God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Growing Old and Fat in God’s Courtyard

Psalm 92:12 begins a series of verses that compare the righteous to trees: the people, like Palm trees, will blossom and flourish. They will be planted in God’s courtyard. And they will grow old and fat.

What’s going on is this: In antiquity, most people didn’t get enough calories to live. Today (in the U.S. and other “modern” Western countries) many people struggle to cut down their caloric intake. In the days of the Psalms, by contrast, people struggled to get enough. Old age in particular was a challenge, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to die prematurely because they couldn’t get enough to eat.

The lucky ones, though, did have enough food.

So “fat” back then was the opposite of “scrawny.” Or to look at the matter another way, “healthy and fit” is now represented by “thin,” but it used to pair with “fat.”

How, then, should we translate Psalm 92:14? It reads: the righteous shall bear fruit in old age, being dashen (fat) and ra’anan (fresh). Certainly, “they will bear fruit in old age, being fat and fresh” doesn’t have the right ring to it.

Current Translations

The KJV’s “They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing” is perhaps literally accurate, but it misses the changing role of “fat.”

The ESV’s “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” might work with trees, but it doesn’t seem to extend felicitously to people — “full of sap” hardly sounds like a desirable trait for the elderly.

The NIV’s “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” seems to suffer from another problem. “Green” in English is usually a metaphor for “inexperienced.” When I read “fresh and green,” I don’t think of the elderly but rather new-comers just starting out.

The NLT goes with, “Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”

The CEV offers “They will be like trees that stay healthy and fruitful, even when they are old.” That at least makes sense and seems positive, though it seems to miss the poetic impact of the original.

The Message‘s “lithe and green, virile still in old age” may be the point, though by spelling out “virile” instead of using imagery, it similarly strays significantly from the original. I also don’t think that trees are “virile.”

Lessons

I think this is a clear example of the need to look beyond the literal meaning of words — “fat,” in this case — and see how they function metaphorically.

The Challenge

How would you translate Psalm 92:12-14?

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May 7, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments