The Joseph narrative is brilliantly written in a way that few translations capture. One example comes when Joseph, having been thrown in jail, is asked to interpret the dreams of two of Pharaohs’ servants — the butler and the baker — who have also been imprisoned.
First comes the butler, and Joseph has good news for him: “Pharaoh … will restore you to your position” (Genesis 40:13).
For the baker, the news is not so good: “Pharaoh … will hang you on a tree” (Genesis 40:19).
The key text, though, lies in the parts I just left out.
In the case of the butler, the Hebrew is, literally, “Pharaoh will lift up your head…,” which, in Hebrew, was a common expression indicating something good. For example, in Jeremiah 52:31 Evilmerodach (that’s the guy’s name) “lifted up the head” of King Jehoiachin, and “brought him forth out of prison.”
In the case of the baker, Joseph starts with the same exact phrase: “Pharaoh will lift up your head…” but then Joseph adds, “off of you!”
We can almost see the scene playing out. Joseph has already given good news to one servant. The other waits anxiously for Joseph’s verdict. Joseph starts speaking, and things seem to be looking up. “Pharaoh will lift up your head… — so far so good! — “…
…off of you and hang you on a tree.” Oops.
The obvious question is how to capture this exceptional dialogue in English. (In And God Said, I note that “Pharaoh wants you hanging around the court” almost works for both servants.)
Certainly the English “lift up your head” doesn’t work for the butler. That’s not an expression in English (though that doesn’t stop most translations from using that flawed wording). But alternatives like the CEV’s “the king will pardon you” don’t seem to offer any hope of preserving the word play.
Can anyone come up with a good way to translate these two lines?