God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge: Psalm 17:8

The text of Psalm 17:8 brilliantly combines two Hebrew expressions, pairing both their meaning and their underlying semantic basis: shomreini k’ishun bat-ayin//b’tzel k’nafecha tastireini, that is, “guard-me like-a-dark-spot of daughter-of-eye//in-the-shadow of your-wings hide-me.”

The first expression is “keep me like the pupil of your eye,” almost universally rendered, “keep me like the apple of your eye.” (The only version I know of that translates ishun literally is the NJB: “Guard me as the pupil of an eye.”).

The second expression is, “hide me in the shadow of your wings,” and, again, translations show very little variation.

But the brilliant part of Psalm 17:8 is the juxtaposition of ishun (“dark spot”) with tzel (“shadow”), a trick every translation misses.

What we would need to complement “apple of your eye” in the same way is another expression involving fruit.

Any suggestions for a good translation of Psalm 17:8?

(Extra points if you preserve the chiasmus, and triple extra points if you can figure out what bat ayin means.)


October 16, 2009 - Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , ,


  1. I certainly missed the darkness/shadow image – but here’s what I did a year or so ago

    keep me
    as an eye’s child, an eye’s pupil
    under the shadow of your wing
    hide me

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | October 16, 2009

  2. (1) Protect me as you would your eye’s own pupils; in the shadow of your wings, shelter me.

    (2) Protect me as you would your baby blues; In your wing’s indigo shadow, shelter me.

    [I constantly feel like I’m taking a test where the best possible grade is a D-].

    Comment by Will Fitzgerald | October 16, 2009

    • B+ for effort. Number 2 made me laugh.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | November 5, 2009

  3. At the risk of exposing myself as a complete Hebrew newbie, here’s a shot preserving the image-pair and the chiasmus in English, and a guess at the meaning and poetic significance of bat ayin:

    Like a father would a little boy or daughter,
    protect me instinctively,
    as one would the dark pupil-spot center of the eye.
    In the dark, the quiet place surrounded by your shadow
    let me find protective refuge
    as a chick beneath your parental wings

    The word for pupil here is ishun, which, while meaning “pupil” is suggestive of “little man.” It is immediately followed by bat ayin, literally, “daughter of eye,” which not only is a poetic restatement of what the pupil is (as a tender and protected part of the eye), but also a poetic complement to the “iyshon.”

    Do I have anything there, or am I way off?

    Comment by Mitchell Powell | December 10, 2009

  4. “The apple of his eye” has been described to me as a Hebraism…a Hebrew idiom of sorts. Therefore, the Hebrew words are not to be interpreted literally.

    When you stand before someone and look in his or her eyes, you see your own imagine. This image of yourself is the “apple” in their eye. To be the apple of God’s eye is to be close enough to Him to see ourselves in His eyes! It’s an endearment and expression of His deep love for each of us!

    Comment by Ed Cantu | June 23, 2011

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