God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Problem with Forever

Ancient Hebrew divided “forever” into two parts: forever in the past, and forever in the future. Hebrew used the preposition “from” (mi-) to indicate the former, and “to” (l’-) for the latter.

So Hebrew has three words. “Eternity” is olam. “From the beginning of time up to now” is mei-olam. And “from now to the end of time” is l’olam. Variations include ad olam (“until olam”) and la’ad, both of which mean the same thing as l’olam.

English has a convenient word “forever” that encompasses all time, but we don’t have the equivalent of l’olam or mei’olam. This creates a translation challenge when those two Hebrew words are juxtaposed as a poetic way of indicating “all of eternity.”

One example out of a great many comes from Psalm 90 (which recently popped up here and here). The end of verse 2 in Hebrew reads, “and mei-olam [eternity up to now] ad olam [eternity starting now] you are God.” The point is fairly simple: “You have always been God and you will always be God.”

But the KJV offers the barely coherent, “from everlasting to everlasting.” Here I have to wonder if the translators were even aware of the role that “from,” “to,” and “everlasting” played in Hebrew.

More surprisingly, modern translations generally keep this odd phrasing. The NRSV, NIV, and ESV mimic the KJV here. The NAB offers the equally odd “from eternity to eternity.”

The NLT (which I generally don’t like because of its inaccuracies) has an interesting solution: “you are God, without beginning or end.” I still don’t think the NLT’s translation here is accurate, but it’s certainly better than the others, in that at least it expresses the correct general thought.

The Message (which I usually find to be even less accurate than the NLT) also has an interesting option: “from ‘once upon a time’ to ‘kingdom come’ — you are God.” The story-like “once upon a time” and the theologically-laden “kingdom come” grate on my ear, but at least the English means something akin to the point of the Hebrew.

I think this is a perfect demonstration of what I called slavery to parts of speech. In this case, I think the two prepositional phrases “from everlasting” and “to everlasting” should be translated as past-tense and future-tense verbs, respectively.

So: “you always were and always will be God.”

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April 23, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. It seems to me that there is a subtle but significant difference between “always” and “forever.” The word “always” usually speaks more of unwavering consistency (like the Hebrew תמיד), and “forever” indicates endless duration. Is that subtle distinction worth expressing? Although it is maybe a little less smooth, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say “you forever were and forever will be God”?

    Comment by Aaron | April 23, 2010 | Reply

  2. Don’t you think that “from age to age” is the proper translation since olam means age, as in olam haba and olam hazeh.

    Comment by Jim | May 3, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Jim,

      To the best of my knowledge, the phrases olam haba and olam hazeh — which the Rabbis used to mean “this world” (pre-redemption) and “the world to come” (post-redemption) respectively — don’t appear in the Bible, and I don’t see any other evidence of olam being used to represent “age” or “era” in the Bible.

      This does highlight the difficulty of translating a language that was used for multiple purposes over a span of many centuries.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 4, 2010 | Reply

  3. I wonder, in this example is “and mei-olam [eternity up to now] ad olam [eternity starting now] you are God” inclusive of now?

    to now and from now doesn’t necessarily include now. The same way as in mathematics, one must specify greater than or equal to 1, in order for 1 to be included.

    Comment by liberty | June 5, 2010 | Reply


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