God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge: Joseph, Pharaoh, and the Servants’ Heads

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?


January 13, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , | 8 Comments

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?

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

On Idioms and Metaphors

In More than Cool Reason, George Lakoff writes:

Metaphors are so commonplace we often fail to notice them. Take the way we ordinarily talk about death. The euphemism “He passed away” is not an arbitrary one. When someone dies, we don’t say “He drank a glass of milk” or “He had an idea” or “He upholstered his couch.” Instead we say things like “He’s gone,” “He’s left us,” “He’s no longer with us,” “He’s passed on,” “He’s been taken from us,” [etc.]

What Dr. Lakoff doesn’t write is that we also say “He kicked the bucket.”

And here we see the difference between metaphoric language and idiom. Metaphoric language reflects an underlying metaphor. (A metaphor, Lakoff insists, is a pattern of thought, not the words used to express it. In the case of death, our metaphoric approach is of “conceiving of birth, life and death” as “arrival,” “being present here” and “departure.”) By contrast, idioms are conveniently thought of as multi-word words, and they do not reflect any underlying thought process.

Two related properties of idioms make them easy to identify (if you speak the language). First, they cannot be passivized. (“The bucket was kicked by him” doesn’t mean “he died.”) Secondly, parts of idioms can’t be replaced by synonyms. (“He kicked the pail” doesn’t mean “he died.”)

The distinction is really important, because I think that metaphors should be preserved (if possible) in translation, while idioms should be replaced. We see a great, if difficult, test case in Amos 4:6, which I’ll turn to next.

October 26, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , | 5 Comments

Translation Challenge: Psalm 17:8

The text of Psalm 17:8 brilliantly combines two Hebrew expressions, pairing both their meaning and their underlying semantic basis: shomreini k’ishun bat-ayin//b’tzel k’nafecha tastireini, that is, “guard-me like-a-dark-spot of daughter-of-eye//in-the-shadow of your-wings hide-me.”

The first expression is “keep me like the pupil of your eye,” almost universally rendered, “keep me like the apple of your eye.” (The only version I know of that translates ishun literally is the NJB: “Guard me as the pupil of an eye.”).

The second expression is, “hide me in the shadow of your wings,” and, again, translations show very little variation.

But the brilliant part of Psalm 17:8 is the juxtaposition of ishun (“dark spot”) with tzel (“shadow”), a trick every translation misses.

What we would need to complement “apple of your eye” in the same way is another expression involving fruit.

Any suggestions for a good translation of Psalm 17:8?

(Extra points if you preserve the chiasmus, and triple extra points if you can figure out what bat ayin means.)

October 16, 2009 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Sometimes Bible Translation is a Piece of Cake

Can I use “Bible translation is a piece of cake” to mean that Bible translation is sweet (like cake), but only part of a larger, complete object? English speakers know that the answer is “no.”

The reason it doesn’t work is that “a piece of cake” is an idiom in English, and its meaning doesn’t come from the meaning of the words that comprise it. (For non-English speakers: the phrase means “easy.”) But what would happen if I had to translate something from a language in which “piece of cake” wasn’t an idiom, but — in the case of my translation — a metaphor? Clearly I couldn’t use “piece of cake” in my translation, because the idiomatic meaning would overpower any metaphoric meaning.

I think the same thing has happened over time with some English translations that otherwise would work. For example, “dust and ashes” (though it misses the assonance of the Hebrew) was — I believe — a nice metaphor in the English of the KJV, just as it was probably a nice metaphor in Genesis and Job. But now it’s a common expression. Does that destroy the power of the translation?

What about “daily bread,” also (I think) once a metaphor, now a widespread idiom?

Or what about “salt of the earth,” which is now an idiom that probably doesn’t mean what alas tes ges did?

I’m not sure what can be done, but it seems as though phrases in very successful Bible translations end up becoming idioms, and then because they are idioms, they are no longer successful translations.

October 14, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 1 Comment