God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Straightening the Crooked Paths in Isaiah 40:3

From the About page comes this question:

Mark 1:2 and Isaiah 40:3 — is the idea that crooked paths need to be straightened, or that obstacles need to be removed?

Neither, actually.

Isaiah 40:3 is a variation on classic Hebrew parallel poetry. We have two parallel phrases, each with four words. For example, from the NRSV, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD// make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” we have:

A. In the wilderness [bamidbar] prepare [panu] the way [derech] of the Lord [Adonai]

B. Make straight [yashru] in the desert [ba’arava] a highway [m’silah] for our God [leiloheinu]

We might bicker over the lexical translation choices (“highway” seems particularly out of place), but the point is that we have two ways each of referring to four things: God, the desert, the road, and making the road. The first three are pretty easy to translate, but then things get complicated.

The first way of making a road here in Hebrew is panu, more literally “to clear” or “to turn aside.” Translators usually correctly render this verb with an English word that has to do with making roads.

Unfortunately, though (and, come to think of it, ironically), the English choice of “make straight” for the second Hebrew verb here (yashru) leads readers astray. The central point wasn’t so much “straight” as “make.” Like panu derech (“make a way”), yashru m’silah means to prepare a path. So a better translation might juxtapose “clear the way” and “make a path,” or, preferably, some more poetic equivalent.

By focusing readers’ attention on “straight,” the English translation misses both the poetry and the point.

Mark 1:3 seems to be quoting Isaiah 40:3 in its proper context. The emphasis in Mark isn’t on how the path is made, but rather on the existence of the path in the desert.

I think the confusion comes about because Isaiah 40:4 does use “straight” as the opposite of “crooked,” as part of a series of four opposites: valley / raised; mountain and hill / lowered; crooked / straight; and rough / smooth. (Again, one might prefer more refined translations.) Here the point is precisely the opposites, but unlike in Isaiah 40:3, these are not imperatives; they are forecasts. While Isaiah 40:3 commands, “make a way…,” verse 40:4 notes that “the valley will be raised….”

Opposites like these are common images of redemption. (For example, we see the same sort of thing at the start of Isaiah 35.)

While Mark only quotes Isaiah 40:3, Luke (3:4-5) quotes Isaiah 40:3-4. And Luke, too, seems to get the context right, because there the next line there is, “…and everyone will see God’s salvation.”

I think it’s part of the incredible beauty of (Deutero-)Isaiah’s poetry that the imagery shifts so seamlessly from making the path to the signs of redemption.

It’s the repetition of words in different contexts — and, in particular, using the root y.sh.r first for “make [a road]” and then as the opposite of “crooked” — that makes this possible. A good English translation should do the same thing.

Any suggestions?

[Update: Read more about Isaiah 40:3 as quoted in the NT here.]

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January 27, 2010 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. I suppose you mean Isaiah 40:3, not Isaiah 1:3 in that one place.

    Comment by John | January 28, 2010 | Reply

    • Yes. Thanks. I’ve fixed it.

      (At least I spelled all the words right this time. I think.)

      Comment by Joel H. | January 28, 2010 | Reply

  2. Thank you so much! Since my focus is the Greek NT (and my Hebrew is terrible), whatever the NT quotes is what leads me astray on crooked paths.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | January 28, 2010 | Reply

  3. My memory can’t be trusted on this, but I seem to remember that either the Greek or the Hebrew had some suggestion in the word choice of “using equipment” in building the road. Is there anything to this at all?

    Thanks.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 28, 2010 | Reply

    • Not that I know of, but this is another translation example where understanding language isn’t enough. Someone who knows about the ancient technologies for making roads might know that a certain word is used technically.

      A modern example comes from “set,” which generally just means “place” and doesn’t refer to any particular technology. But “setting type” is a certain technical process (which, as it happens, no longer involves the old physical process that used to be called “setting type.”)

      Similarly, it’s possible that these words were used for technical aspects of road-making that I’m unaware of.

      (There is a verb “pave,” which — obviously — doesn’t mean the modern process of covering with blacktop, but it may have involved machinery. We see it elsewhere in connection with God’s roads, but not here.)

      Comment by Joel H. | January 28, 2010 | Reply

  4. This essay was actually an eye-opener for me. Thank you!

    Comment by Marshall Massey | January 29, 2010 | Reply


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