Relevant Basics About Translation
All translation involves interpretation: The source word will potentially have a number of meanings associated to it, some meanings may be similar but nuanced (small vs. miniature), others may be completely different (the bark of a dog vs. the bark of a tree). This is an interpretive step, which then must have a word matched to the target language, with some interpretation as to which of potentially a great many words best fits the context of the original source word. Additionally, other word choice factors can come into play:
- In some cases a transliteration may be deemed best, if the word meaning is in doubt.
- Variants in different copies (or notes in the document of) the source reading create additional options of what may be best to reflect in the translation.
- A phrase in the source may have an idiomatic meaning that loses the real meaning if translated literally, so completely different words may be used in the target language to convey the idea; or conversely, an idiom in the target language may express the idea best, and what was more literal in the source may be deemed best reflected idiomatically in the target language.
Language syntax conventions: Translation of texts involves working with language syntax conventions of not just the source language, but also the target language. A translator must make a decision about which language convention to follow for structuring the sentence when the two languages do not have similarity in how things are represented. These decisions can include omitting non-translatable words from the original, or adding words to the target language to express the idea correctly in that language.
Context matters: For both (1) and (2), the immediate context of the statement itself, as well as the body of work it may appear in, also informs translators about what the best choice of wording is. And yes, even theology can come into play with making a proper translation in the Bible, as theology is part of the context of the Bible.
In all cases, however, the translation involves many levels of decision making. There is no magic formula, and differing philosophies will make differing decisions. So a statement such as "When I see translation I expect translating and that's it" evidences a serious ignorance of what "translating" involves.
Answering the translation of Elyon
To begin with, let's reexamine the quote you included from a blog, not the most academic of sources, but at least the blog itself cites some sources, which is a good thing. Some relevant comments follow the quote:
The title Elyon whenever used of the Super Being it is never preceded with a “definite article.” According to the grammar of the
Hebrew language names are never preceded with a definite article while
the titles are. This is what The Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 7, on p.
680 has to say concerning ‘Elyon:’
“The Hebrew word ‘elyon’ is an adjective meaning “higher, upper,” e.g., the “upper” pool [Isa. 7:3], the “upper” gate [2 Kings 15:35],
and “highest” e.g. the “highest” of all the kings of the earth [Ps.
89:28]. When used in reference to God, the word can rightly be
translated as “Most High.” Since in reference to God ‘elyon’ IS NEVER
PRECEDED BY THE ARTICLE ‘HA’ [“THE”], IT MUST HAVE BEEN REGARDED AS A
PROPER NOUN, A NAME OF GOD.
- It is true that names are not preceded by articles (Gesenius, 125d).
- It is also true that adjectives are not necessarily preceded by articles, in particular "the article is sometimes omitted also with the attributes referring to proper names" (Gesenius, 126y). This means the final conclusion above, "IT MUST HAVE BEEN REGARDED AS A PROPER NOUN," is a false conclusion based on the evidence, though not necessarily inaccurate (that is, it may still be a proper noun, just not because of that fact alone of not having an article).
- Note that the term elyon itself is readily acknowledged as an adjective (as in the quote you gave). This means, by conventional default, the term is used to describe something. This fact favors the word being understood as a title (as titles describe), not a name. However, names can be derived from adjectives, so a name cannot be wholly discounted by this alone. It is just that being an adjective, a title is more likely the correct understanding.
The very first use of the elyon in Scripture, uses the term in relation to God. This is in Gen 14:18-22, where it occurs four times. In the first three uses (v.18, 19, 20), it is coupled with el (אל אליון). Since it lacks the article, elyon could be understood variously:
- If el is taken generically, then elyon may be a name, in apposition to el, thereby denoting what god is being spoken about. So generically, "a god, Elyon" or "a god, Highest."
- If el is taken generically, then elyon may be an adjective describing a particular god, "highest god" or "god most high." But the concept of "highest" is determinate, that is, there is only one; so English would translate it "[the] highest god" or "[the] most high god" because English convention is to use the article for a determinate reference.
- If el is taken nominally (and thus itself definitely), "God," then elyon may be a name also in apposition to el, equating the two names "God, Elyon" or "God, Highest."
- If el is taken nominally, then elyon may be an adjective describing the nature of "God" as supreme, so "God [the] Highest," or "God [the] Most High," "the Most High God."
However, the passage does not leave the reader with the ambiguity of these four options. This is because the fourth use directly associates el elyon with YHWH in v. 22 (יהוה אל אליון). YHWH is a proper noun, and so whatever way one wants to read the el elyon, the phrasing is in apposition to YHWH, and thus definite. So whether:
- YHWH, the God Elyon (i.e. Elyon, or Highest, is another name for YHWH); this would work out the same for option (3) above.
- YHWH, the highest God or the most high God (i.e. describes YHWH); this would work out the same for option (4) above.
In all cases, the epithet elyon (whether name or title) is equated to YHWH, and the meaning of the term as "highest" makes it a unique association (there can be only One Who is Highest), and so the appellation is definite.
Deut 32:8 Use
From the background information, the reader has the definite Being YHWH associated directly as the God who is named or describe as Most High. Couple this with the further evident fact that YHWH is the subject being discussed in Deut 32:6 and 9, then the lone elyon reference in v.8 can only contextually refer to YHWH.
The reader is left with no doubt YHWH = Elyon, as in they refer to the same Being.
In the end, whether elyon is a name or a title does not really matter, for inherent in the meaning of elyon itself is the definite descriptive and superlative concept of "highest" contained in the adjectival nature of the word. Such a definite concept in English convention normally takes an article to convey, so adding the article in translation is perfectly acceptable.
Additionally, in English, names at times receive an article before them:
The definite article is sometimes also used with proper names, which
are already specified by definition (there is just one of them). For
example: the Amazon, the Hebrides. In these cases, the definite
article may be considered superfluous. Its presence can be accounted
for by the assumption that they are shorthand for a longer phrase in
which the name is a specifier, i.e. the Amazon River, the Hebrides
One can see this English convention coming into play in Deut 32:8 as well, and may be another, differing reason why the article is added. By choosing to add the article to the translated meaning of elyon, it is a way of reflecting the idea elsewhere in the Scripture that associates elyon to God (and the individual YHWH), so just as the Amazon may be a shorthand for the elided idea of the Amazon River, English choosing *the Most High" as a translation may be shorthand for "the Most High God."
Whether seen as name or as descriptive title, the main question of "why" it sometimes gets translated with the article as "the Most High" is answered by the fact that this addition, for purposes of the target language, is acceptable, and so this is "why" it occurs.
The name/title is unique, and associated to YHWH. If choosing...
- to transliterate it as a name is okay, but then it loses the descriptive point of the name, "highest," for the English reader (IMO not good).
- to translate it as a name without the article is fine, "Highest" or "Most High," but the superlative (and therefore definite) and descriptive meaning of the term sounds odd in English without the article (IMO not ideal) and leaves one jarred wondering "Highest what?" since an adjectival concept, even used as a name, tends to want the article (e.g. "The Hulk" more often than simply "Hulk").
- to translate it as a name or title with the article is best (IMO), because the addition, whether viewed as title or name, fits the target language better for conveying the definite concept contained in the Hebrew word and usage.
In all the choices above, one must bring a presupposition of polytheism to impose on the text, rather than letting the Bible speak for itself, to conclude the name refers to another being besides YHWH.