God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Amos’s Clean White Teeth

Amos 4:6 is back, first in a comment and then in a post at Aberration Blog.

The Hebrew text reads: v’gam ani natati lachem nikyon shinayim b’chol areichem v’choser lechem b’chol m’komoteichem v’lo shavtm aday n’um adonai. That is, ” ‘I [Adonai] have given [or will give] you a purity/cleanness of teeth in all your cities and a lack of bread in all your places, and you didn’t return to me,’ says Adonai.”

At first, it looks like classic Hebrew parallelism (“saying the same thing twice”), where “cleanness of teeth” is like “lack of bread,” and “cities” is like “places.”

Noting (correctly) that “cleanness of teeth” doesn’t mean “hunger” in English, some translators explain the phrase in translation, rendering it as “hunger” (NLT) or “empty stomachs” (NIV).

But our translation question is whether “cleanness of teeth” is an idiom or a metaphor. If it’s an idiom, then, yes, it should be rendered as idiomatic English.

But I think the line is meant to be ironic, and that it’s built on the biblical metaphor by which white is purity.

We see the metaphor in Isaiah 1:18 (where “scarlet sins” shall become “white like snow”) and Psalm 51:9 (where “I will be white like snow” is part of purification).

The rare word nikayon (which becomes nikyon before another noun) generally refers to purity or innocence, as in Genesis 20:5 (where Abimelech explains to God that he acted justly, with nikayon of hands), or Hosea 8:5 (where the lack of nikayon among the Israelites enrages God).

Amos 4:4 starts an ironic tirade: “Come to Bethel,” Amos taunts, “and sin.” “Offer your sacrifices … burn a Thank Offering of leaven” even though according to Leviticus 7:12-14, the Thank Offering isn’t supposed to be burned. Amos continues, “for this is what you love to do.”

Then in Amos 4:6, we read, “I will give you purity…” Sounds good. But wait.

“… of teeth” and “lack of bread.” It’s not good.

In fact, it’s more irony. This time, the cleanness (nikayon) and whiteness (of teeth) is ironically symbolic of hunger.

As it happens, white stands for purity in English, too, so it seems to me that we ought to be able to capture the irony in translation, but I’m not quite sure how.

The first thing we have to fix is “I will give you … teeth,” which in English sounds like a bunch of detached teeth will be coming our way. The Hebrew “give” also means “let” or “make,” so “make your teeth clean” is one way to go (followed, perhaps, by “make food lacking”). But it still doesn’t seem right.

Any ideas?

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October 26, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. Since the original author it seems was using sarcasm and irony this probably presents some problems. I think one problem is people don’t always expect “sarcasm and irony” out of their religous texts. For the modern western English reader, something would just seem wrong.

    Any ideas?

    Nada…

    Comment by Bryon | October 27, 2009 | Reply

  2. What do you think about the Greek Septuagint translation: “gomphiasmon odonton” (γομφιασμὸν ὀδόντων)? Jerome seems to that in the Latin Vulgate as “stuporem dentium,” and Lancelot Brenton (possible peeking at the Latin) translates the Greek from the LXX into English as “dulness of teeth.” But George E. Howard (in the New English Translation of the Septuagint) renders the Hellene as “an aching of the teeth.” In any case, it’s a negative adjective that makes the idiom in Greek (and in Latin, and English from the Greek). Is this just bad translating, or is there a sense in Hebrew that the Hellene is running with and highlighting?

    The Greek translation does maintain parallelism and wordplay, if in directions not so obvious in the MT Hebrew (presuming that’s what’s being translated):

    καὶ ἐγὼ δώσω ὑμῖν γομφιασμὸν ὀδόντων
    ἐν πάσαις ταῖς πόλεσιν ὑμῶν
    καὶ ἔνδειαν ἄρτων
    ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς τόποις ὑμῶν
    καὶ οὐκ ἐπεστρέψατε
    πρός με λέγει κύριος

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | October 28, 2009 | Reply

    • I wonder if gomphiasmon odonton was an expression in Greek. This is the only time we find gomphiasmos in the text, but in Sirach we find the verb gomphiaxo, again with the object odous, and there, too, it appears to mean something unfortunate.

      I’m not sure where the Latin comes from, or Brenton, for that matter. Stupor can mean “dullness,” but, again, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that stupor dentium was a Latin expression.

      So as a guess, the ancient translators made the same mistake as modern ones: They saw a Hebrew expression about “teeth,” and tried to find an expression in their own language about teeth, whether or not the two expressions meant the same thing.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 29, 2009 | Reply

  3. Why do we have to over analyze this? You think it actually means what it says? That he cleaned their teeth? If He’s a great physician I’m sure a dentist is no stretch.

    Comment by Johan | March 18, 2010 | Reply

  4. Don’t overanalyze this. “Cleanness of teeth” means that their teeth will be clean due to the lack of food to eat. There is no deeper meaning than that. Famine is their punishment. If you’re looking for irony, then let it be this: people want their teeth to be clean, sure, but not because they are starving. (In much the same way, people want to be skinny, just not due to cancer.)

    Comment by Fred | March 23, 2010 | Reply

    • AMEN!

      Comment by Mitch | April 18, 2011 | Reply


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