God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Isaiah Translation Challenge: Verse 1

This is the first verse of the “Isaiah Translation Challenge.” Post your translations, questions, and thoughts as comments.

The Text

Here’s a rough literal translation of Isaiah 54:1:

Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth.//
Shout joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached.//
For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.//
— says the Lord//


Isaiah 54:1 opens with two words in stark contrast: A command to “rejoice” followed immediately by “barren woman.” Rejoicing — perhaps “shouting for joy” — represents one extreme of the emotional spectrum, while “barren woman” embodies the other. In antiquity, there was perhaps no greater sorrow than to be barren. So even though Isaiah opens with a command — “rejoice, O barren woman” — he also practically assaults the reader with a question, namely, “what reason could the most dismayed member of society have to celebrate?”

Then Isaiah drives home the point in typical poetic fashion. He adds “who has not given birth” to modify “barren woman.” Though redundant, that phrase emphasizes the barren woman’s pain. Next — again in typical biblical poetic fashion — Isaiah repeats his theme with different words: “Shout for joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached [with childbirth].”

Having twice commanded the barren, childless woman to be happy, Isaiah explains why: For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.”

Verse 1 ends by attributing the poetry to God.

The Poetry

Because Hebrew is a gendered language, Isaiah can use feminine language where in English we need the word “woman,” so Isaiah’s command “rejoice” includes the information that he is addressing a girl or a woman. Additionally, adjectives in Hebrew can refer to people (similar to the way we say “an American,” which means “an American person”). So for the English “barren woman,” Isaiah only needs one word, the feminine adjective “barren.” Isaiah is thus able to express, “rejoice, O barren woman” with only two words.

Continuing the economy of language, Isaiah omits “who” in the clause “who has not given birth,” using only the two words “not birthed.” (This is not common biblical Hebrew, but neither is it unattested.)

So the English “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth” requires but four words in Hebrew: “rejoice barren not birthed.”

Those four words are followed by five: “Shout joy and-celebrate not ached.” And here Isaiah introduces a subtle nuance. Instead of using the last two words (“not ached”) to modify the object of his imperative (as he did with “not given birth”) here those words are the object. In other words, in the first line Isaiah addresses “a barren woman who has not given birth” while here he addresses “one who has not ached.” This kind of slight deviation from the expected is part of what makes for great art.

Isaiah next takes advantage of Hebrew’s flexible word order. Instead of addressing the “children of the desolate woman” first, he says, “for more numerous are the children of the desolate woman than the children of the married woman.” And, again because of the gendered nature of Hebrew, Isaiah makes do with far fewer words: “for more-numerous children-of desolate than-children-of married.” (Complex details of Hebrew let Isaiah do away with the words “more” and “of” completely.)

Finally, as in our English, Isaiah puts “the Lord” after the verb “says,” so that God comes last in the verse.

In terms of the words, we don’t know the exact nuances of the words for “rejoice,” “celebrate,” etc. We do know that the imperative in the first line (“rejoice”) is the verbal form of the noun (“joy”) in the second. And our verb “ached” is probably more generally “was ill.”

In terms of imagery, the text starts with a specific woman and her pain in the first two phrases and then progresses to a general situation in the third, as if to say: “you, a specific unhappy person, should be happy, because people like you will be happy.”

Published Translations

The NRSV gives us, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD.”

This obviously fails in many ways. The archaic “O” is out of place. “Barren” and “bear” sound similar in a way that the Hebrew akarah (“barren”) and yalada (“bore”) do not. The English phrase has twice as many words as the Hebrew. The next line is unclear until the very last word, which tells the reader that the line is about a woman. And the line contains more than twice the number of words as the Hebrew. Additionally, “shout” doesn’t seem like a happy word. The English phrase “the children of X will be more than the children of Y” borders on the ungrammatical. “Her that is married” is hardly poetic.

The NAB is similarly problematic: “Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear, break forth in jubilant song, you who were not in labor, For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband, says the LORD.”

