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 »

  1. Idiom is everywhere and there being no native speakers, it is sometimes just guesswork to imagine or audit the impact. Defining idiom and differentiating it from other ‘figures of speech’ is tricky. I like the nose for anger – the children in Sunday school where I share 5 minutes a week of Hebrew like it too – squinching up your nose is a great understanding of ‘wrath’. Nose burning could easily become an English idiom as could burning a read light. ‘Gathered to his peoples’ is not an idiom but a euphemism or even a religious belief – so also ‘going the way of all flesh’. Making peoples singular does little for the modern understanding of an ancient phrase. Literal translations have the advantage of being slightly off or funny too – and what makes you laugh may make you think.

    There are times when I have translated into an English idiom where there might not be a Hebrew idiom – I may of course simply be off-base – I always welcome correction. E.g.
    Job 9:1 אָמְנָם יָדַעְתִּי כִי-כֵן
    in truth I know and so what!

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 10, 2009 | Reply

  2. I like the nose for anger — the children in Sunday school where I share 5 minutes a week of Hebrew like it too — squinching up your nose is a great understanding of ‘wrath’. Nose burning could easily become an English idiom as could burning a read light.

    Using the nose metaphorically for anger may or may not be a good idea, but even if it is, and even if we do it, we are still using “nose” metaphorically, not in an idiom, in English.

    I think this is one the great translation traps. The translation “nose” for af in the idiom charah af sounds like it ought to be perfect, but in fact it is wrong. It’s wrong because the original Hebrew, in spite of appearances, is not about the nose, any more than “kicking the bucket” is about buckets. (Unless, of course, I’m wrong and the phrase isn’t an idiom.)

    Comment by Joel | September 10, 2009 | Reply

    • Yes – I agree – and I never write nose as a translation of anger – e.g. its repeated usage in Job 32, but I have used it as an oral illustration to teach the ‘words’ both about noses and anger.

      Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 10, 2009 | Reply

  3. Unless you’re making a translation catering for kids, I think its nice to make an attempt to retain the sense of the original. Therefore “run a red light” is a better translation of “burn a red light” than would be “drove through a red light”.

    So Amos 4:6 where the Lord gave people “cleanness of teeth” is the NAB, “I have made your teeth clean of food”, or NEB “I have kept your teeth idle” are at least attempting to give you a sense of what was written, unlike the NLT which says “I brought hunger”. Hebrew has a word for hunger, I’d prefer to an attempt to reproduce the color of the original expression. At least the NIV’s “I gave you empty stomachs” is more thoughtful than the NLT’s sterile rendering. And “lack of bread” in the same verse is made into “famine” in the NLT, for no apparent reason.

    “His nose burned” could be “his nose burned with anger” or even perhaps “his face was red with anger”. We’ve all seen people’s face turn red with anger. To just translate it as “he was furious” is rather dumbed down.

    “Lifted his eyes” seems like perfectly fine English to me. 12 million google hits can’t be wrong.

    “Was gathered to his peoples” could be perhaps “died and was reunited to his ancestors”, rather than merely “died”.

    Comment by John | September 11, 2009 | Reply

  4. So Amos 4:6 where the Lord gave people “cleanness of teeth” is the NAB, “I have made your teeth clean of food”, or NEB “I have kept your teeth idle” are at least attempting to give you a sense of what was written, unlike the NLT which says “I brought hunger”.

    I think it depends. If nikyon shinayim was an expression, then the bizarre “cleanness of teeth” in English doesn’t do it justice. In principle, I would only keep “teeth” in the English translation if it was ancient imagery, not if it was an ancient figure of speech. (By comparison, “low-brow humor” has nothing to do with foreheads.)

    Maybe the NIV is right and “empty stomachs” is the point?

    Comment by Joel | September 11, 2009 | Reply

  5. “Lifted his eyes” seems like perfectly fine English to me. 12 million google hits can’t be wrong.

    Hmmm. I wonder how many of those hits are quotations from the Bible, and I wonder if it sounds perfectly fine to you because you’ve been reading it in the Bible. Would you use the phrase in non-Biblical contexts?

    Comment by Joel | September 11, 2009 | Reply

  6. Eyes lifted up or eyes downcast are both indicative of the mood of the subject. They seem to me to be inherently material and literal in a good way.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 11, 2009 | Reply

  7. There are 6 million hits each for “lifted HER eyes” and “lifted HIS eyes” in google, and “lifted HER eyes” doesn’t occur in the bible, and all the hits I see are non-biblical for HER eyes.

    Whether it entered English via the bible is neither here nor there. “By the skin of your teeth” came from the bible, and not even the NLT is tossing it out, because it has indeed entered English.

    How are you going to differentiate between imagery and figures of speech? Common imagery and idioms are often the same thing. That’s where idioms come from.

    Comment by John | September 11, 2009 | Reply

  8. Whether it entered English via the bible is neither here nor there. “By the skin of your teeth” came from the bible, and not even the NLT is tossing it out, because it has indeed entered English.

    I agree that where a phrase came from isn’t usually relelvent, and “by the skin of your teeth” is a perfect example.

