God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What We Learn from the Tower in Proverbs 18:10

Bill Mounce has a post (also here) about the “strong” tower in Proverbs 18:10. He notes that the NIV 2010 (following the TNIV) changes the familiar translation “strong tower” into “fortified tower,” thereby mucking with the text of a familiar hymn.

Dr. Mounce concludes that the change from “strong” to “fortified” is nonetheless warranted because it makes it easier to understand the point of the proverb:

So I understand why the TNIV shifted to “fortified tower.” We can easily see a tower, perhaps up on a hill, that has thick walls and an enforced door. A tower that provides safety for its inhabitants.

Which is of course the point of [the] proverb. God is a fortified tower to which his children run, knowing that he will keep them safe.

I’m not sure I agree, but I think it’s an interesting case either way, because of four issues that this short text highlights.

Internal Context

First off, we find the same Hebrew phrase — migdal [tower (of)] oz [strength] — in Judges 9:51 and Psalm 61:3(4), but in both of those places the NIV leaves the translation as “strong tower.” So we have a consistency issue.

The theme of “strength” (or “fortification”) from Proverbs 18:10 continues in the next verse: “The wealth of the rich is their strong city; in their imagination it is like a high wall” (NRSV) or “The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it a wall too high to scale.” Here the NIV is locked into “fortified city” to match “fortified tower.”

Certainly consistency isn’t the only goal in Bible translation — and in this case, the tower in Judges is a physical one, while the towers in Psalms and Proverbs are metaphoric — but translating migdal oz in two different ways does make it harder to see patterns in the original text.

External Context

For that matter, Dr. Mounce correctly notes that the new translation makes a familiar hymn less biblical. So, at best, it’s a trade-off. On one hand (maybe) we have a less successful translation that maintains the biblical character of a song, while on the other, we have (maybe) a better translation that masks the biblical connection of the song.

Question: When does familiarity with a phrase mean we should keep it even if we find a better translation? Is preserving the imagery of a song reason enough to keep a less accurate translation? What about preserving much better-known phrases, like “the Lord is my shepherd” (which, I’ve argued, is also misleading)?

Cultural Context

The hardest issue — here and, frequently, elsewhere — is cultural context.

A settlement in antiquity was often marked by a “city” and a “tower.” For example, everyone knows that humanity was punished for building a tower called Babel; it’s less well known that a city was built with it:

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. (Genesis 11:4-5, NRSV, my emphasis)

So the progression in Proverbs 18:10-11 is already based on juxtaposing two things that used to go hand in hand but no longer do.

More importantly, this means that “tower” was understood as part of where a person would live. When I think of someone in a tower, long-haired maidens in distress to come mind. But surely that wasn’t point. Rather, when the righteous run into a tower in Proverbs, the imagery may have been closer to entering “City Hall.”

All of this comes into play when we choose between “strong” and “fortified.” No matter what we do, we’ve already missed a lot of the imagery. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t choose carefully. To do so, however, means knowing more about ancient towers than I do. Did they come in fortified and non-fortified varieties? Was migdal oz a technical term (like “fortified wine” or “fortified foods”)? Or, in a different direction, was the point “tower of strength”?

I agre that “fortified tower” reads better than “strong tower”? But which one is closer to what the original meant?


Finally, we look at the Greek translation known as the Septuagint (“LXX”).

Dr. Mounce point out that the LXX here reads “from the greatness of might is the name of the Lord.” It’s pretty clear, though, that the Greek translation is based on a different reading of the Hebrew, so it doesn’t really help us very much.

The Hebrew word for tower is migdal. But because the prefix mi- in Hebrew means “from,” those same Hebrew letters can spell “from the greatness of,” that is, migodel. (The vowels are different, but the marks that differentiate the two came a millennium after the LXX was written.) So the standard Hebrew text reads migdal oz (“a tower of strength”) while the Greek translates migodel oz (“from the greatness of strength”).

Because the second half of the line has the righteous running “into it,” I think “tower” was the original point, and the Greek got it wrong.

This is not the only place the LXX seems to be based on a different understanding of the text, and it highlights one way in which the Greek can mislead. (Yet sometimes the Greek seems right, and it’s the standard Hebrew that’s probably wrong.)


So even in this relatively simple example, we see the role of three different kinds of context, and a caveat about relying on older translations.