It takes the NAB six words to introduce the two-word contrast between “rejoice” and “barren.” The translation misses the connection between “rejoice” and “joy,” by using the unrelated “raise a glad cry” and “jubilant song.” “Were not in labor” isn’t quite the point; it’s not just that the woman wasn’t in labor but rather that she’s never been in labor. The phrase “deserted wife” has no founding in the original Hebrew, which just refers to a female who is desolate, not necessarily a wife.

The Message — a version I seldom cite here — starts off with promise, but deteriorates rapidly into vapid prose: “`Sing, barren woman, who has never had a baby. Fill the air with song, you who’ve never experienced childbirth! You’re ending up with far more children than all those childbearing woman.’ GOD says so!”

The Words

For those who want, here are the Hebrew words of the original. Translations are after the slash. Comments are in (parentheses). English words needed to make sense of the Hebrew are in [braces].

roNI/Rejoice (feminine imperative) akaRA/barren woman [who has] lo/not yaLAda/given birth

pitzCHI/Shout (feminine imperative) riNAH/joy v-tzahaLI/and-celebrate [the one who has] lo/not CHAlah/been ill.

ki/for [more] raBIM/numerous [are] b’nai/children-of shomeiMAH/desolate (feminine) mi-b’nai/than-children-of v’uLAH/married (or “espoused”)

aMAR/said (or says) adoNAI/the Lord.


1. Does the English translation need to mirror the economy of language in the Hebrew?

2. Does the English translation need to preserve the parallel endings “not given birth” in the first line and “not ached” in the second? Does it have to preserve the subtle distinction between the two, noted above?

3. Does barrenness today represent what it used to? If not, is there a better way to express Isaiah’s contrast between rejoicing and sorrow?

Your Translation

So there it is. Post questions or your translation as a comment.


February 2, 2015 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , , , | 24 Comments

The Isaiah Translation Challenge is Here

In the fall I promised an “Isaiah translation challenge” — a collective approach to understanding and translating the exquisite poetry of Isaiah 54. I’m pleased to announce that it’s here.

My next post is a detailed analysis of the text of Isaiah 54:1, written with an eye toward guiding poets and translators. I hope you’ll post your translation attempts in the comments there. (To help people focus on the original text, the comments will not appear right away.)

If you have a blog of your own, I’ll be grateful if you help spread the word so we can reach as many translators and poets as possible.

I’m looking forward to seeing the various translations!

February 2, 2015 Posted by | translation challenge | , , , , | 3 Comments

Coming Soon: The Isaiah Translation Challenge

Translators and poets, get ready!

Now that I’ve submitted my second book manuscript to St. Martin’s Press, I’m looking forward to spending more time here. As part of my return, in the next little while I’m going to announce a project to translate Isaiah 54 collectively. Some of the most moving words ever penned, in my opinion, translations unfortunately run from banal to barely intelligible.

So get ready. Take a look at the text. Start studying the words. Familiarize yourself with the imagery. And think about the best way to convey Isaiah’s message in English.

I’ll post details here soon.

October 7, 2014 Posted by | announcements, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 13 Comments

Q&A: Who is the Wonderful Counselor?

Polycarp asks on the About page how “wonderful, counselor” of Isaiah 9:5 (9:6) should be translated.

It’s a difficult question with a longer than usual answer. But here goes.

As with “Prince of Peace,” we assume that the title “wonderful, counselor” — whatever it means — describes God after whom the child in Isaiah 9 is named, not the child himself. But translating the two-word combination is tricky.


The word for “wonderful” here is the noun peleh, commonly translated “wonder” or “miracle.”

As I point out here, one way of looking at things holds that there were no miracles in the Bible, because miracles are by definition extra-scientific, and there was no science in the Bible. So many people prefer “wonder” for peleh.

A peleh is normally something that is done, as, for example, in Exodus 15:11 (“Who is like you, Adonai … doing peleh!”) or Psalm 77:15 (“You are God who does peleh.”) We also note that the word is usually singular, as though it’s a collective noun. (It usually ends up as the plural terata in the LXX, a word that encompasses not just peleh but other “signs” as well.)

When we see peleh used here as what God is — rather than what God does — the word stands out, and I think that the attempt to turn “wonder” into “wonderful” through translation is probably misguided.

