Perverse frowardness

“To understand (the Bible) you need a little intelligence and much intuition– intelligence enough to enable you to read the book, and intuition enough to interpret and understand what you read.” ~ Neville Goddard, from his book Freedom For All

I’ve bookmarked a “random bible verse” website on my laptop, phone and tablet, and any time I feel like I need a shot of inspiration, I refresh the page, and more often than not, what I get is germane to whatever my needs are at the moment.

This morning, when I logged on, the verse on the page was Proverbs 10:32. By default, the site shows the translation from the New International Version (NIV), with alternate translations below that. Here is the NIV translation:

The lips of the righteous know what finds favor,
but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse.

One of the things I learned from the most astute biblical scholar I’ve yet read, Neville Goddard, is that I need to read it critically. The Bible, he wrote in Freedom For All, was “written in an Eastern symbolism… by the Eastern mind and therefore cannot be taken literally by those of the west…. Why was it not written in a clear, simple style so that all who read it might understand it?… All men speak symbolically to that part of the world that differs from their own. The language of the West is clear to us of the West, but it is symbolic to the East, and vice versa.”

Goddard cites as an example the phrase “on the rocks.” “The man of the West would unintentionally mislead the man of the East by saying ‘This bank is on the rocks,’ for the expression ‘on the rocks’ to the Westerner is equivalent to bankruptcy, while a rock to an Easterner is a symbol of faith and security.”

This made me aware that I needed to look beyond the surface to glean meaning from the Bible, but then confounding the issue further is the fact that there is not one “Bible,” but numerous (dare I say “countless”) translations of “the same” work. That’s another thing I learned from Neville: I need to both consult multiple translations of the Bible and use a concordance. If a word or passage doesn’t “feel right,” he said, don’t accept it: cross-reference it in multiple editions and look it up in a concordance or another exhaustive scholarly work (The Interpreter’s Bible and The Encyclopedia Biblica are two such works that he mentioned frequently).

The “random bible verse” website presented six translations of the “same verse” quoted above, and I also consulted my own varied translations. Depending on which translation you consulted, Proverbs 10:32 tells you the following:

The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable:
But the mouth of the wicked speaketh frowardness.
(King James Version)

The lips of the godly speak helpful words,
but the mouth of the wicked speaks perverse words.
(New Living Translation)

The mouth of the good utters wisdom
but the perverted tongue destruction.
(Ferrar Fenton)

The speech of good men is a breath of pleasure
but bad men talking breathe out malice.
(James Moffatt)

The lips of the righteous know what is good;
but the mouth of the wicked speaks perverse things.
(George Lamsa)

Finally, perhaps the most reliable translation was in The Amplified Old Testament, a work which endeavored, in the editors’ words, “to reveal, together with the single-word English equivalent to each key Hebrew word, any other clarifying shades of meaning that may have been concealed by the traditional word-for-word method of translation.” The translators used parentheses for those “additional phrases of meaning included in the original word, phrase or clause,” and brackets for “clarifying words or comments… which are not actually expressed in the original text.”

The “Amplified” translation of Proverbs 10:32 is…

The lips of the (uncompromisingly) righteous know [and therefore utter] what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked knows [and therefore speaks only] what is obstinately willful and contrary.

That might be the translation that “feels” correct, but I had to go through six others to find it!

The amplified translation pointed me to a word that I found troubling in the other translations: perverse and its forms. At least six editions presented that word choice translated from the original Hebrew word (transliteration) tahpûkâh, which, according to Strong’s concordance, means “a perversity or fraud:— (very) froward (-ness, thing), perverse thing.”

Only the King James (ironically the first English translation of the batch, from 1611) opted for frowardness. That word intrigued me, so I went to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary (even though I have a compact OED at hand; sometimes, though, I don’t feel like using the magnifier!) to get its meaning: “habitually disposed to disobedience and opposition.” That word, although archaic, “feels right,” especially given the Amplified translation.

For as right as froward felt, perverse and perversity felt wrong. It’s not that perverse is not one of the shades of meaning of the original Hebrew word; rather, it’s that to my 21st century mind, perverse and its derivatives have connotations which probably weren’t in the original text.

Merriam-Webster defines the primary meaning of the root word perverse as “turned away from what is right or good,” followed by “improper, incorrect,” “obstinate in opposing what is right, reasonable or accepted,” or “arising from or indicative of stubbornness or obstinancy.” Those all seem to be the traditional senses of the word’s meaning, and I’d guess that those senses are what the translators were attempting to convey in choosing perverse.

It was with the fourth sense of meaning, which cross references the derivative perversion, where my problem with the word comes in: “a perverted form especially an aberrant sexual practice or interest”(their emphasis).

That was my gut level response to the word “perverse” in those multiple translations: that it conveys a sense of sexual deviancy.

While that may be the limited modern use of the word, I don’t think that that’s what the original Hebrew text was attempting to convey. “Fraud” (from the Hebrew) seems closer, and “habitually disposed to disobedience and opposition” (from “froward”) really hits home. The Amplified translation seems to capture both of those, without the limited, commonly-held, modern implications of “perversity.”

Interesting: according to Merriam Webster’s website, the original use of “froward” was as an antonym for “forward.” “Froward meant ‘moving or facing away from something or someone,’” which may have led to its other original early meaning: “difficult to deal with, perverse.” The King James Bible was published in 1611, so both of those shades of meaning probably influenced the translators.

Of all the translations, again, the Amplified version not only felt like it resonated with my current situation (that was, after all, the original point of the exercise), but, objectively, it seems to capture the depth and dimensions of the original text’s meaning best, without using words which our modern sensibilities might shade with limited understanding. If I hadn’t read that, I’d go with the King James choice of “frowardness,” which, again, conveys shades and dimensions of meaning that include but are not limited to the most common choice, “perverse.”

It’s a cautionary tale to translators: in translating ancient texts to make them “more accessible to modern readers,” be sure that your word choices are as close to all senses of the original meaning as possible.

Lest the original meanings of the texts get perverted.

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