God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How old was the pregnant woman in Isaiah 7:14?

It has long been known that the KJV translation “virgin” for the pregnant woman in Isaiah 7:14 is inaccurate, and many modern translations opt instead for “young woman” or at least a footnote along those lines. The NRSV, for example, translates: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” And though the NIV 2011 translates “virgin,” it also offers the footnote “or young woman.”

But how old was this “young woman”? Was she really young? Younger than whom?

In this case, the Hebrew word here — alma — probably referred to what we would now call a teenager. (The Greek translation in the Septuagint, parthenos, probably did mean “virgin,” but the Greek here is widely regarded as a translation mistake.)

Teenagers

“Teenager” is the wrong translation, though. For one thing, in antiquity there were no teenagers as we think of them now, because people generally only lived until about age 40. As I explain in And God Said:

Accordingly, people didn’t have time as they do now to spend their first decade as care-free children, then find themselves in their teen years, explore the world as twenty-somethings and settle down as thirty-somethings. They’d be dead before they ever really started living.

Rather, people [in antiquity] were “children” and then they were “adults.” (And then they were dead.)

For another thing, “a pregnant teenager” in English carries connotations that the Hebrew did not. (Also, we don’t have a word in English for a “female teenager.”)

Young Women

So what about “young woman” as a translation?

There’s an old adage in linguistics that even a big mouse is smaller than a small elephant. In our current case, we want to keep in mind that “young” is relative, too.

As I personally use the phrase, “young woman” usually applies to a woman in her 20s or even older. By this reckoning, “young woman,” at least in my dialect, is — surprisingly — too old for alma.

There’s also another aspect to consider. Did alma refer to age, or to stage in life? I think it’s the latter, and I think the stage in life was the one at which a woman normally got married.

In other words, Isaiah 7:14 is about a woman getting pregnant just at the age one might expect. Does “young woman” in English convey that? I don’t think so, both because it may convey the wrong chronological age, and because it emphasizes “young” in a way that the Hebrew does not.

Accordingly, I think “woman” is a better translation: “A pregnant woman will give birth to a son, and call him Immanuel.”

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January 31, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 13 Comments