God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Amos’s Clean White Teeth

Amos 4:6 is back, first in a comment and then in a post at Aberration Blog.

The Hebrew text reads: v’gam ani natati lachem nikyon shinayim b’chol areichem v’choser lechem b’chol m’komoteichem v’lo shavtm aday n’um adonai. That is, ” ‘I [Adonai] have given [or will give] you a purity/cleanness of teeth in all your cities and a lack of bread in all your places, and you didn’t return to me,’ says Adonai.”

At first, it looks like classic Hebrew parallelism (“saying the same thing twice”), where “cleanness of teeth” is like “lack of bread,” and “cities” is like “places.”

Noting (correctly) that “cleanness of teeth” doesn’t mean “hunger” in English, some translators explain the phrase in translation, rendering it as “hunger” (NLT) or “empty stomachs” (NIV).

But our translation question is whether “cleanness of teeth” is an idiom or a metaphor. If it’s an idiom, then, yes, it should be rendered as idiomatic English.

But I think the line is meant to be ironic, and that it’s built on the biblical metaphor by which white is purity.

We see the metaphor in Isaiah 1:18 (where “scarlet sins” shall become “white like snow”) and Psalm 51:9 (where “I will be white like snow” is part of purification).

The rare word nikayon (which becomes nikyon before another noun) generally refers to purity or innocence, as in Genesis 20:5 (where Abimelech explains to God that he acted justly, with nikayon of hands), or Hosea 8:5 (where the lack of nikayon among the Israelites enrages God).

Amos 4:4 starts an ironic tirade: “Come to Bethel,” Amos taunts, “and sin.” “Offer your sacrifices … burn a Thank Offering of leaven” even though according to Leviticus 7:12-14, the Thank Offering isn’t supposed to be burned. Amos continues, “for this is what you love to do.”

Then in Amos 4:6, we read, “I will give you purity…” Sounds good. But wait.

“… of teeth” and “lack of bread.” It’s not good.

In fact, it’s more irony. This time, the cleanness (nikayon) and whiteness (of teeth) is ironically symbolic of hunger.

As it happens, white stands for purity in English, too, so it seems to me that we ought to be able to capture the irony in translation, but I’m not quite sure how.

The first thing we have to fix is “I will give you … teeth,” which in English sounds like a bunch of detached teeth will be coming our way. The Hebrew “give” also means “let” or “make,” so “make your teeth clean” is one way to go (followed, perhaps, by “make food lacking”). But it still doesn’t seem right.

Any ideas?

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October 26, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 7 Comments

On Idioms and Metaphors

In More than Cool Reason, George Lakoff writes:

Metaphors are so commonplace we often fail to notice them. Take the way we ordinarily talk about death. The euphemism “He passed away” is not an arbitrary one. When someone dies, we don’t say “He drank a glass of milk” or “He had an idea” or “He upholstered his couch.” Instead we say things like “He’s gone,” “He’s left us,” “He’s no longer with us,” “He’s passed on,” “He’s been taken from us,” [etc.]

What Dr. Lakoff doesn’t write is that we also say “He kicked the bucket.”

And here we see the difference between metaphoric language and idiom. Metaphoric language reflects an underlying metaphor. (A metaphor, Lakoff insists, is a pattern of thought, not the words used to express it. In the case of death, our metaphoric approach is of “conceiving of birth, life and death” as “arrival,” “being present here” and “departure.”) By contrast, idioms are conveniently thought of as multi-word words, and they do not reflect any underlying thought process.

Two related properties of idioms make them easy to identify (if you speak the language). First, they cannot be passivized. (“The bucket was kicked by him” doesn’t mean “he died.”) Secondly, parts of idioms can’t be replaced by synonyms. (“He kicked the pail” doesn’t mean “he died.”)

The distinction is really important, because I think that metaphors should be preserved (if possible) in translation, while idioms should be replaced. We see a great, if difficult, test case in Amos 4:6, which I’ll turn to next.

October 26, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , | 5 Comments

The Letter of the Text

Bill Mounce has a post about gramma in Romans 2:27 and 2:29. He’s responding to a question about the ESV’s translation of the word as “letter” in 2:29, but “written code” in 2:27. (Dr. Mounce defends the decision.) Let’s look at how gramma is used.

The word gramma refers most basically to letters (of the alphabet), but also metonymically to collections of letters (“words,” “texts,” etc.) and to mastery of letters (“learning”). Interestingly, the English “letter” works almost exactly the same way, referring to a letter of the alphabet (“the letter A,” for example), but also correspondence (“a business letter”), more generally that which is written (“the letter of the law”), and — in some dialects, though not my own — to knowledge (“man of letters”).

For example, in John 5:47 we find the contrast, “but if you do not believe his grammas, how will you believe my rimas.” (We don’t have a good way to translate rima, which refers both to that which is spoken — “word,” but, more generally “statement” — and that which is spoken about — “thing.” The English “word” is close, but not quite right, because “word” seems to refer equally to spoken and written words, while rima was [primarily?] oral.)

The contrast between gramma and rima there is twofold. It is between a building block (letter) and a whole unit (word), but I think more importantly in John 5:47, between the written and the oral. The NRSV therefore translates, “But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” The ESV opts for “writings” and “words” here, but that pair doesn’t seem to capture either contrast.

In Luke 16:6 and 16:7, the word refers to what we would call a “bill.” (I think The English word “bill” comes ultimately from the Latin for “seal,” that is, the thing that was used to seal a private letter of correspondence.)

In Acts 26:24, the word refers more generally to study.

In Acts 28:21 the word refers to letters of correspondence.

Romans 7:6, Romans 2:29, and 2 Corinthians 3:6 explicately contrast gramma with pneuma (“spirit”). Romans 2:27 is part of the same theme.

So I think the question is whether the English “letter” can be used, like gramma, to indicate “that which is written,” and I think the answer is yes. I don’t see any reason not to use “letter” in Romans 2:27. (By the way, Romans 2:27 is nice place to practice your Greek syntax.) I think “written code” is the point, but spelling out the the point of imagery is usually a translation mistake.

October 26, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , | Leave a comment