God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Mythical Value of Reading the Bible in the Original Languages

One of the commonly suggested solutions for overcoming bad Bible translations is to “learn Hebrew and Greek” and “read the Bible in the original.”

While there are many good reasons to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek, I don’t think that better insight into the original meaning of the Bible is one of them.

This came up most recently in Dr. Bill Mounce’s latest post in his weekly “Mondays with Mounce” column about Bible translation: “A Translation Conundrum – 1 Tim 2:9 (Monday with Mounce 165).” There he addresses the Greek phrase en plegmasin, commonly “with braided hair” (ESV, NIV, etc.), but “with elaborate hairstyles” in the NIV2011 and “by the way they fix their hair” in the NLT.

Dr. Mounce explains that braided hair was one way of “enforcing a social pecking order and class system that was woefully inappropriate for the church.” Accordingly, just to translate “braided hair” leaves the modern reader wrongly thinking that there is something inherently undesirable about braided hair, when the point is really what that braided hair represented.

He concludes that this is “a good reason to learn Greek and Hebrew….”

I disagree.

In this particular case, what’s needed to understand the passage is not only a knowledge of the Greek language but a detailed understanding of Greek fashion (though, in fact, I think the fuller context of the verse makes the meaning pretty clear: “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes.” [NRSV]).

This sort of issue is exactly what an amateur or even advanced Greek student would get wrong. Armed with a knowledge of Greek, such a student would look at the word plegma, discern that it means “woven,” and proudly announce that the NIV2011 got it wrong.

More generally, the notion that studying Greek (or Hebrew) leads to a better understanding of the original texts is predicated on the idea that a student can do better than the professional translators. While, unfortunately, Bible translations tend to be of lower quality than other translations, they are still good enough that it’s pretty hard for all but the most expert students of Greek and Hebrew to find a true mistake.

What usually happens instead is that a professional translation takes a variety of factors into account while the student misses some of the nuances. Most people, unless they intend to become an expert, will understand the Bible better in translation. Worse, because of their limited knowledge, they’ll think their own reading is better than the accepted translations. This is a case of the clichéd way in which a little knowledge is dangerous.

I still think there’s value to learning Hebrew and Greek. I see it as akin to going to a museum to see an artifact versus just reading about it. It brings people closer to the original in very powerful ways.

Additionally, both Jewish and Christian traditions hold that there’s inherent value to the original words, even beyond their meaning.

So, absolutely, learn Hebrew and Greek. But I think it’s a good idea to keep professional translations handy, too.


November 26, 2012 Posted by | translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , | 15 Comments

The Case of Mistaken Piercing in Zechariah 12:10 and John 19:37

A question on the About page concerns what appears to be a misquotation of Zechariah 12:10 in John 19:37:

Why does John, in John 19:37 CHANGE Zechariah 12:10 from “they shall look upon ME whom they have pierced: and they shall mourn for HIM” to only: “they shall look upon HIM whom they have pierced”?

It’s a great question with an important lesson behind it.

It’s hard to find an accurate printed translation of Zechariah 12:10, both because the verse is so theologically charged and because the Hebrew is complex.

The NRSV translates, “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one* whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (my emphasis).

The footnote for “look on the one” in the NRSV advises that the Hebrew means “look on me.” This is the crux of the issue, because John 19:37 is clear: “And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.'”

The question is why John appears to misquote Zechariah. (Another good question is why so many translations hide this fact.)

The answer actually comes from John 19:36, where the important technical word plirow introduces two OT quotations. The first is “none of his bones shall be broken” (perhaps a rephrasing of Psalm 34:20 [aka 34:21 aka 33:21]). The second is our verse.

I’ve pointed out before (here: “What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?“) that, in spite of common translations, plirow doesn’t mean “fulfill.” Rather, that Greek verb introduces something called a “proof text” — which, despite the name, has nothing to do with what we would now call “proof.”

In this case, the proof text is a passage from the OT that matches the new text in the NT. (In the case of Jewish texts from the same time period, the proof text is also from the OT, but the new texts are usually prayers or something called “midrash,” and they are often introduced by Hebrew that means “as is written,” “as is said,” etc.)

The point of a proof text is to lend textual support to a new idea, but not in the scientific way that we now think of as “proof.” The support indicated by plirow has to do with the text itself, not what it means. That’s why I translate plirow as “match.”

Here, the point is that John 19:37 matches Zechariah 12:10. Both have to do with piercing. The details of the original meaning — who gets pierced, under what circumstances, etc. — are irrelevant.

