God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Fat Is The Old Thin: More On Subjective Imagery

Last week I suggested that imagery can be subjective, varying from culture to culture.

Here’s another example.

In antiquity, for a person to be “fat” was a good thing, the word essentially representing the opposite of “scrawny.”

Every day, modern America produces something like twice the calories that its population needs to thrive, so many Americans face an unprecedented struggle: they take in too many calories for their own good. In ancient Israel, however, people struggled to get enough calories, and only the fortunate succeeded.

This creates a translation dilemma, because calling someone “fat” nowadays is an insult, not a complement as it used to be.

Here are some examples of how “fat” and its how it’s handled in translation:

In Job 36:16, the table “full of fatness” (KJV, ESV, NRSV), is what the NIV calls “choice food.”

The point of Psalm 22:30 is that the healthy and the ill alike should praise God. But the KJV, “All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship…” juxtaposed with “all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him” hardly does the trick. (I assume that “they that go down to the dust” are “sick people.”) The NAB assumes that the Hebrew dishnei (“fat of”) should be yishnei (“sleepers of”), so the first part is “All who sleep in the earth…”; the NAB then adds the note, “Hebrew unclear.” I think the Hebrew is clear once we recognize that “fat” was a sign of health.

The very well known Psalm 23 uses the verbal form of “fat” (dishanta — “you fattened [my head with oil]”) for what is commonly translated “anointed.” The Hebrew thus forms a connection between “anointed” and “cup overflows” that is lacking in English.

Psalm 36:9 describes the benefits of the Temple as “fatness of your house” (KJV), but even the ESV (with the NRSV) turns this into “abundance.”

Psalm 63:6 mentions “fat and rich food” (ESV), which is better than the KJV’s “marrow and fatness.” The NIV offers, “richest of foods.” (The NAB’s poetic, “rich banquet of praise” is nice, but I don’t understand where it comes from.)

The image in Psalm 65:12 of the earth’s bounty is of paths (or perhaps carts) that “drop fatness” (KJV), or — as emended by the ESV, NIV, and NRSV — “overflow with abundance.”

Proverbs 11:25 describes a reward for people who offer (or who are) a blessing. They will be “made fat” (KJV), or “enriched” (NIV, ESV, NRSV).

Proverbs 13:4 is even clearer. While the lazy person “gets nothing,” the diligent one is “made fat” (KJV), or “richly supplied” (ESV), “amply satisfied” (NAB), “fully satisfied” (NIV) or “richly satisfied” (NRSV).

Only the KJV translates “fat” consistently, but in so doing it makes the passages all but impossible to understand. The other translations do a better job of giving the modern reader a sense of what the text meant, but at the expense of the unifying image.

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September 13, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Thoughts About Gender

Last week, I presented some theory about gender (first here and then here). Recent posts (from Damian Caruana on the lack of feminine language for Jesus, for example) show the issue is still on people’s minds.

To complement my theory-oriented introduction last week, here are three examples to think about:


  • Lord. Most modern English speakers think of “lord,” and, therefore, “Lord” (and “LORD”) as masculine. The term comes from British society, and though most lords were and are men, the word is actually gender neutral. So when Dame Mary Donaldson became mayor of London, her title was “The Right Honourable Lord Mayor.” Similarly, a woman who owned a manor was the “lord of the manor.” (The English word “Lord” was used to translate the Greek kurios, that Greek word being the most common representation in the LXX of the Hebrew tetragrammaton [yud-heh-vav-heh].)

    Which is more important: the common (masculine) understanding of the word or the (gender-neutral) technical definition?

  • President. There is no inherent gender in the English word “president,” and, as the word relates to positions in companies, both men and women are called “president.” Yet in the United States, we have yet to have a woman serve as president, so the term “President of the United States” has so far applied only to men.

    Which is more important: the de facto (masculine) use of the word, or the potential (gender netural) use?

  • Almighty. This is a fascinating one. The Hebrew, El Shaddai is one of those phrases that no one can agree on. The first word clearly means “God.” The second one is anyone’s guess. (The LXX tends not to translate it at all.) Curiously, the word sounds like it could be connected to “breasts.” (It also sounds like it could come from “plunder” or “demon.”)

    What are we to make of this vague connection?

September 13, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 4 Comments