God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

When Bible Translation Goes South

In Genesis 28:14, Jacob dreams that his descendants will spread out “to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south” (NRSV). Leaving aside the odd choice of English grammar here (what’s wrong with “west, east, north, and south”?), what’s interesting is that in Hebrew, the words for two of the directions reference places.

The word for “west” here (yamah) means “toward the sea.” And the word for “south” (negbah) means “toward the Negev (desert).”

It’s normally a mistake to rely too closely on internal structure when translating a word, so even though we have a word “seaward” in English, no translation that I know of uses it in place of the obvious “west.” For one thing, in many places, such as were I live, the sea is on the east, not the west. In fact, when I travel to Israel, which I do almost every year, I’m always confused anew by the “sea being on the wrong side.” I’ll be driving north, toward Haifa, with the Mediterranean on my left, and every bit of me will feel like I’m driving south.

I think this is more than jetlag at play, because the sea is prominent not just geographically but psychologically as well, especially in coastal regions. But if so, does this mean that we’ve lost something by removing the sea from the translation? Should we perhaps use “seaward” after all?

The same reasoning applies to “south” and the desert. Have we lost something important by removing the desert from our translations?

There are additional complications.

Hebrew has other words for “south,” including prominently “toward Yemen” (teimanah), as in Numbers 2:10. There we find “toward Yemen,” meaning “south,” as part of a long description of which Israelite tribes camp where. Sometimes both words — “toward the desert” and “toward Yemen” — occur together, as in Exodus 26:18. There the phrase “toward the Negev, toward Yemen” becomes the one word “south” in most English translations.

There are other words for “east,” too. The one we saw in Genesis 28:14 literally means “toward the beginning,” but we also find mizracha, which (probably) uses the sunrise for reckoning.

The reason all of this is important, I think, is that reference points matter.

In the U.S., “the south” implies more than just geography — it’s also a culture, a way of life, and more. This is why people in Florida are fond of saying that the further north you go the further south you get. The northern part of Florida has more in common with “the south” than the southern part does.

Similarly, what might the difference have been between using “the desert” and “Yemen” as a reference? Was there a different feel to talking about geological formations versus political constructs? (In English, does “from the Atlantic to the Pacific” mean exactly the same thing as “from New York to Los Angeles”? Not for me.)

Finally, it’s worth noting that in English, the directions (at least in my dialect) always go in the same order: “north, south, east, and west.” That’s how to say “everywhere.” If we’re going to leave out all of the cultural implications, should we at least put the words into the right order in English?

All of which leaves us with a translation dilemma: What was implied by the various words used for direction, and how can we convey that in English?

What do you think?


June 18, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , ,


  1. Delightful question. In the Psalms, I have tended to translate ‘the place’ and put in a footnote (the four points of the compass). But I see I did this only in 107.3 where all four points are mentioned.
    וּמֵאֲרָצוֹת קִבְּצָם
    מִמִּזְרָח וּמִמַּעֲרָב
    מִצָּפוֹן וּמִיָּם

    and from lands collected them
    from the sunrise and from the sunset
    from the treasured part and from the sea

    Right hand presents a problem in Psalm 89 where there is an aural match a verse or two later. Also the sequence from 89.11 to 14 contains two parallel uses of words: you — arm — strength — south // you — arm — strength — right hand. I wonder …

    East and south also appear in 78.26

    The word for south here is different from Genesis.

    Comment by bobmacdonald | June 18, 2012

  2. I’m with you: reference points matter, or they would not have been used in such specific terms, as you point out. It behooves translators to translate, rather than interpret, it seems to me, and let the readers use a little due diligence to discover what “seaward” or “toward the Negev” would have meant to the children of Israel. Attempts to simplify do not serve us and “dummying down” the scriptures could lead ultimately to misunderstanding and misapplication, and therein lies the root of confusion, contention, conflict and division. I may not be a Hebrew or even a Greek Scholar, but I can read a lexicon, a concordance, or a map, and make the intellectual leaps necessary to follow the word of God rather than making it follow me.

    Comment by Tom | June 18, 2012

  3. Great article…
    From what I understand, from Genesis three, “going east” is moving further away from God, starting from:
    Gen 3:24 When he drove the man out, he placed on the eastern side of the orchard in Eden angelic sentries who used the flame of a whirling sword to guard the way to the tree of life.

