God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge: “With” and “For” in Isaiah 54:7

Isaiah 54:7 — part of the incredibly uplifting poetry of Isaiah 54 — has two parallel phrases, both starting with the Hebrew b-. First we find b- attached to rega (“moment”), and then next attached to rachamim (“mercy” or “love” or “compassion”). The effect is to underscore the contrast between God abandoning for a moment and taking back in mercy.

Yet every translation I know destroys the parallel structure, as, for example, the NRSV: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (my emphasis). In other words, for b’rega the translations have “for [a moment],” but “with [compassion]” for “b’rachamim.”

It’s true that the Hebrew prefix b- can mean both “for” and “with,” among many other possibilities. (It’s a bit like the ablative case — an observation which is likely to help only the people who already knew that.) But here, the whole point is to contrast two phrases that start the same way. So while the translations get the general point of the line, they butcher the poetic effect.

The contrast is further underscored through the Hebrew modifiers katon (“small”) after rega and gadol (“big”) after rachamim. (This is the “brief” and “great” in the NRSV translation.)

So here’s the challenge: Can you think of a way to express Isaiah’s thoughts here while also keeping the important poetic structure? (My best shot is in the comments.)

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November 7, 2011 - Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , ,

14 Comments »

  1. Here’s what I have: “Momentarily I abandoned you and lovingly I will take you back.” I use adverbs instead of b-. What I can’t work in with this strategy is the contrast between “small” and “big.” So at best, it’s a partial solution.

    Comment by Joel H. | November 7, 2011 | Reply

    • בְּרֶגַע קָטֹן, עֲזַבְתִּיךְ; וּבְרַחֲמִים גְּדֹלִים, אֲקַבְּצֵךְ.

      In a moment I neglected you, then gathered you with great mercy.

      Comment by Darlene J | November 16, 2011 | Reply

  2. In a fleeting moment…and in great mercy

    Comment by N Montoya | November 7, 2011 | Reply

  3. How about “For a little while I abandoned you, but for great compassion I will take you back.”?

    Comment by David P | November 7, 2011 | Reply

  4. In a small blink, I left you, but in great, gut-wrenching compassion, I will gather you.

    Comment by Angela F. | November 7, 2011 | Reply

  5. […] Take the challenge that Joel Hoffman issues here. […]

    Pingback by 3 or 4 translation challenges « BLT | November 7, 2011 | Reply

  6. “With a slight lapse I abandoned you
    but with intense emotion I will take you back.”

    Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | November 8, 2011 | Reply

  7. At the heart of the puzzle is the facts that “b’rega katan” refers to a temporal condition of the action, while “b’rachamim gadolim” refers to the means by which the action is accomplished–NRSV’s for/with. Something like “In a brief moment, I had abandoned you, but in great compassion, I will gather you back” is tempting, except that something’s off about that first “in”–it suggests the fixed moment of God’s decision to abandon rather than the duration of exile. hmm…

    Comment by Sarah W | November 8, 2011 | Reply

  8. In a minor moment I left you,
    But in a major move of mercy I will get you back.

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | November 9, 2011 | Reply

  9. How the Septuagint translator(s) render the Hebrew is interesting:

    χρόνον μικρὸν κατέλιπόν σε
    καὶ μετὰ ἐλέους μεγάλου ἐλεήσω σε

    Literally, that’s something like “time small I left you / and after mercy great I shall mercy you.” Figurally, it’s “For a split second of time I left you; but with huge amounts of mercy I’ll give you hugs of mercy.” The contrast between “small” and “great” is the main one. The gathering idea is lost. But the idea of mercy itself is poetically increased, is doubled in the Greek, with the repetitions you can see and can hear: με… ἐλέ… με… ἐλε…

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | November 9, 2011 | Reply

  10. Hebrew poetry is based on parallel concepts more than parallels of rhyme and such, which makes the poetry more portable across languages. Preserving the form sometimes enhances that, but isn’t really central. It is more important (in my ever so humble view) to preserve the contrast conceptually…

    “Minute was the sting of my rebuke… but the generosity of my benevolence toward you will be magnificent”…!

    Comment by bibleshockers | November 10, 2011 | Reply

  11. In this case, my understanding of “Katon”, would be “humble” rather than “small”. Especially considering the context of the chapter, which metaphorically describes the shame and embarassment of a barren and abondoned woman. Considering the context, my best bet would be:
    “Humble was the moment of abondoning you, but glorified will be the compassion of reclaiming you”.

    Comment by Ilan J | November 14, 2011 | Reply

    • A bit more on rendering “Katon” as “humble” vs. “small”:

      Genesis 32:11 – קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים
      KJV: Katonti = “I am not worthy”.

      Also, I am fairly sure that “Katon” describes God’s feelings rather than the quality or length of the moment.
      See the following verse in Isaiah, which is an indicative parallel:

      Isaiah 54:8 – בְּשֶׁצֶף קֶצֶף, הִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי רֶגַע מִמֵּךְ, וּבְחֶסֶד עוֹלָם, רִחַמְתִּיךְ
      KJV – “In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee”.

      Comparing the parrallel nature of verses 7 and 8, the passages’ structure in both should include 4 elements:
      a. God has negative feelings
      b. For a moment
      c. But with great compassion / mercy
      d. God bestows

      I might also add, that if “rega katon” means “a brief moment”, the bible probably should have read L’rega (I abondoned you FOR a short while), rather than B’rega (I abondoned you IN a brief moment?).

      So an accurate as well as somewhat poetic translation maintaining the structure would be:

      “Humble was the moment of abondoning you, but glorified will be the compassion of reclaiming you”.

      or

      “Low was the moment of abondoning you, but great will be the compassion of reclaiming you”.

      Comment by Ilan J | November 15, 2011 | Reply

  12. Young’s Literal Translation of Isaiah 54:7
    In a small moment I have forsaken thee,
    And in great mercies I do gather thee,

    Comment by Lee Gold | December 14, 2012 | Reply


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