    How are you going to differentiate between imagery and figures of speech? Common imagery and idioms are often the same thing. That’s where idioms come from.

    For languages that are currently spoken, there actually are ways to tease apart imagery and idioms. One way is that by and large imagery can be passivized, but not idioms. For example, “Sherlock Holmes read his client, Mary, like a primer” is about the same as “Mary was read like a primer in Sherlock Holmes’ office.” It’s not the most elegant of prose, but it’s infinitely better than, “the bucket was kicked by Mary,” which cannot mean that “Mary died.”

    For ancient languages, it’s much harder, but still important.

    Comment by Joel | September 11, 2009 | Reply

  9. […] Subjective Nature of Imagery In response to my recent post about idioms, and, in particular, the translation “lifted up his eyes,” Bob MacDonald suggests that […]

    Pingback by The Subjective Nature of Imagery « God Didn't Say That | September 11, 2009 | Reply

  10. So what about “You are the salt of the earth”? Is that imagery or idiom? By your stated criteria it is idiom because I am not salt.

    The trouble is, I suspect, but can’t prove, that Mt 5:13 is the origin of this idiom. So for the original listeners it was imagery, but for us it is idiom. Probably for this reason, the NLT renders it literally, because don’t we want to render it in a way that gives us the same reaction as the original listeners?

    However, how can you prove that a text is an idiom AT THE TIME IT WAS WRITTEN? Maybe cleanness of teeth became idiom, but was it idiom or imagery when penned in Amos? My guess is none of this can be proven. Nobody knows for sure in most cases if something was idiom when penned. There is no rational criteria whereby “you are the salt of the earth” is rendered literally by the NLT and cleanness of teeth is not rendered literally.

    Comment by John | September 11, 2009 | Reply

  11. So what about “You are the salt of the earth”? Is that imagery or idiom?

    It’s pretty clearly an idiom in Modern English. For me as an American English speaker, “salt of the Earth” has nothing to do with “salt” and little to do with “earth.” It means some combination of “genuine/nice/caring/meritorious.”

    You’re right that the phrase comes from Matthew, and it’s been part of English for over 1,000 years.

    I think Matthew uses “salt” for its imagery, which unfortunately means that English translations are generally misleading. It’s hard for an English reader to understand “You are the salt of the earth” as an allusion to real salt.

    Comment by Joel | September 11, 2009 | Reply

  12. Why does Matthew use salt? is from the sacrificial terms of Torah? (Mark 9:49, Lev 2:13)

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 11, 2009 | Reply

    • Why does Matthew use salt? is from the sacrificial terms of Torah? (Mark 9:49, Lev 2:13)

      I don’t feel like I have any particular insight here, but as a guess, the imagery is of two senses, taste and sight. Salt lets us taste things, and light (in the next verse) lets us see things. If so, the “salt of the earth” would help bring out the goodness that already exists on earth, just as light lets us see it. But, really, that’s just my uninformed guess.

      Comment by Joel | September 12, 2009 | Reply

  13. Hi, I’d be very interested in a comprehensive list of idioms. I think there hasn’t been enough attention paid to this issue.

    And how about this for “salt of the earth”:

    “Think of yourselves as ‘salt’ to the world’s ‘food'”.

    Would that come close to getting the idea across?

    Comment by Paula | September 12, 2009 | Reply

    • And how about this for “salt of the earth”:

      “Think of yourselves as ’salt’ to the world’s ‘food’”.

      Would that come close to getting the idea across?

      Maybe. Even if it does, I would suggest that that’s an explanation, not a translation.

      Comment by Joel | September 12, 2009 | Reply

      • Where is the line drawn between the two?

        Comment by Paula | September 12, 2009

  14. Just as I thought, you can’t prove that salt of the earth was not an idiom in Jesus’ time.

    Whether the English idiom means what Jesus was saying is a whole other question, and doesn’t affect the point I was making about imagery vs idioms.

    Comment by John | September 12, 2009 | Reply

  15. Just as I thought, you can’t prove that salt of the earth was not an idiom in Jesus’ time.

    I agree. And in light of the second half of Mark 9:50 (“have salt in yourselves”) it looks like salt may have played a metaphoric role that it no longer does.

    Comment by Joel | September 12, 2009 | Reply

  16. Surely the salt of the earth in Jesus words is more than what it has come to mean in common English usage.

    ‘Having salt in yourselves’ or ‘being the salt of the earth’ were, I surmise, newly minted in his day. The relation to sacrifice is made direct in Mark and applies to each individual acting as priest to his own sacrifice of his own body. The role is not for self only but on behalf of the whole earth and all the created order.

    Whether Matthew redacted Mark or proto Mark, or Mark added this detail in his summarizing performance of Matthew/Luke, I do not know, but I think the link to the sacrificial rituals is vital even if such a connection has been lost in the consciousness of the common English speaker.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 13, 2009 | Reply

  17. […] Translation and Explanation In a recent discussion here, Paula asks about where the line is drawn between “translation” and what I called […]

    Pingback by On Translation and Explanation « God Didn't Say That | September 14, 2009 | Reply


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