    So, the eastern side of access to God is blocked, and people move further east, away from God, culminating in Gen 11, where they get so far away, they no longer call on God’s name at all, but make their own attempts to be Godlike.

    There is a lot of symbolism in directions like this. But I think, in the case you mentioned it simply means “all directions”. The NET version simply says, “… and you will spread out to the west, east, north and south …”, which I think is a fairly good way of putting it. I also think which way you state it depends on where you come from. I live in New Zealand, and I would probably have said “north, east, west and south”, or “east and west, north and south”, depending on which was I was facing..

    Comment by Geoff Gummer | June 18, 2012

  4. I think the translation should be more literate. Seaward is good. If somebody wonders what seaward refers to then he/she should do some study. Giving one indicuals interpretation as translation just does not seem to be the way to go.
    Leshalom, Y

    Comment by Irving (Road Runner) Zlotnik | June 18, 2012

  5. Very nice article and comments; thanks for all the insights. I particularly like the possible cultural implication “a direction” may have versus how the cultural frame of reference may make a difference in what direction is meant. Steven Pinker in “The Stuff of Thought” Ch4 (p185), talking on this subject, provides a diagram of a group of people in a room and demonstrates how the English “in front of” could mean any one four directions depending on which frame of reference the speaker/hearer had in mind. Pinker points out also that the meaning may change (or be correctly understood) depending on whether the speaker/hearer are face-to-face or not. What is interesting is that if Geoff Gummer (in New Zealand) were to say “toward the sea” ones frame of reference might no longer be a Cartesian one, but a radial one in which the direction meant could be ANY point on the compass; maybe meaning that direction which is the shortest distance to the sea. In that case the direction would depend on where one is and if one knows the shape of the island and where they are.

    Comment by Ron Knight | June 25, 2012

    • Hi Ron,

      In fact in Auckland if someone said “toward the sea” – it would be nonsensical. I live 1km from the Manukau Harbour (south west Auckland), and if someone said to me “face toward the sea” I would immediately face to the west. However, if they were in East Auckland, they might be envisaging “north” because that is where the sea is for them. If you were giving say, driving directions you might say, “travel down XXXX road, and turn left, towards the sea, and then turn right along parallel to the water..” or some such.
      On an Island, I dont think one would say “toward the sea” in a metaphorical sense except in some sort of prose depicting “the freedom of a sailor’s life” or some such thing.. At least I cant recall anyone saying it to me in that sort of sense. I might say to my Dad, for example, have you seen that new park they built down by the water/beach/ocean?” – but there would always be some specific geographical reference included.

      It would take on a whole different perspective for my wife, who is from Denver, Co. For her “going towards the sea” means something like “go west my son!” if you know what I mean?

      Comment by Geoff Gummer | June 25, 2012

  6. […] Hoffman has written a fascinating little post on the problem of translating directions in the Bible. Who would have imagined that a simple word like ‘south’ could be so […]

    Pingback by Bible and Mission Links 20 | June 29, 2012

  7. I think more problems than solutions occur in Bible translations because of the necessity to please readers, and as I understand it, the Bible has been translated in about 475 languages. That’s alot of different readers to please!! When you think about it, there’s alot of meaning that should naturally get lost because of this. There is much to learn from ancient cultures in the Bible that we cannot learn if we impose our modern ways of life and our own cultural reference points into the text.

    To the question of this post: I don’t really know much about ancient Hebrew culture to say what is implied by the directional references but I do have a few suggestions about how to “convey that in English.”

    1. Translate the literal meaning and use a footnote to specify the intended meaning, or vice versa
    2. Commentary (either in the same publication or a separate one) explaining, primarily, cultural concepts. Too many Bible commentaries focus too much on the homiletic and doctrinal significance of the text, to the extent that the cultural aspect is ignored.
    3. Bible study groups initiated by a trained, well-informed, and experienced theologian. In churches nowadays, especially in America, this is surprising lacking which is probably due to the popularity of easy-to-understand Bibles and our tendency toward sensationalism. Nothing really replaces this kind of learning. I mean, it’s what you get in first grade all the way up to college and post-graduate studies–why should learning the Bible be any different.
    4. All of the above.

    I don’t think it’s the translator’s job to try and fit everything into the text or say what the text supposedly means. Instead, you guys should let the text speak for itself so that a deep and engaging study on the Word of God can take place.

    Comment by George M | August 23, 2012

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