God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Where’s the Poetry?



It turns out it’s hard to write poetry, at least good poetry. But even so, many efforts seem to focus more on the words than on the poem.

Job 38:36 is an interesting example, because no one knows for sure what the words there mean, particularly tuchot and sechvi. Still, the poetic nature of the line is clear.

Yet we end up with translations like, “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” (NRSV) and “Who gives the ibis wisdom [about the flooding of the Nile], or gives the rooster understanding [of when to crow]?” (TNIV). And the NAB offers the particularly unfortunate, “Who puts wisdom in the heart, and gives the cock its understanding?” It doesn’t sound poetic to my ear.

With so many possibilities for what the Hebrew words mean — the LXX expands the options by translating, “And who has given women skill in weaving, or knowledge of embroidery?” — surely no one can feel locked into any one word or phrase. Yet still we don’t have poetry.


And does anyone have a suggestion for a poetic rendition?


September 3, 2009 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , ,


  1. Thanks for this post on Job. I attempted a concordant translation of Job this year – not for ‘meaning’ reasons but for sonority’s sake. It was far more fun than I thought it would be. Job abounds in tenderness. This was my cut at 38:36

    who puts wisdom in the inward parts?
    or who gives to the sense understanding?

    To get poetry? Perhaps the thought continues in the next two verses

    who numbers the skies in wisdom?
    and who lies with the skin-bottles of the heavens?
    to pour dust into mold
    and clods clung

    Does the truncated verse 38 provide an answer to the rhetorical questions of 36-27? I see the whole of Job as a parable of dust and ashes – Job eventually sighs in satisfaction – I do not see his use of NXM as repentance and I do see the final verse of the frame tale as an adequate response to the parable (contra many who think the frame and poem are cobbled together poorly).

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 7, 2009

  2. […] of mistake in English translations of the Bible. Just to pick one example (which I’ve already mentioned), “inward parts” doesn’t seem right for the Hebrew […]

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  3. […] are pairs created by parallel structure, as, for example in Job 38:36 (I’ve mentioned this before) where two pairs become, respectively, “wisdom/understanding” (not too bad) and […]

    Pingback by Doublets Are Part And Parcel of Bible Translation « God Didn't Say That | October 13, 2009

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