Last week I suggested that imagery can be subjective, varying from culture to culture.
Here’s another example.
In antiquity, for a person to be “fat” was a good thing, the word essentially representing the opposite of “scrawny.”
Every day, modern America produces something like twice the calories that its population needs to thrive, so many Americans face an unprecedented struggle: they take in too many calories for their own good. In ancient Israel, however, people struggled to get enough calories, and only the fortunate succeeded.
This creates a translation dilemma, because calling someone “fat” nowadays is an insult, not a complement as it used to be.
Here are some examples of how “fat” and its how it’s handled in translation:
In Job 36:16, the table “full of fatness” (KJV, ESV, NRSV), is what the NIV calls “choice food.”
The point of Psalm 22:30 is that the healthy and the ill alike should praise God. But the KJV, “All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship…” juxtaposed with “all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him” hardly does the trick. (I assume that “they that go down to the dust” are “sick people.”) The NAB assumes that the Hebrew dishnei (“fat of”) should be yishnei (“sleepers of”), so the first part is “All who sleep in the earth…”; the NAB then adds the note, “Hebrew unclear.” I think the Hebrew is clear once we recognize that “fat” was a sign of health.
The very well known Psalm 23 uses the verbal form of “fat” (dishanta — “you fattened [my head with oil]”) for what is commonly translated “anointed.” The Hebrew thus forms a connection between “anointed” and “cup overflows” that is lacking in English.
Psalm 36:9 describes the benefits of the Temple as “fatness of your house” (KJV), but even the ESV (with the NRSV) turns this into “abundance.”
Psalm 63:6 mentions “fat and rich food” (ESV), which is better than the KJV’s “marrow and fatness.” The NIV offers, “richest of foods.” (The NAB’s poetic, “rich banquet of praise” is nice, but I don’t understand where it comes from.)
The image in Psalm 65:12 of the earth’s bounty is of paths (or perhaps carts) that “drop fatness” (KJV), or — as emended by the ESV, NIV, and NRSV — “overflow with abundance.”
Proverbs 11:25 describes a reward for people who offer (or who are) a blessing. They will be “made fat” (KJV), or “enriched” (NIV, ESV, NRSV).
Proverbs 13:4 is even clearer. While the lazy person “gets nothing,” the diligent one is “made fat” (KJV), or “richly supplied” (ESV), “amply satisfied” (NAB), “fully satisfied” (NIV) or “richly satisfied” (NRSV).
Only the KJV translates “fat” consistently, but in so doing it makes the passages all but impossible to understand. The other translations do a better job of giving the modern reader a sense of what the text meant, but at the expense of the unifying image.
In response to my recent post about idioms, and, in particular, the translation “lifted up his eyes,” Bob MacDonald suggests that “Eyes lifted up or eyes downcast are both indicative of the mood of the subject. They seem to me to be inherently material and literal in a good way.”
Whether or not that makes “lifted up his eyes” a good translation, his comment highlights another important issue for translation: Imagery is subjective.
For me, “downcast eyes” are a sign of sorrow. In parts of South America, “downcast eyes” are a sign of respect.
I’m pretty sure it would be a mistake to impose our modern cultural notions on the Bible, so we shouldn’t assume that its authors used imagery exactly the same way we do. But what is a translator to do when the most natural translation of the imagery gives the wrong impression?