This is a surprising way for most modern, scientific readers to look at text, but it was the norm in the period of time that gave us the NT. So the question is not “why did John misquote Zechariah?” but rather “How does John’s text match Zechariah’s?” And the answer, of course, is that they match quite closely. (I have more examples of this kind of matching in my longer explanation of pilrow, including perhaps the most famous: the non-virgin/virgin of Isaiah/Matthew.)

There’s one final interesting detail, and here we return to Hebrew grammar.

The Hebrew word for “upon me” is eilai, spelled Aleph-Lamed-Yud. That common word also spells the poetic word elei, which means just “upon.” So even though the text of Zechariah is clearly, “look upon me, whom they have pierced” it could be purposely misread as “look upon the one they have pierced.” (A similar kind of word play in English might turn “atonement” into “at-one-ment.”)

This is what originally made the text of John here so compelling: It takes an OT quotation and reinterprets it to apply to a new context.

Unfortunately, translations that change Zechariah to match John hide the ingenuity of the text, and make it all but impossible for English readers to understand how the NT quotes the OT.

November 20, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 12 Comments

Recovering the Erotic Poetry of Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon is replete with erotic poetry, but if you only read the translations, you’d never know it.

Phrases like “my beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts” (1:13, NRSV) and “my beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi” (1:14, NRSV) demonstrate the problem, as these translations are neither poetic nor erotic. They are barely even coherent.

I see three kinds of problems.

First, we have the fairly common Bible-translation gaffe of mimicking the original too closely.

In the two previous examples, the problem is the grammar. The construction “my beloved is to me…” (and the similar “my beloved is for me…,” from the NAB) is grammatical but awkward in English. In Hebrew, though, the same word order is fluid and poetic.

A translator can perhaps get away with turning straightforward language into a clumsy translation when it comes to prose, but certainly not with poetry. The translations end up sounding more like a parody of courtship than the real thing.

Similarly, the translations miss the poetic impact of the Hebrew grammar. This is the second problem.

Again looking at these two examples, we see that the Hebrew phrases for “bag of myrrh” and “cluster of henna blossoms” start the sentences, thereby emphasizing them in a way that the English misses.

It’s a subtle but important difference, similar to the difference in English between, “blue skies please me//dark clouds depress me” and “I like blue skies//I dislike dark clouds.” The first one (like the original Hebrew in Song of Solomon) emphasizes the poetry; the second one (like the translations) sounds mundane.

The biggest challenge comes from the imagery. That’s the third problem.

A “bag of myrrh” and a “cluster of henna blossoms” just aren’t romantic in English-speaking cultures. The NAB’s “sachet of myrrh” is only marginally better. (I’ve mentioned similar problems before, for example: “Translation Challenge: Song of Solomon.”)

The solution to the first two problems is easy in theory, if not practice: don’t mimic the grammar but instead capture the poetic impact.

The solution to the actual imagery is more difficult. In principle, the goal is to do in English what the original does in Hebrew. But what did “sack of myrrh” convey, and is there anything like it in English? I doubt it.

Here’s what the poet Marcia Falk does with these two lines in her The Song of Songs:

Between my breasts he’ll lie —
   Sachet of spices,
Spray of blossoms plucked
   From the oasis.

What she’s done is take the irrelevant “myrrh” and translate it as “spices,” just as “henna blossoms” becomes just “blossoms,” and “En-gedi” becomes “oasis.” (Though I’m not entirely sure what the difference is, I think En-gedi is a spring, not an oasis, but “blossoms … spring” would suggest the season, which may be why Dr. Falk chose “oasis.”)

It’s poetic, but is it a translation?

There’s room for debate. She thinks the Hebrew means “he will lie,” not “it will lie.” Fair enough. Her translation omits “my lover” (wrongly “my beloved” in the NRSV and NAB); this seems more problematic to me. She changes the word order to create what (I assume) she thinks is better poetry. For me, this is also a mistake.

So, starting with Dr. Falk’s work, I might suggest:

Sachet of spices,
   my lover between my breasts.
Spray of blossoms,
   my lover in the oasis vineyards.

(What do you think?)

I still wonder, though. Was there something important about “myrrh” that we’re missing? Or if not, maybe we should pick a specific spice in English. (“Sachet of cinnamon”? “Cluster of cloves”?) Is alliteration a reasonable way to make the English text poetic, even though the Hebrew text is poetic in different ways? And if we’re going down the path of alliteration, maybe we should opt for “bouquet of blossoms.” I wonder in particular about “vineyards,” which in Song of Solomon may be overtly sexual.

