God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge: Joseph, Pharaoh, and the Servants’ Heads

The Joseph narrative is brilliantly written in a way that few translations capture. One example comes when Joseph, having been thrown in jail, is asked to interpret the dreams of two of Pharaohs’ servants — the butler and the baker — who have also been imprisoned.

First comes the butler, and Joseph has good news for him: “Pharaoh … will restore you to your position” (Genesis 40:13).

For the baker, the news is not so good: “Pharaoh … will hang you on a tree” (Genesis 40:19).

The key text, though, lies in the parts I just left out.

In the case of the butler, the Hebrew is, literally, “Pharaoh will lift up your head…,” which, in Hebrew, was a common expression indicating something good. For example, in Jeremiah 52:31 Evilmerodach (that’s the guy’s name) “lifted up the head” of King Jehoiachin, and “brought him forth out of prison.”

In the case of the baker, Joseph starts with the same exact phrase: “Pharaoh will lift up your head…” but then Joseph adds, “off of you!”

We can almost see the scene playing out. Joseph has already given good news to one servant. The other waits anxiously for Joseph’s verdict. Joseph starts speaking, and things seem to be looking up. “Pharaoh will lift up your head… — so far so good! — “…

…off of you and hang you on a tree.” Oops.

The obvious question is how to capture this exceptional dialogue in English. (In And God Said, I note that “Pharaoh wants you hanging around the court” almost works for both servants.)

Certainly the English “lift up your head” doesn’t work for the butler. That’s not an expression in English (though that doesn’t stop most translations from using that flawed wording). But alternatives like the CEV’s “the king will pardon you” don’t seem to offer any hope of preserving the word play.

Can anyone come up with a good way to translate these two lines?

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January 13, 2011 - Posted by | translation challenge | , , ,

8 Comments »

  1. My suggestion:

    /1/ “Pharaoh will raise you high”

    and

    /2/ “Pharaoh will raise you high on a tree to hang you.”

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | January 13, 2011 | Reply

  2. More figuratively, perhaps “Pharaoh will make an example of you…”

    Comment by Michael Fessler | January 13, 2011 | Reply

  3. Maybe something along the lines of “release you from this prison” versus “release you from your mortal existence.”

    Comment by Paul D. | January 13, 2011 | Reply

  4. The “release you” phrases lack the element of being lifted up … and the second one (“release you from your mortal existence”) strikes me as jarringly pedantic in style.

    The “example” phrases similarly lack the element of being lifted up. Being presented to others as an example is not quite the same thing as a change in position (or in altitude).

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | January 14, 2011 | Reply

  5. Yeah, my suggestion wasn’t too good, but if “lift up” is a specifically Hebrew idiom, you can’t expect a good translation to necessarily preserve the same words.

    Comment by Paul D. | January 15, 2011 | Reply

  6. What about something based on ‘chin up?’ That is a very similar expression in English.

    Comment by Justin Gatlin | January 15, 2011 | Reply

  7. How do you hang a guy if his head is gone?

    Comment by FRANK HAWKINS | November 22, 2011 | Reply

  8. I read somewhere that the usual ancient Near Eastern method of hanging was impalement on a stake stuck in the ground. Being “hanged” like shishkebob on a giant skewer doesn’t require a head, because there is no rope needed.

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | November 22, 2011 | Reply


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