God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Amos’s Clean White Teeth

Amos 4:6 is back, first in a comment and then in a post at Aberration Blog.

The Hebrew text reads: v’gam ani natati lachem nikyon shinayim b’chol areichem v’choser lechem b’chol m’komoteichem v’lo shavtm aday n’um adonai. That is, ” ‘I [Adonai] have given [or will give] you a purity/cleanness of teeth in all your cities and a lack of bread in all your places, and you didn’t return to me,’ says Adonai.”

At first, it looks like classic Hebrew parallelism (“saying the same thing twice”), where “cleanness of teeth” is like “lack of bread,” and “cities” is like “places.”

Noting (correctly) that “cleanness of teeth” doesn’t mean “hunger” in English, some translators explain the phrase in translation, rendering it as “hunger” (NLT) or “empty stomachs” (NIV).

But our translation question is whether “cleanness of teeth” is an idiom or a metaphor. If it’s an idiom, then, yes, it should be rendered as idiomatic English.

But I think the line is meant to be ironic, and that it’s built on the biblical metaphor by which white is purity.

We see the metaphor in Isaiah 1:18 (where “scarlet sins” shall become “white like snow”) and Psalm 51:9 (where “I will be white like snow” is part of purification).

The rare word nikayon (which becomes nikyon before another noun) generally refers to purity or innocence, as in Genesis 20:5 (where Abimelech explains to God that he acted justly, with nikayon of hands), or Hosea 8:5 (where the lack of nikayon among the Israelites enrages God).

Amos 4:4 starts an ironic tirade: “Come to Bethel,” Amos taunts, “and sin.” “Offer your sacrifices … burn a Thank Offering of leaven” even though according to Leviticus 7:12-14, the Thank Offering isn’t supposed to be burned. Amos continues, “for this is what you love to do.”

Then in Amos 4:6, we read, “I will give you purity…” Sounds good. But wait.

“… of teeth” and “lack of bread.” It’s not good.

In fact, it’s more irony. This time, the cleanness (nikayon) and whiteness (of teeth) is ironically symbolic of hunger.

As it happens, white stands for purity in English, too, so it seems to me that we ought to be able to capture the irony in translation, but I’m not quite sure how.

The first thing we have to fix is “I will give you … teeth,” which in English sounds like a bunch of detached teeth will be coming our way. The Hebrew “give” also means “let” or “make,” so “make your teeth clean” is one way to go (followed, perhaps, by “make food lacking”). But it still doesn’t seem right.

Any ideas?

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October 26, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 7 Comments