With all of this mind, how would you translate these two lines?

November 14, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

How Similar Words Lead Bible Translators Astray

“Nuclear families” have nothing to do with “nuclear energy,” in spite of the word “nuclear” in both phrases.

Most people know that two unrelated words can look the same: the “bank” in “river bank” and in “money bank,” for example. Such words usually mean completely different things.

It’s less commonly appreciated that closely related words can also mean completely different things. In this case, the “nuclear” in “nuclear family” and in “nuclear energy” comes directly from the word “nucleus.” But even so, knowing what “nuclear families” are doesn’t help understand the phrase “nuclear energy.” (This kind of mistake is so common that “nuclear magnetic resonance imaging,” which measures the interaction between magnetic fields and atomic nuclei, was renamed just “magnetic resonance imaging” because “nuclear” falsely suggested that the process had something to do with radioactivity.)

This basic fact about languages has important implications for Bible translation.

One example comes from the Hebrew word hikriv, which means both “draw near” and “sacrifice.” It’s possible that these two meanings, as with “nuclear” in English,” have common ancestry. But that doesn’t mean that the two meanings are related. Nonetheless, it’s a common mistake to assume that “sacrifices” in the Bible had more to do with “drawing near” than the English translation suggests. They did not.

A second example is the Greek work sarx, literally “flesh,” but — as is widely known and often discussed — the word meant something different for Paul than it did for the authors of, say, Genesis.

If identical words can mean different things, certainly related words can, too. Yet many Bible translators ignore this fact.

An example comes from the two related words chamad and nechmad in Hebrew. They are both from the root Ch.M.D. The initial “n” in Hebrew essentially marks passive voice. And the vowel differences are a direct result of the lengths of the words. So it looks like chamad and nechmad should be related just like any other active/passive pair.

But they are not. The verb nechmad means “desirable” while the active verb chamad means “take.” This confusion led to a mistranslation of the last commandment, which should read “do not take,” not “do not covet.” (I have lots more here: “The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting” and in this video: “Thou shalt not covet?.)

Returning to the English “nuclear,” it would be a mistake to try to use “nuclear energy” to understand what “nuclear family” means, and it would almost always be a mistake for a translator from English to another language to try to use the same foreign word for “nuclear” in both cases.

Similarly, it seems to me, the Bible translation challenge in this regard is twofold: First, to differentiate between similar or even identical words, so that the meaning of one doesn’t wrongly shade the meaning of the other. And secondly, only to try to use identical English words for identical Hebrew or Greek ones when the original words mean the same thing.

October 26, 2012 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , | 6 Comments

If Jerome Jumped off a Cliff, Would You?

In rejecting word-for-word translations, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace explains that, “Jerome argued against this, noting that his translation of the Vulgate was not word-for-word, but sense-for-sense.” A follow-up comment suggests that Jerome implied that he translated holy scriptures “word for word.”

Here’s my question: Does it matter what Jerome did? More generally, does it matter how anyone in the ancient world approached translation? What if Paul had a clear position on the matter? Should we care what approach the Septuagint reflects?

I have often pointed out that we are better equipped now to retrieve the ancient Hebrew and Greek meanings and render them in a new language than we have been at any time since the words of Scripture were first written down.

My analogy is that we know more now about ancient Egypt than they did in the days of King James or of Jesus. Even though they were closer in time, modern science gives us tools they couldn’t even have imagined: carbon dating, for example, and satellite imaging. Similarly, we have better linguistic tools now than they had 400 or 2,000 years ago, and these tools give us better insight into the original texts.

Though I think most people agree that we’ve made huge progress in the fields of linguistics and translation, that doesn’t mean that the matter is settled. After all, “out with the old, in with the new” is hardly a phrase commonly heard resounding in seminary halls.

As it happens, the traditional Jewish answer is that the modern advances are irrelevant. What’s really important is the tradition as reflected in the Talmud, Rashi, and so forth. In one case, the Dead Sea Scrolls, combined with the LXX, provided convincing evidence that two letters are switched in the traditional first word of Deuteronomy 31:1. This is why the KJV translates that verse as, “And Moses went and spake these words…” while the NRSV and NAB agree on “When Moses finished speaking these words…” But the Jewish Publication Society translation retains the older understanding, based on the older text. It’s not that the evidence isn’t convincing. It’s irrelevant.

(As part of my travels, I commonly present to interfaith audiences, and, by and large, the Christians are bewildered by this Jewish approach, while the Jews often think it’s self evident.)