February 17, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 8 Comments

Why Chiasmus Matters in Proverbs 14:31

Jeff (at Scripture Zealot) wonders about Proverbs 14:31:

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
but he who is generous to the needy honors him. (ESV)

Jeff’s question is whether “his” in the first half of the verse is “the oppressor’s” or “the poor man’s.”

As it happens, about a decade of linguistics research last century was devoted to similar matters, the typical case involving questions like whose picture got taken if “John’s friend took his picture.” Nonetheless, taken by itself, the Hebrew in the first part of Proverbs 14:31 is potentially ambiguous.

But we get an answer by looking at the second part, because it forms a chiasm with the first part. That is, the first and second lines are parallel, with matching parts in each.

So “oppresses a poor man” in the first half is like “generous to the needy” in the second, and “insults his Maker” is like “honors him” in the second. Furthermore, the word order is reversed in Hebrew, along the lines of:

Who oppresses a poor man gives insult to his maker,
and he gives him honor who favors the needy.

It’s pretty clear that the second part doesn’t mean “who favors the needy gives the poor man’s maker honor,” so “his maker” in the first half is “the oppressor’s maker,” as is “him” in the second half.

So The Message got that part of the meaning right with “You insult your Maker when you exploit the powerless; when you’re kind to the poor, you honor God.” The Message also gets points for not turning the inclusive Hebrew into gender-specific English, though it loses a point for turning “him” into “God.”

Beyond this specific verse, I think it’s interesting that knowledge of how Hebrew poetry works can help clarify the original meaning of the text.

February 15, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 2 Comments

Translation Challenge: Snow and Ice in Psalm 147

With much of the U.S. buried under snow and ice (myself included), I thought I’d turn to the end of Psalm 147.

Winter Wonderland Window

Winter Wonderland Window

The NRSV translates Psalm 147:15-18 as follows:

[15] He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. [16] He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. [17] He hurls down hail like crumbs — who can stand before his cold? [18] He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.

While that translation captures the general meaning of the text, it misses the beautiful word plays and poetry of the original.

Verse 16 is particularly poetic, so we start there. Here’s a word by word translation, with some of the Hebrew words:

He gives snow like wool [katzemer]; frost [k’for] like ash [ka’efer] he scatters [y’fazer].

And here’s the same thing with some capital letters and color highlighting to illustrate the assonance.

He gives snow like wool [KatzemeR]; frost [KFoR] like ash [Ka’eFeR] he scatters [y’FazeR].

In particular, notice the progression from K’FoR (“frost”) to Ka’eFeR (“like dust”) in the middle of the verse:

Translation Challenge #1: Can you think of a way of preserving the triple similarity of sounds in k’for and ka’efer? What about the double similarities in the other words?

Now that you know the kinds of things to look for, here’s Verse 15:

He sends out [ha-sholei’ach] his command [imrato] to the earth [aretz]; swiftly [ad-m’heira] runs [yarutz] his word [d’varo].

This time, we see iMRato in the first half of the verse followed by M’heiRa in the second, and eReTZ followed by yaRuTZ.

Similarly, in Verse 17:

He hurls down hail [KaR’chO] like crumbs — who can stand before his cold [KaRatO]?

Translation Challenge #2: Can you think of a way of preserving these sound repetitions?

In addition to the sound repetition, we find a repeating theme. Here are the first words of each of these four lines:

15: ha-sholei’ach (“He sends” — or “the one who sends”)
16: ha-notein (“He gives” — or “the who who gives”)
17: mashlich (“He hurls” — or “hurling”)
18: yishlach (“He sends” — or “he will send”)

Three of these — in Verses 15, 16, and 18 — come from the same or a similar-sopunding three-letter root in Hebrew: Sh.L.Ch. (The final sound is similar but different, a fact that my transliteration scheme hides.) So all three are related in much the way that “writ” “writing” and “writer” are in English. But none of the four is the same word.

Translation Challenge #3: Can you think of a translation that preserves the way these four lines begin?

As you work on these four lines, notice too the chiasm: The first line refers to God’s command and word, while the second follows up with snow and frost. Then the third and fourth lines repeat the pattern in reverse order. The third line refers to ice and cold, while the fourth returns to God’s word, augmenting it with wind.

So, Translation Challenge #4: Can you translate all four lines?

February 2, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 5 Comments