Is the vocative now largely hidden in many recent translations?

In a radio conversation with the late Dr. John Stek (PDF file), Chair of the Committee on Bible Translation for the NIV and TNIV Bible versions, broadcast on “Conversations with Carl Zylstra” (program #237), radio station KDCR, Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, April 5, 2002, Dr. Stek speaks about the vocative.
HT: Esteban

Dr. Stek: Well, just to indicate some of the kinds of things that we think have brought the version up into more contemporary English, for example, we’ve eliminated almost all the vocative Os, except where they have some rhetorical purpose.

Dr. Zylstra: where it says, “O, Israel,” or

Dr. Stek: Yeah, or “O, Lord,” or “O, God” or whatever.

Dr. Zylstra: Has that really been lost from the English language?

Dr. Stek: Oh, yes. Well, it has been lost as a vocative “O” and it’s been turned into what we call a pathetic “Oh.” It’s the emotional “oh” and there’s nothing in the original language to indicate that. Because it’s out in everyday speech, it no longer functions as the vocative, it functions as a pathetic “oh” or a rhetorical one.

I like the use of the vocative “O” and use it all the time when I’m praying. I miss seeing it in these translations. But then I’m 44 years old and am used to it from reading the Psalms in the NIV for so many years.

Here is my favorite example as an illustration.

Psalm 5:3 NRSV
O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.

Psalm 5:3 NIV
In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.

Psalm 5:3 TNIV
In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Psalm 5:3 NET
LORD, in the morning you will hear me; in the morning I will present my case to you and then wait expectantly for an answer.

Psalm 5:3 NLT
Listen to my voice in the morning, LORD. Each morning I bring my requests to you and wait expectantly.

So should it be left untranslated? Is it important?

4 Responses to “Is the vocative now largely hidden in many recent translations?”

  1. 1 Esteban Vázquez

    To be fair, the vocative isn’t “now largely hidden in many recent translations,” not is it left “untranslated.” It’s right there in the TNIV’s Psalm 5:3 — albeit without the (now largely antiquated) English interjection “O.” The plain “Lord” there is a perfectly good vocative.
    Now, while you don’t often encounter the  “O+vocative” in spoken English (but witness expressions like “O [my] God!”), the same is not true when it comes formulaic liturgical texts (such as the Psalms!) and prayers modeled after them. For that reason, I wish they’d left the vocatives in the TNIV Psalms alone — but again, the verse you quote above sounds perfectly natural to me as it stands.
    As for the Greek ὦ, one of my teacher’s teachers in Madrid (I believe it was Galiano, but I’m not certain) was always adamant that it should be left untranslated because it was the article of the vocative case, and translating it with “O” would be like rendering ὁ Ἰησοῦς as “the Jesus.” I have never been entirely convinced by this, but it always gives me pause whenever I’m translating a text. The point is, however, that the English “O” is not the equivalent of the Greek vocative’s ὦ, and a translation is leaving nothing untranslated by not using it.

  2. 2 Damian

    I’ve always understood that proper nouns can serve the function of the vocative in English, hence leaving out the ‘O’ is still a correct translation. I don’t remember where I learnt this, though – my guess is that it came up in first year linguistics or Latin.

  3. 3 Scripture Zealot

    Obviously I hadn’t put a lot of thought into this.

    Brother Esteban, thanks for the explanation. I now see what Dr. Stek means by the pathetic O and I can see how leaving it out isn’t really leaving anything out. It’s kind of like what the word awesome has become. Young people reading or singing about God being awesome may think he’s just a cool guy which is a lament of mine.

    Damian, I also never thought about how using a proper noun functions as vocative. If I actually say it, I can see how it’s something added that we don’t normally say in certain constructions anyway.


  4. 4 tc robinson

    Jeff, removal of the “O” was one thing I noticed too.  But it’s all a language thing.  Guess what?  They might come back in style.  Language could be so funny.
    Stefan, you’re right about the Greek.

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