Another example comes from the Ten Commandments. There’s very good reason to think that the 10th commandment has to do with taking, not wanting, but not everyone agrees that we should update the translations or our understanding of the text.

All of this brings us back to the issue of historical translation approaches. Does it matter how people translated in the past? Or should we just use the best that modern science has to offer? What do you think?

October 10, 2012 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

What’s This Abomination in Leviticus? (And How Context Can Help)

Leviticus 18:22 describes a man having sex with another man as a to’evah, commonly translated as “abomination.” But as we saw a few months ago, the Hebrew to’evah had to do with cultural norms, not absolute right and wrong (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? [Or: Why Couldn’t the Egyptians Eat with the Hebrews?]“).

Does this mean that Leviticus 18:22 is about preferences and not morality? Not necessarily.

I’ve frequently explained that the best way to figure out what a word means is to look at the different contexts in which it’s used. (This is how we figured out what to’evah means, for example.) There’s another kind of context, too: the particular environment in which a word is used. And it’s just as important.

In the case of Leviticus 18, we find a string of phrases that all have the same form: “Do not do X. It is a Y.”

In Leviticus 18:22, X is “a man having sex with another man” and Y is to’evah.

Five verses earlier, in Leviticus 18:17, X is “marrying a woman and her daughters or granddaughters,” and Y is zimah. While the nuances of zimah are difficult to discern, the word is clearly negative — “depravity,” according to the NSRV, “shame” in the NAB, and “wickedness” in the KJV.

In Leviticus 18:23, X is bestiality and Y is tevel, another negative word whose nuances are elusive. (The NRSV has “perversion,” the NAB “abhorrent,” and the KJV “confusion.”)

Leviticus 20 is similar, both in terms of the context and the pattern, though the details differ. (Tevel is used for a man who has sex with his daughter-in-law, among other differences.)

In fact, we see this kind of thing frequently. It’s common to find nearly synonymous words compared and contrasted in biblical Hebrew, though it occurs more often in poetry than in prose. In these cases of parallelism, what’s usually important is not the nuances of each word, but rather their combined effect.

For instance, Isaiah 1:2 reads, “Hear, O heavens, and listen O earth…” (NRSV). The point there is not the differences between hearing and listening, or why the heavens hear but the earth listens. Instead, the passage uses the two words to emphasize a single concept.

Similarly, Leviticus 18 and 20 seem to be to lists of forbidden activities, and focusing on the nuances of to’evah (or zimah or tevel) seems like the wrong way to understand the passages.

So even though (as we saw) to’evah, by itself, indicates something unacceptable to local custom, I still think the right way to understand the original intention of Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 is that they were meant to prohibit male homosexual sex. (What we do with this information, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is of course complicated.)

I also think this is just one example of a more general pattern. We can’t understand the Bible without knowing what the words mean, but, equally, knowing what the words mean is just the first step.

October 3, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 10 Comments

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

I’m pleased to announce the third volume in the “Prayers of Awe” series: We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism. Representing the 15th time I’ve collaborated with my father, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, the book contains my translations of ancient Hebrew liturgical poems, along with detailed notes about why I made the decisions I did, so it may be of interest to those who are curious about how I approach translation.

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

The book also contains detailed essays on the topics of sin, human nature, and repentance, as well as dozens of shorter pieces approaching those same topics from a multitude of viewpoints. As my father writes:

All my life, I’ve wondered about the High-Holiday confessions in Judaism, and I finally edited a book about them. Called We Have Sinned, it just came out from Jewish Lights Publishing, and it represents a multitude of Jewish voices on the topics of sin, human nature, and repentance.

The book is a beginning of a conversation. I hope we can continue it here.

Translating the Hebrew presented some particularly interesting challenges for me. Right off the bat, I had to deal with the central prayer in the book, ashamnu, which consists of an alphabetic acrostic of 24 verbs in a row, all roughly meaning “we have sinned.” More generally, much of the poetry is built around synonyms. As I write in the book (p. 92):

This creates a double challenge for the translator.

First, words often have fewer synonyms in English than in Hebrew. When that is the case, so that there is no natural English for all of the Hebrew synonyms, we must choose between accuracy and naturalness. But the poetic force of the Hebrew comes less from the nuance of each word than from the cumulative impact of the combined string of synonyms, so a non-natural translation for a specific word impacts not only that word but the words around it as well.

A parallel example would be this familiar phrase from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (act 2, scene 2):

Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season,
When in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?

