God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Recognizing and Translating Idioms

In French, they say “to burn a red light” (bruler un feu rouge), which is “to run a red light” in English. Both phrases are idioms.

One way to look at idioms is as a multi-word words. Unlike imagery, idioms don’t get their meanings from their parts. Other examples in English include, “play it by ear” (which has nothing to do with ears) and “kick the bucket” (there are no buckets involved).

Everyone agrees that idioms should not be translated word for word. (I think everyone agrees, even the word-for-word translators.) If I’m translating a French novel, I don’t want to write that “the mobster burned a red light and fled off.” And if I’m translating Modern Hebrew into English, “the company took off its foot” is just a mistake; that Hebrew idiom means “went bankrupt.”

Identifying idioms is a crucial aspect of translation. So I ask: How many Hebrew and Greek idioms can you think of in the Bible? (If you’re a translator and you think there are none, you’ve probably missed something central.)

Here are a few to get the list going:


  • chara apo — “his nose burned.” It means “was furious,” as in Genesis 30:2: The literal “Jacob’s nose burned through Rachel” means “Jacob was furious with Rachel.”
  • erech apaim — “length of two noses.” It probably means “patient,” as in the attributes of God in Exodus 34:6 and elsewhere.
  • nasa einav — “lifted his eyes.” It almost surely means “looked up” or “looked around.” (Surprisingly, the LXX translates this almost literally, but doesn’t always use the same verb for “lifted.”)
  • ne’esaf el amav — “was gathered to his peoples.” It means “died,” maybe with the more gentle force of “passed away.” (Perhaps interestingly, the Hebrew is usually the plural “peoples,” but the LXX translates with the singular “people.” Most English translations do the same.)

What else?

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September 10, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 21 Comments