God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The 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 “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.”

Whether or not that makes “lifted up his eyes” a good translation, his comment highlights another important issue for translation: Imagery is subjective.

For me, “downcast eyes” are a sign of sorrow. In parts of South America, “downcast eyes” are a sign of respect.

I’m pretty sure it would be a mistake to impose our modern cultural notions on the Bible, so we shouldn’t assume that its authors used imagery exactly the same way we do. But what is a translator to do when the most natural translation of the imagery gives the wrong impression?

September 11, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , ,


  1. What do you think about the Marie Antoinette strategy? Whether or not it’s historical, people who learn the quote also have to be told what “cake” means. But it’s still a great quote.

    Personally, I’d always rather get as literal a meaning as possible, no matter how many footnotes it takes to explain to me what they meant when they said what they said.

    Comment by Bill | September 12, 2009

  2. Oh, by the way, it’d be great if you can enable full page views through the RSS feed. It’s truncated as of now, and I suspect you’re picking up a lot of new subscribers from the biblioblogs. FYI. And thanks for blogging.

    Comment by Bill | September 12, 2009

    • Thanks. I didn’t know there was a setting for that, but I’ve found it and changed it.

      The full posts should come through the RSS feed now.

      Comment by Joel | September 13, 2009

  3. But what is a translator to do when the most natural translation of the imagery gives the wrong impression?

    wonderful question! So what do you think of various ways Judges 12:6a has been translated?

    וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹו אֱמָר־נָא שִׁבֹּלֶת וַיֹּאמֶר סִבֹּלֶת וְלֹא יָכִין לְדַבֵּר

    Isn’t much lost when the translator tries to explain the fatal test, the “sh” / “s” (ש /ס )?

    how about the way the septuagint translators just translated with commentary instead of merely transliterating sounds to illustrate?

    καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ Εἰπὸν δὴ Στάχυς· καὶ οὐ κατεύθυνεν τοῦ λαλῆσαι οὕτως.

    שִׁבֹּלֶת = Στάχυς = stalkofgrain

    Is the wordplay then lost?

    Wonder how/ whether Ruth (Moabite among the goyim) pronounced the word correctly? In Ruth 2:2, she’s quoted as saying, “Let me now go to the field, and glean among [שִׁבֹּלֶת / στάχυσιν] the ears of corn after him in whose sight I shall find favour.” But did she really say it as סִבֹּלֶת and therefore mis-pronounce the word? καὶ οὐ κατεύθυνεν τοῦ λαλῆσαι οὕτως?

    What does “Say now Shibboleth” in English lose or gain? Was the LXX an insider (i.e., 250BC Jewish) translation?

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 13, 2009

  4. […] Is The Old Thin: More On Subjective Imagery Last week I suggested that imagery can be subjective, varying from culture to […]

    Pingback by Fat Is The Old Thin: More On Subjective Imagery « God Didn't Say That | September 13, 2009

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