If peleh is indeed a collective noun in Hebrew but not in English, the right translation may be “wonders.”

On the other hand, the whole notion of giving people names that describe the deity after whom they are named is so foreign to most English speakers that whatever we do will end up sounding a little odd, so maybe we may as well stick with “wonder” here.


The Hebrew for “counselor” is yo’eitz. The word is used frequently enough in parallel with other words and phrases that we know that a yo’eitz is wise (e.g., Isaiah 3:3), that a yo’etiz can consult to a king (e.g., 1 Kings 12:6), and that kings can have more than one (2 Chronicles 22:4).

We also see it used in parallel with such words as “prophet” (navi) in Isaiah 29:10 and “judge” (shofet) in Isaiah 1:26. Accordingly, it looks like “adviser” or “counselor” is a pretty good bet, but the emphasis of the Hebrew word seems to be on the qualities of what the person is, not what the person does.

The difference is sometimes hard to appreciate, but for an example we can compare “attorney” (what a person is) and “litigator” (what a person does), though the analogy isn’t perfect.


So what are the words doing together?

Isaiah 9 is not the only place we find what looks like a combination of peleh and yo’eitz. We see it in Isaiah 25 and Isaiah 28, too.

Isaiah 25 is a self-contained text that describes God’s victory over evil. The end of the first verse proclaims that God “does/did peleh,” adding in parallel “eitzot from afar,” (presumably “from a long time ago”) — the word eitzot is the plural noun connected with the verb yo’eitz.

It’s not clear if this passage is meant to reflect actual history or not, but either way, the combination of peleh and a word related to “counselor” is interesting and confusing at the same time. How is peleh like eitzot? Why are they in parallel? And does the odd juxtaposition of the two concepts here connect to Isaiah 9?

Isaiah 28 uses a verbal form of peleh in connection with the singular of eitzot. The verb, hiphli, is a common modal verb, sometimes representing “to do wonderfully,” and sometimes (as in Numbers 6:2) conveying a broader meaning. In Isaiah 28, it’s how God is/does eitzah, “counsel.”

And again, it’s not clear if this phrase is related to Isaiah 9.

But it does seem clear that, at least in these two passages, “counselor” isn’t quite right. Who is there for God to counsel? Rather — and this accords with what we saw before — it looks like the word focuses on not on what the counselor does (that is, counsel) but rather what the counselor is (smart? wise? something else?).

Isaiah 9

All of this brings us back to Isaiah 9, and the phrase peleh yo’eitz. Both of these words seem to describe what God is (though for peleh this is an atypical usage), but beyond that we have more questions than answers.

The biggest question is whether these are two concepts or whether — as translations commonly indicate — peleh modifies yo’eitz. And even here Hebrew grammar helps us only a little. Normally when two nouns appear side by side in Hebrew, it’s the second that modifies the first, not the other way around. So melech Shin’ar, just for instance, is a king of a place, not a kingly place. So peleh yo’etz could be a counselor-like wonder.

But some words, because of their semantics, allow both possibilities. And “wonder” is such a word. So even though the Hebrew could mean “counselor-like wonder” (if the two words were connected), it could also mean “a wonder of a counselor,” which is to say, basically, a wonderful counselor.

But because the words for “wonder” and “counselor” appear in parallel elsewhere, I think that they are meant to reinforce each other, not modify one another.

So “wonderful counselor” certainly doesn’t do the trick of conveying the Hebrew words. But neither does “wonder, counselor,” though it comes closer. I think “wonder” is okay. But the problem with “counselor” is that — at least to me — it indicates actual counseling, whereas the Hebrew yo’eitz, as we saw, reflects certain innate qualities, not actions.

Beyond this it’s hard to know what nuance to try to capture in translation. “Wonder, Genius” might be the point, or, “Wonder, Knower,” though I suspect that there’s a better pair of English words lurking somewhere.

Any ideas?

February 16, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , | 11 Comments

Children, Oxen, Asses, and Cribs

Isaiah 1:2-3 reads (NRSV):

[2] Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. [3] The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

When I read “children…cribs,” I naturally think of, well, children and cribs, that is, children and where they are kept.

