for a rendering of the third line that seems steeped in Shakespeare and appropriate to the genre:

Take the best of the flock.
Then heap wood underneath;
make the pot boil and bubble
until even the bones are cooked.

Concluding thoughts

With even this short look at a few verses, it seems easy to conclude that the REB makes attempts to render the text into English poetry, using standard devices such as alliteration, consonance, meter and repetition to create passages that sound as well as read to greater effect.

The HCSB seems content to normalize traditional (KJV) renderings into standard English grammar, making it perhaps easier to read, but at the expense of the possible poetic effects, whether from the original Hebrew or in English itself. This is a common criticism of most modern English translations, deservedly so it seems, and one that the REB stands in stark contrast to. My preference is clear.

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