Saturday, November 28, 2009

Typos: The Modern Scribal Error

Kevin Edgecomb at Biblicalia has just posted on typographical errors in his modern copy of Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, particularly how the turning of Satan into Satin, turns a potentially powerful moment into silliness.

In the Bible I use for my Lit Hum class, I also have found an interesting typographical error. It is the Meridian printing, which belongs to the Penguin Publishing group, of the RSV of Gen. 4:7. The story is of Cain and Abel. Abel's sacrifice to the LORD was accepted and Cain's was not. Cain becomes angry in response, but the LORD speaks to Cain, saying (with the typo included):

Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.

With the typo, it seems that sin is spending the night, perhaps even bedding down at the door. The language of "couching" adjacent to "desire" is suggestive of sexual attraction being applied to sin. It is trying to tempt you into bed. But, this is a typo. The real version is "crouching" and not "couching." This suggests a different set of images. Instead of sexually seductive, it is a menacing animal. Crouching is like a beast poised in the position to spring and to strike. Instead of sexual desire, it is seeking to devour. You are its food. Instead of mastering a seducer, you are to tame this lion. It is a powerful image, but one lost in this edition by this modern scribal error, and, with mass printing, it is a widely disseminated error.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Hi Jared! I think that's actually the choice of the translation, for the Hebrew RBC. I'll check a couple of my Oxford editions at home, but I don't think that one is actually a typo, just a quite unfortunate choice of the translator(s).

"Crouching" would certainly be better imagery, or "lurking" even, as HALOT suggests.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I've just checked three different RSV Bibles I have at home and all read "couching". These are from the New Oxford Annotated Bible (one of the red hardbacks and a leather edition, both from Oxford University Press) and a small RSV Catholic edition (also from Oxford). My very first RSV (my first "grown-up Bible"!), an edition from World Bible Publishers without the Apocrypha, also has "couching".

So, rather than a typo, it appears that this really is simply the peculiar choice of the translator(s).

Of course, since it was the 1950s, perhaps that kind of sexual imagery was not evoked by this terminology? Or if it was, perhaps it was simply glossed over? It was the era of Cecil B. DeMille's epics, when any number of Biblical woman became a femme fatale. It may even have been a sop to spice things up a bit.

Good catch, Jared! I'd never noticed that about that verse before. I'll never be able to see that verse in the RSV the same way again, for both better and worse.

Jared Calaway said...

Thanks for the double-checking. I was basing it on the Hebrew and did not check the other editions of RSV.

Now I wonder something else--if it is a typo in the original RSV translation and no one caught it. In fact, I have read through my red hardback edition many times, which I now see reads "couching," and always read it as "crouching." Thus, it may be a different scribal error--one that was at the base text of all the editions, since they all use the same translation, and one that was never emended. The reason I lean this way is that "couching" just doesn't make much sense. So, short of one of the original translators saying why they wanted sin "couching," I still suspect error, just a widely disseminated one. I see that NRSV luckily emended it to "lurking."

Jared Calaway said...

Ok...I decided to double-check all the meanings of "couching" in English. There is one meaning buried at the end of my dictionary entry, right after "to lie down to rest" where it can mean "to lie in ambush." That meaning has probably been lost by now, but perhaps was current in the 1950s.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Right, that's what I was thinking, too, that it was a more obscure sense of couching. I'd always read it as couching, too, though, just as you did, probably because the other English versions tend to use "crouching" (like NIV and NASB, which I used to use alot more than the RSV).

It really is an odd choice, though. But seeings as the KJV had simply "lieth", it was likely just following on in that tradition, and not trying to go too far away from it. "Lieth" and "couching" have a bit different connotation than "crouching" (which to my ear focuses more on the bending of the body than its stretching out), but the Hebrew RBC probably intended to describe the lion's low-profile prone crouch, just before the pounce. It's some great imagery, even if the English gets in the way!

Good eye for catching that!