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Acts 9:36 introduces us to Tabitha who Luke kindly translates for us so we'll understand that this means "Gazelle." However, quite a few English translations transliterate the Greek so we fail to understand what the name really means unless we read the notes. Why do this? What advantage does "Dorcas" have for translation?

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Background to Answer the Question

When going from source to target language in translation, a source word has a number of target possibilities, either within the possible semantic range of meaning for the source word into the appropriate similar meaning target word or for a transliteration of the characters of the source into the target characters or for a transcription of the sounds of the source into the appropriate target characters to recreate the sounds in the target language.

So your question, "What advantage does 'Dorcas' have for translation?" relates to why a translator would choose to transliterate or transcribe at all. There are at least two primary reasons:

  1. The meaning of the source word is unknown, so transliteration/transcription is used to keep the original source word in tact in the target language as much as possible, cluing the target reader to the fact that something is "unknown" about what is being said in the source language.
  2. The meaning of the source word is for identification; i.e., a name of a person, place, thing is an understandable "label" for the noun to identify it, and the meaning behind the label may be erroneous (with respect to the object labeled), insignificant, or at the best secondary to the identification purpose. This is very common with personal and proper names.

As you note, the meaning of Tabitha and Dorcas is known, gazelle, so #1 is not a valid reason to answer "why" transliterate Dorcas in English.

But #2 does offer a reason. That is, all translation involves a level of interpretation coupled with the translation philosophy behind it. So as a translator approaching Acts 9:36 there are two primary considerations to ponder, each resulting in a different decision about how to handle the text. Both considerations are on authorial intent, as Luke had one of two reasons for making his notation to his audience, which was Theophilus (Act 1:1)—a Greek name, so likely a Greek person and audience (whether an actual individual or a term used generally for Greeks who were 'God-lovers' probably does not matter for purposes here, what is important is the audience was Greek). Luke's two reasons:

  1. Luke may have desired his audience to know that the Aramaic name Tabitha means gazelle, creating some important word picture he did not want the reader to miss—best English translation choice is to translate to gazelle, as that was Luke's clarifying intent.

  2. Luke may have desired his audience to know that the person Tabitha is known to other Greeks as Dorcas, making sure the identification of the person was made. She had become famous in Joppa (Act 9:42), so it could be Luke expected his reader to have "heard" about Dorcas, but not known the details,* and so was ensuring proper identification—best English translation choice is to transliterate to Dorcas, as it was Luke's intent to identify, not define the name of, the person.

    * Luke's first treatise to Theophilus, the Gospel of Luke, of which Acts is often regarded as a continuation of, notes that the purpose was "that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed" (Luke 1:4). This indicates Theophilus was aware of various points, but not the details and confidence of that knowledge. The passage on Dorcas is part of filling that knowledge gap about Peter and this popular incident with Tabitha/Dorcas.

Answer to the Question

So there is one possible direct advantage for transliterating Tabitha to Dorcas, but there is also one indirect advantage even if the other idea is the intent:

  1. Direct: If #2 is correctly Luke's intent, translating it to gazelle misleads the English reader in thinking there was some meaning to be pictured by the name beyond mere identification, and it masks the actual Greek identifier entirely.
  2. Indirect: If #1 is correctly Luke's intent, still transliterating it to Dorcas invites the reader to decide whether to investigate that name's meaning (something people often do), and upon finding the meaning, determine if it should be considered for its meaning more than its identification. In other words, by having a name that the English reader does not understand as a "word" with "meaning" (which meaning is regularly given in a note anyway in English translations), it empowers the reader to decide about Luke's intent, rather than the translator hiding that decision in a translation.

So a transliteration of a name leaves more power in a target audience reader's hands to determine the intent of the author—identification or word picture.

Additional Commentary

Luke states he is giving Dorcas as a διερμηνευομένη, which means "being translated/interpreted/explained" (summary from BDAG lexicon). The core idea of the term is emphasizing making understandable for explanatory purposes. But being made understandable can be valid for either idea Luke may have had for his intent—understandable by expressing some quality of Dorcas meant to be pictured by knowing her name means gazelle; or understandable by making a proper identifying connection between the woman named Tabitha, but who in Greek circles is known as Dorcas.

Personally, I believe the direct advantage here is valid, as I do not see anything in the context to indicate that knowing the meaning as gazelle would or should have any relevance for the audience in describing Dorcas and the situation in which she became famous. I think Luke did it purely for identification purposes.

But because of the indirect advantage of transliterating, other readers can come to their own conclusion—they do not need to heed my thoughts on it.

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  • This is great! Surely somebody is going to point out somewhere the irrelevant bit of reverse etymologic trivia about the relationship between διερμηνευομένη and everybody's favorite word on this site.... possibly better exemplified by Luke's only other usage in Lk 24:27. | I've always wondered what the difference is between this term and the formulaic, always neuter ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον.
    – Susan
    Apr 18 '16 at 19:52
  • Is there any reason to think this is a roundabout way of saying she was Grecian? The description of the preparing the body and laying it out sounds more Greek than Jewish. The events which are coming deal with the Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit. Peter will next stay in the house of a tanner (against Jewish Law), have his dream and go to Cornelius' house. If Dorcas was a Gentile, all events would have the common theme that avoiding contact with Gentiles/unclean is no longer the right way for someone who is Jewish to act. Apr 19 '16 at 4:59
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    @RevelationLad: No, there is no cause to believe she was Gentile. She had an Aramaic name, Tabitha, which in Greek = Dorcas, so it seems clear she was non-Gentile. But the event happened in Joppa, with Peter, prior to and leading up to his call to the Gentiles (Dorcas is what got him to Joppa, v.38), so I do think that is why she became known among the upcoming new Greek believers (in ch. 10), and hence why Luke was clarifying for Theophilus who she was and the story about her. Regarding Jewish body prep, see Jn 19:39-40 and laying out the dead, see girl in Mk 5:35-43 // Lk 8:49-54.
    – ScottS
    Apr 19 '16 at 15:01

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