God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge: Isaiah 28:16

My last post was in response to a question about the final verb in Isaiah 18:26. In my opinion, the really beautiful poetry in that verse lies in the verbal repetition in the middle.

Here’s a guide to the Hebrew:

lachen ko amar adonai YHWH
so thus said Adonai God
hin’ni yisad b’tzion aven
I founded in Zion a stone
even bochan pinat yikrat musad musad
a stone trial corner precious foundation founded
hama’amin lo yachish
the believer not will hurry

We have a phrase of introduction (“therefore thus says the Lord GOD”, NRSV) and one of conclusion (“One who trusts will not panic,” NRSV).

In the middle we have the word “stone” repeated, appearing first at the end of a phrase, then again to start the next one. The effect is like, “…I put stones, stones that will….” It reminds me of great oratory, with each phrase building on the previous one. But it’s hard to do in English.

The NRSV, for example, destroys the pattern by using “a foundation stone” to end the first phrase, and then “a tested stone” to start the next. The ESV seems to be trying to mimic the effect with its stilted, “I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone,” for the first part, but then it, too, opts for “a tested stone…” for the next part, missing the repetition. Most other translations are similar. (JPS’s “stone by stone” seems neither here nor there to me. It doesn’t preserve the poetry or the original meaning.)

The LXX also misses the wordplay — though it should be easier in Greek than in English because of the freer word order allowed in that language — but the Vulgate gets it: ego mittam in fundamentis Sion lapidem, lapidem probatum…. (“I put in the foundation of Zion a stone, a stone of testing….”)

Then we have another repetition, this time of the sounds musad, first as a noun, then as a verb. In English, “foundation” can’t be verbal, so the closest we can come is “founding the foundation,” but “found” doesn’t mean what we need it to. A clearer English example would be “established the establishment,” but this time “establishment” doesn’t mean what we need it to.

Again the Vulgate comes pretty close, with …in fundamento fundatum…. Again the LXX misses the wordplay.

Incidentally, it is not at all clear what the phrase means, partly because the masculine musad (“founded”) doesn’t seem to have a masculine antecedent. (With a tiny change, we can move the second musad into the final phrase, duplicating the trick of starting a phrase with the word that ended in the previous one. In that case, we would have “…a foundation. The foundation of the believer will not hurry.” But for now let’s stick with the text we have.)

So here’s the challenge: Who can find a translation that contains two pairs of repeated words, like the original?

January 14, 2010 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , | 9 Comments

Q&A: Isaiah 28:16 and What Happens to Believers

From the About page comes a question about the last verb in Isaiah 28:16:

His [Dietrich Boenhoffer’s] reading said that “he that believes does not flee”. Is that what this says?


The Hebrew verb at the end (yachish) clearly means “hurry,” — compare Isaiah 5:19 and Psalm 119:60 — so the phrase should mean: “believers will not hurry.” The problem is that that doesn’t seem to make any sense.

This particularly poetic line is important in its own context. Isaiah uses it to interrupt his prophecy of doom with a line of consolation.

The verse is even more important in the context of the NT, becuase it’s quoted (inexactly) in Romans 9:33 and I Peter 2:6. However, the NT quotes the LXX, which has “be shamed” (kataisxunthi) instead of “hurry.”

The Hebrew for “be shamed” would be Y.B.W.Sh, while “hurry” is Y.Ch.Y.Sh. Differences between the LXX and the Hebrew frequently come down to confusion between letters. It’s easy to see how a vav and yud could be confused — it’s one of the most common mistakes — but it’s harder to understand how a bet and a chet could be. They look nothing alike and do not sound at all the same.

If the LXX is right, the passage means: “I [the Lord God] have established a stone in Zion … believers will not be ashamed.” At least the meaning is clear.

If the Hebrew is right, the only thing I can think of is that the point is that God will build Zion, so believers should be patient and not hurry to do it themselves. It’s coherent, I suppose, but I’ve yet to see that interpretation in any translation, and it doesn’t sound right to me.

I feel like we’re missing something here. Any ideas?

January 14, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | 3 Comments

New Colors and Font

I’ve spruced up the look of God Didn’t Say That with new colors and a cleaner font (I hope).

What do you think?

January 14, 2010 Posted by | meta | 8 Comments