God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Behold! Little words mean a lot more than you might think.

It turns out that “um” means something in English, and we can learn about translation by looking at that short word.

The following hypothetical conversation between a shopper and a sales associate at a book store demonstrates:

Shopper: “Where can I find a complete bilingual text of Aristotle?”

Clerk: “Aristotle who?”

Shopper: “Um, the Greek philosopher?”

The last line, in colloquial American English, does two things. The last three words answer the question. But the first word, “um,” demonstrates disdain. The shopper is mocking the sales associate for his or her ignorance. (Incidentally, this happened to me at Barnes and Noble a couple of years ago. The staffer at the customer service desk didn’t know who Aristotle was. I did my best to hide my disappointment in our school system.)

This short word “um” demonstrates an important way words can work in language: they can add a flavor or nuance to a conversation. And as a guess, most English speakers are unable to articulate how “um” works in their native language, so we also see how complex and subtle these nuance-words can be.

I’m almost sure that na in Hebrew was such a word, and that “please” or “pray” don’t convey the same thing in English.

I think hinei in Hebrew and idou in Greek also contributed primariliy to the tone of a sentence, in a way that is not captured by “behold,” “see,” “see here,” and so forth.

So here’s a challenge: What do you think hinei and/or idou contributed?


December 2, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , ,


  1. Great post, here. I’ve been struggling with hinei and idou for a long time, largely because I think “behold” is thoroughly rotten as a rendering of these words into modern English. I think in some (usually argumentative contexts, the English lead-in “see…” is a good rendering, but there are other times where the only way to deal with it is with a guttural noise or some other particle in English. I think there are times where I’m able to communicate them when reading/translating aloud while being completely unable to render them into effective written English at times.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | December 3, 2009

  2. Speaking mostly of idou/ide in the NT, I’d have to say its use as a storyteller’s tool often heightened excitement or anticipation.

    Or, it served as a questionable translation for hinneh: “idou ego” ~Abraham, Gen 22 LXX. Truly awkward.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | December 3, 2009

  3. I love this. I wish there were a way to “Like” this post! I was looking for an English word or words to convey “Hinei” and up popped this post. While I haven’t found my English equivalent of “Hinei,” I have found something humorous and interesting I wasn’t even looking for!

    Comment by Jane | January 26, 2016

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