Ecclesiastes Translation Series (1): The Preacher, Ecclesiastes

Intro

For many reasons, Ecclesiastes is a difficult text to translate. For instance, the designation for the main speaker of the text, “the Preacher,” ordinarily indicates leaders in local churches, whose job includes supervising everything in the church, especially conducting worship services and giving sermons. The main speaker of Ecclesiastes has nothing to do with such a person. Perhaps one of the most memorable expressions in the Bible, “vanity of vanities,” is another example that demonstrates why Ecclesiastes is difficult to translate. Its Hebrew words use הבל(hevel/hebel); its literal meaning is “breath,” “vapor,” and the like. The term “vanity” carries only the figurative force of the original, restricting the word’s multivalency. These words require explanations why such translations happened, what the problems are, and what the alternatives can be. In fact, Ecclesiastes is permeated with such issues. So in this translation series, I will introduce translation issues in Ecclesiastes and explain them or suggest alternatives.

1. Ecclesiastes and the Preacher

“Ecclesiastes” is a translation of קהלת (Qohelet) in Hebrew, the main speaker and the title of the book. This word is an active (qal) participle feminine singular form of the verb קהל (qahal), meaning “to assemble” or “to summon.” So the participle form קהלת (Qohelet) may mean “an assembler” or “a summoner.” However קהל (qahal) is never used in “active voice” in the Hebrew Bible except for קהלת (Qohelet); all other instances occur in the passive(nifal) and causative (hifil) forms. The meanings just mentioned above are also listed under “nifal” and “hifil” but not “qal.” That is, we may conjecture that the meaning of קהלת(Qohelet) might be similar to nifal and hifil, but we have to admit that its precise meaning is uncertain. See the lexicon below.

Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), Accordance software screenshot

In the Hebrew language, some verbs never appear in their simplest stems, such as active voice or qal, and nifal, hifil or other derivative stems replace the position of qal. If the verb קהל (qahal) is the case, קהלת (qal participle) is not an actual word but a neologism perhaps to obscure the identity of the main speaker of the text. Think about the fact that the main speaker is evidently a male person, but the word itself has a feminine form. Moreover, Qohelet is introduced as a son of David who ruled over Israel before the division of the kingdom, that is Solomon, but the name Solomon never occurs in the text. Furthermore, after ch 2, he never seems like one who propagates kingship ideology but persistently criticizes every kind of power, even God

Anyways, the meaning of קהלת (Qohelet) is uncertain, but its meaning started being somewhat distorted and specified as it was translated into Greek. The Greek translation of קהלת (Qohelet) is ἐκκλησιαστής, an active participle feminine form of ἐκκλησιάζω, meaning “to summon.” Ecclesiastes is Latinized form of ἐκκλησιαστής. Its meaning is “a member of ἐκκλησία,” literally a member of the assembly. In the meantime, its theological meaning, “church,” gradually had occupied its generic meaning of ἐκκλησία. So later, Martin Luther, the reformer, translated ἐκκλησιαστής as “der Prediger,” and English translators accepted this translation. So ἐκκλησιαστής became “the Preacher” at last. Luther might have thought that “the preacher” represents ἐκκλησία, or he or she is the one who summons people to the church. But Qohelet, the main speaker of the book of Ecclesiastes, is a unique thinker in the Hebrew Bible. He challenges the sages’ creed (or rhetoric) of “act-consequence nexus” and claims that everyone and everything has the same fate regardless of being human or animal, or wise or foolish. As he observes the incredible absurdity of the world, he dares to criticize the most powerful, who is responsible for the current situation as a ruler of the world. So he is not an ordinary orthodox Judean who preaches Jewish doctrines but rather questions them. So “the Preacher” is not a proper choice for translating קהלת (Qohelet). 

It is a welcome change that NRSV changes RSV’s “the Preacher” to “the Teacher” as he is indeed introduced as a sage who continued to teach people (12:9), but still this is a just a title that the reader imposes on Qohelet based on the single verse, not a translation per se. Maybe, since the meaning is uncertain, it is better left untranslated. We can just use transliteration, “Qohelet,” an enigmatic term as ambiguity is perhaps intended in the first place.

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