A “translation” of the second line along the lines of “when in the why and the cause of what happened is neither poetic assonance nor reason” matches in some regards but misses the mark in others.

I think similar issues sometimes impact Bible translations.

I’ll try to post more from the book soon.

August 29, 2012 Posted by | announcements, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Q&A: Genesis 18:14 (and the right way to do Bible translation)

From the About page comes this question:

I have a couple concerns in Gen 18:14. 1) “for the LORD” is prefixed with a mem which is what you see in Gen. 24:50 but is translated there as “from the LORD”; 2) Why is dabar translated as “anything.”

This is an excellent example of why all of the words of a phrase have to be translated together, not one by one.

The prefix mem in Hebrew does two things:

1. The mem indicates “from,” as in your example of Genesis 24:50: mei-Adonai yatzah ha-davar, literally, “from-Adonai went-out the-thing,” or, in English, “this matter comes from Adonai.” (The bold-face is to help compare the words with the next example.)

2. The mem indicates comparison, as in Genesis 24:50: ha-yipaleh mei-Adonai davar, literally, “Q-will-be-wondrous more-than-Adonai thing,” or, in English, “Is anything too wondrous for Adonai?” (Again, the bold-face is for comparison with the previoius example.)

The word “too” in English is one way we express comparison, and the word davar becomes “anything” in English because of the complex interaction between thing/something/anything/nothing. (“I see a thing.” “I see something.” “I don’t see anything.” “I see nothing.” All of these correspond to the Hebrew davar.)

So what we see is a detailed interaction of Hebrew grammar and English grammar. The correct translation comes from using Hebrew grammar to decode the sentence, and then re-encoding the sentence using English grammar.

August 23, 2012 Posted by | grammar, Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , | 1 Comment

Is God a boy god or a girl god in the Bible?

If God is like a nurse, does that mean that God is female?

What got me thinking about things like this is that John Piper’s “desiring God” blog just ran a post called “Our Mother Who Art In Heaven?” The basic point is to affirm that God is a “masculine God” in spite of 26 places where God is described with feminine imagery.

The author, Tony Reinke, starts off as though he wants to examine the implication of those 26 places neutrally: “But one of the immediate objections to [a masculine God] is the simple fact that God sometimes references himself through feminine imagery, and this is certainly true.”

Of course, by phrasing the question as how “God references himself” (my emphasis), Reinke has already prejudiced the issue. Still, it’s an interesting question, and I don’t believe that Reinke, or John Cooper (whose book, Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God, Reinke cites) have understood how language works in these cases.

Cooper’s point, quoted by Reinke, is that there may be a variety of feminine imagery, such as Numbers 11:12, where God “gives birth” to the People Israel. But even so, there “are no instances where God is directly identified by a feminine term, even a metaphorical predicate noun.”

Most interesting is Reinke’s explanation: “That explains why in Scripture we find many many masculine titles for God: Lord, Father, King, Judge, Savior, Ruler, Warrior, Shepherd, Husband, and even a handful of metaphorical masculine titles like Rock, Fortress, and Shield..

What would make “Rock” a “metaphorical masculine title”? Not that it matters, but the word itself is feminine in Hebrew (at least one of the words, eh-ven) and in Greek (petra). Similarly, what makes “lord,” “savior”, “ruler,” etc. masculine? Certainly nothing intrinsic to the words.

I think that Reinke and Cooper are going about this the wrong way. The gender of the words used to describe or identify God is irrelevant.

Rather — as in so many other instances — I think the key to understanding the language here is knowing how imagery works. After all, even if God is our king, God isn’t a king in the same sense that Harald V of Norway is. Rather, “God is our King” means that God has certain attributes of a king.

For example, here are three attributes once common to most kings:

  1. they reigned with absolute power
  2. they inherited their position
  3. they were men

It seems pretty clear to me that the metaphor of God as king refers to (1). It seems equally clear that it does not refer to (2). The question is whether it refers to (3), and I don’t think that it does. I think that (3) is incidental to the metaphor, like (2).

In other words, even though only men were kings, and God is a king, it doesn’t follow that God is a man or even like a man, just as even though only humans were kings, and God is a king, it doesn’t follow that God is human or like a human. (A similar issue arises with the word “man” itself: “How to be a Biblical Man.”)

There can be no doubt that gender roles in antiquity were more sharply defined than they are today. But I don’t think that this cultural difference gives us the clear answer that God was masculine. Rather, I think we have to see past it in order to understand the intent of the text.

July 6, 2012 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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 | , , , , , , , | 8 Comments