But it turns out that a “crib” is also what I would call a feed trough and what the Oxford English Dictionary (unhelpfully for me) defines as a “cratch.”

Verse 3, using classic ancient parallelism to reinforce a point, sets the stage with two animals (ox and donkey) and two things upon which the animals depend (owner and, metonymically, food). Then the second half of the verse, again using classic parallelism, contrasts the animals with Israel/my people, which does not know/understand.

Verse 2 similarly employs parallelism, with hear/listen, heavens/earth and then reared/brought up.

The Message offers this for Verse 3: “The ox knows who’s boss,//the mule knows the hand that feeds him.”

At least I know what that means, and, in this case, the English matches the original. (This is unusual for The Message. The “translation” of Isaiah 1:2 reads, “Heaven and earth, you’re the jury.//Listen to God’s case.”)

The NLT paraphrases as, “Even the animals — the donkey and the ox — know their owner and appreciate his care, but not my people Israel. No matter what I do for them, they still do not understand.” That’s what the poetry means, but it’s no longer poetry.

What’s more important, retaining the technical word eivus — variously “crib” or “manger” — or conveying the point? What’s more important, the point or the poetry?

And if we want to reach the modern reader, maybe we should do away with “ox” and “donkey” (“ass” is surely wrong these days) — animals that most readers no longer own — and translate “dog” and “cat.”

What do you think?

September 20, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 7 Comments

On Translation and Explanation

In a recent discussion here, Paula asks about where the line is drawn between “translation” and what I called “explanation.” It’s a really important question.

I don’t think I have an answer in terms of definitions, but I have a few examples, starting with just English. (It’s helpful to look at English to English “translations” and related “explanations” because this takes some of the uncertainty out of the data and helps us focus on the theory.)

The English “sofa” and “couch” are so close in meaning that “sofa” seams like a reasonable “translation” for “couch.” By this I mean that if we had a word in a foreign language that meant “couch,” and we translated it into English as “sofa,” we’d be doing pretty well.

By contrast, “piece of furniture with that seats two to three people” is a fairly accurate description, or explanation, of “couch,” but it’s certainly not a translation. If we had a foreign-language word “couch,” my long phrase here doesn’t seem like it would be the right translation.

Similarly: “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree.” Certainly part of the line’s charm is the rhyme and meter. I can’t think of another way of saying that in English that demonstrates the same rhyme and iambic tetrameter, so I can’t think of an English-to-English translation.

What are we to make of the following? “In my opinion, the asthetic beauty of nature is greater than that of human artifacts, and I choose to present my opinion in rhyming iambic tetrameter.” Surely that’s not a translation, but rather an explanation.

Moving away from just English and toward real translation, we might look at a discussion here about Matthew 12:10-12. The T-NIV translates anthropos in Matthew 12:10 as “man,” but in 12:12 as “person,” because the point of 12:12 is “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” However, that seems like an explanation in part, not a translation. The original text (“how much more valuable is a man…!”) specifically refers back to the man in need of healing in Matthew 12:10. The Message goes even further away from translation toward explanation: “Surely kindness to people is as legal as kindness to animals!”

In other words, Matthew 12:10-12 uses a parable that involves a man and a sheep to demonstrate a point (ultimately about the Sabbath, not about the value of people, as it happens). I think a translation should do the same thing: make the same overall and ancillary points using the same techniques. Anything else is explanation.

As a third and final example, we might consider the lyric beauty of almost any passage in Isaiah. Let’s take Isaiah 60:1. The Hebrew starts off with two verbs, kumi, from the root for “stand,” and ori, from the root for “light.” So most English translations begin, “Arise, shine….” So far, so good. But then we have a repetition of a word from the root for “light,” namely oreich, “your light.” Here English translations, however, substitute a new word (usually, “light”) rather than repeat “shine.” So where there is a repetition in Hebrew (“stand” … “light” … “light”), we find the poetry destroyed (“arise” … “shine” … “light”) in English.

This kind of error also strikes me as “explanation” instead of “translation.”

September 14, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 12 Comments