God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Doublets Are Part And Parcel of Bible Translation

Even though “part” means roughly the same thing as “portion,” and “parcel” means “division,” “part and parcel” cannot equally be phrased, “portion and division.”

Yet when I read many Bible translations, I feel like exactly that sort of error has taken place.

The phrase “Tohu and vohu” in Genesis receives lots of attention, because the common “without form and void” misses the assonance completely. “Dust and ashes” for the Hebrew “efer and afar” was originally just as bad, and even though it’s common now, it still misses the assonance of the original.

More widespread and less commonly noticed 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 “inward parts/mind” (hmm?).

Isaiah 1:2 demonstrates the same common pattern with the doubly parallel words shim’u/ha’azinu and shamayim/eretz. The second pair is “heaven(s)/earth” (again, not too bad) but the first is often the dubious “hear” and “give ear.” (“Listen” is better.)

Psalm 95 works the same way, with n’ran’na/nari’a and adonai/tzur yis’einu, which typically become “sing/make a joyful noise” or “sing/cry out” and “Lord/rock of our salvation.”

And so it goes.

I’m not casting blame here — it’s hard enough to translate one ancient word poetically, let alone two — but I sometimes wonder if translators even try.


October 13, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , ,


  1. Very nice post! Your opening sentence gets those of us who hear English easily enough imagining the problems when hearing Hebrew mistranslated.

    Are there English translators who have done better with Hebrew pairs? How do you like Everett Fox? Robert Alter? JPS?

    And do the Septuagint translators ever find the Hebrew parallelisms in their Hellene?

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

    • Thanks.

      Fox has “wild and waste” for “tohu and vohu,” which is the right poetic structure, though I wonder if “wild” means the right thing. I think Alter’s “welter and waste” is excellent.

      Fox has “earth and ashes” for “efer and afar,” while Fox goes with the KJV here.

      In my opinion Fox’s English grammar is generally much too close to the Hebrew, but in cases where the structure is important, he usually does a good job. And for poetry, Alter is always worth looking at.

      The JPS doesn’t help much in these cases.

      The question about the LXX is great, but I don’t have an answer (yet).

      Comment by Joel H. | October 13, 2009

  2. In the phrase part and parcel – does parcel not refer to the whole – packaged, as opposed to being a division?

    For tohu vebohu I wondered about null and void as a translation but I didn’t have the guts to stay with it.

    For Job 38:36 this was my first rendering
    who puts wisdom in the inward parts?
    or who gives to the sense understanding?

    I see this as a concrete incarnate wisdom, not an intellectual one. But the word is rare and I – who am I to say what Mr Job meant?

    For dust and ashes – I think it is so common now, it is a merism for our state and our death – so I left it in Job 30:19 – mind you I am making the most of mashal in this poem. I consider the whole a parable.

    he has instructed me in clay
    and I am parabled as dust and ashes

    This is paralleled in 42:6 as a kind of secondary frame for Job’s final speech (29-31) and his response to YHWH

    therefore I refuse
    and I am comforted in dust and ashes

    The rendering of NXM as comfort is I think essential to the meaning of the poem. It cannot be repent.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | October 13, 2009

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