God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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