The JPS Tanakh of Isaiah 49:7 reads, in part:
Thus said the LORD,
The Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One,
b-To the despised one,
To the abhorred nations,-b . . .
Note b reads: Meaning of Heb. uncertain. Emendation yields “Whose being is despised / Whose body is detested”; cf. 51.23.
I noticed this first when I read this in Hebrew, and found that I was not able to produce a translation that I found satisfactory. I remained in doubt. So I looked it up in a few translations. Note also that the reading adopted in the JPS text is itself an emendation.
There are, in fact, quite a number of cases in which modern translators cannot be certain of the meaning of a Hebrew word or phrase. There are several different options one can take when confronted with this. First, you can make a guess at a translation and go with it. Second, you can rely on some ancient translation, such as the Syriac or LXX, or on the Dead Sea Scrolls, if any of those are available and usable. Third, you can try a textual emendation. An emendation is essentially an educated reconstruction of a possible text. You might colloquially call it an educated guess.
This third option makes many people uncomfortable. They’d prefer nobody was guessing about the contents of their Bible. But we should think carefully about this. In terms of reliability, how does the third option differ from the first? In fact, it does not. In the first, we guess at the meaning of an obscure passage, and produce something that appears to work. In the third, we guess at a Hebrew text that can be intelligibly translated. In both cases, the meaning produced results from an educated guess. In the second case, we have manuscript support, and few would not prefer this if at all possible. If the versions or Dead Sea Scrolls produce an intelligible and reasonably probable text, then that must be given full consideration.
So don’t be afraid of the textual emendation, frequently introduced by a note such as “conj.” or “cj.” for “conjecture. I’m going to look at a couple of other translations and see how they interpret and footnote the two lines involved. (Note that the BHS provides a range of options, but no single proposed phrasing for both lines.)
- The NKJV reads “To Him whom man despises, / To Him whom the nation abhors,”
- The ESV reads “to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation”
- The NLT reads “to the one who is despised and rejected by a nation”
- The NASB reads “To the despised One, / To the One abhorred by the nation,”
- The NRSV reads “to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,” (I consider this the best translation of the existing text.)
- The REB reads “to one who is despised, / and whom people abhor”
Of these translations, only the JPS Tanakh regards the passage as obscure enough to require a footnote, and indicates that an emendation is required in order to produce the text produced by a wide variety of Christian translations. Why is this?
Some might turn first to bias, and there is a small point of bias involved, but it is not one that is easy to resolve. There is certainly a tendency of the Christian translations to interpret this passage christologically, which is obviously not the preferred Jewish translation. But the difference is really one of textual assumptions. Most versions in the various Christian traditions will give you a footnote if they alter the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible through emendation, but not when they merely alter vowel pointing. This is because Christian interpreters tend to see the consonantal text, which predates the written vowel pointing, as more authoritative than the vowel pointing that was added later. Jewish interpreters, on the other hand, have a much higher respect for the oral tradition which produced those vowel pointings, and are thus much more careful of emending them. In this case the emendation involves vowels and one “vowel letter,” in an alteration that looks very tame.
I much prefer the option of footnoting what one does. In this case, I would specifically prefer a footnote simply because the text acquires a greater importance in discourse by virtue of being interpreted christologically. But at the same time, all translators involved have followed their specified translation procedures.