Song of Solomon is replete with erotic poetry, but if you only read the translations, you’d never know it.
Phrases like “my beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts” (1:13, NRSV) and “my beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi” (1:14, NRSV) demonstrate the problem, as these translations are neither poetic nor erotic. They are barely even coherent.
I see three kinds of problems.
First, we have the fairly common Bible-translation gaffe of mimicking the original too closely.
In the two previous examples, the problem is the grammar. The construction “my beloved is to me…” (and the similar “my beloved is for me…,” from the NAB) is grammatical but awkward in English. In Hebrew, though, the same word order is fluid and poetic.
A translator can perhaps get away with turning straightforward language into a clumsy translation when it comes to prose, but certainly not with poetry. The translations end up sounding more like a parody of courtship than the real thing.
Similarly, the translations miss the poetic impact of the Hebrew grammar. This is the second problem.
Again looking at these two examples, we see that the Hebrew phrases for “bag of myrrh” and “cluster of henna blossoms” start the sentences, thereby emphasizing them in a way that the English misses.
It’s a subtle but important difference, similar to the difference in English between, “blue skies please me//dark clouds depress me” and “I like blue skies//I dislike dark clouds.” The first one (like the original Hebrew in Song of Solomon) emphasizes the poetry; the second one (like the translations) sounds mundane.
The biggest challenge comes from the imagery. That’s the third problem.
A “bag of myrrh” and a “cluster of henna blossoms” just aren’t romantic in English-speaking cultures. The NAB’s “sachet of myrrh” is only marginally better. (I’ve mentioned similar problems before, for example: “Translation Challenge: Song of Solomon.”)
The solution to the first two problems is easy in theory, if not practice: don’t mimic the grammar but instead capture the poetic impact.
The solution to the actual imagery is more difficult. In principle, the goal is to do in English what the original does in Hebrew. But what did “sack of myrrh” convey, and is there anything like it in English? I doubt it.
Between my breasts he’ll lie —
Sachet of spices,
Spray of blossoms plucked
From the oasis.
What she’s done is take the irrelevant “myrrh” and translate it as “spices,” just as “henna blossoms” becomes just “blossoms,” and “En-gedi” becomes “oasis.” (Though I’m not entirely sure what the difference is, I think En-gedi is a spring, not an oasis, but “blossoms … spring” would suggest the season, which may be why Dr. Falk chose “oasis.”)
It’s poetic, but is it a translation?
There’s room for debate. She thinks the Hebrew means “he will lie,” not “it will lie.” Fair enough. Her translation omits “my lover” (wrongly “my beloved” in the NRSV and NAB); this seems more problematic to me. She changes the word order to create what (I assume) she thinks is better poetry. For me, this is also a mistake.
So, starting with Dr. Falk’s work, I might suggest:
Sachet of spices,
my lover between my breasts.
Spray of blossoms,
my lover in the oasis vineyards.
(What do you think?)
I still wonder, though. Was there something important about “myrrh” that we’re missing? Or if not, maybe we should pick a specific spice in English. (“Sachet of cinnamon”? “Cluster of cloves”?) Is alliteration a reasonable way to make the English text poetic, even though the Hebrew text is poetic in different ways? And if we’re going down the path of alliteration, maybe we should opt for “bouquet of blossoms.” I wonder in particular about “vineyards,” which in Song of Solomon may be overtly sexual.
With all of this mind, how would you translate these two lines?
In rejecting word-for-word translations, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace explains that, “Jerome argued against this, noting that his translation of the Vulgate was not word-for-word, but sense-for-sense.” A follow-up comment suggests that Jerome implied that he translated holy scriptures “word for word.”
Here’s my question: Does it matter what Jerome did? More generally, does it matter how anyone in the ancient world approached translation? What if Paul had a clear position on the matter? Should we care what approach the Septuagint reflects?
I have often pointed out that we are better equipped now to retrieve the ancient Hebrew and Greek meanings and render them in a new language than we have been at any time since the words of Scripture were first written down.
My analogy is that we know more now about ancient Egypt than they did in the days of King James or of Jesus. Even though they were closer in time, modern science gives us tools they couldn’t even have imagined: carbon dating, for example, and satellite imaging. Similarly, we have better linguistic tools now than they had 400 or 2,000 years ago, and these tools give us better insight into the original texts.
Though I think most people agree that we’ve made huge progress in the fields of linguistics and translation, that doesn’t mean that the matter is settled. After all, “out with the old, in with the new” is hardly a phrase commonly heard resounding in seminary halls.
As it happens, the traditional Jewish answer is that the modern advances are irrelevant. What’s really important is the tradition as reflected in the Talmud, Rashi, and so forth. In one case, the Dead Sea Scrolls, combined with the LXX, provided convincing evidence that two letters are switched in the traditional first word of Deuteronomy 31:1. This is why the KJV translates that verse as, “And Moses went and spake these words…” while the NRSV and NAB agree on “When Moses finished speaking these words…” But the Jewish Publication Society translation retains the older understanding, based on the older text. It’s not that the evidence isn’t convincing. It’s irrelevant.
Another example comes from the Ten Commandments. There’s very good reason to think that the 10th commandment has to do with taking, not wanting, but not everyone agrees that we should update the translations or our understanding of the text.
All of this brings us back to the issue of historical translation approaches. Does it matter how people translated in the past? Or should we just use the best that modern science has to offer? What do you think?
The NAB’s decision to change “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14 has once again brought up the virgin birth, Mary, and the nature of prophesy, as well as the role of translation in accurately conveying the text of the Bible.
Most reports I’ve seen recently, though, confuse what are really three separate issues here.
The first issue is the text of Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew there reads: “an alma … will bear a son and call him `Emmanuel.'” It has long been known that alma does not mean “virgin.” Rather, the Hebrew word applies to any young woman. So the English translation of that line should read along the lines of “a young woman … will bear a son…” (The evidence is widely known and readily available, including in my And God Said.)
Unfortunately, the Septuagint — the highly influential ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament — got the translation wrong here, translating the Hebrew alma as the Greek parthenos, which (probably) did mean “virgin.” It was an easy mistake to make, because most young women back then were virgins, and most virgins were young women. It would be like translating “teenager” as “high-school student” in a society where most teenagers were in fact in high school.
Based on this mistranslation, though, most modern translations — going back to the KJV and including the recently published NIV — translate “a virgin … will bear a son” here. (The NIV has a footnote, “or young woman.”) The new NAB (“NABRE”) is a notable exception. That version now has, “the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” Their choice to go with “young woman” reflects the correct understanding of the original Hebrew (though I do have problems with their phrasing of the rest of the line).
The Virgin Birth
Importantly, though, Isaiah 7:14 is not the description of “the virgin birth” of Jesus. Rather, we find the virgin birth first in Matthew 1:18-25, which brings us to the second issue.
As part of the description of Jesus’ birth, the text in Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14, noting that Jesus’ birth “fulfilled” (plirow) the phrophet Isaiah’s words (a point I return to below).
Matthew 1:18-25 only uses “virgin” (parthenos) in quoting Isaiah 7:14. But Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth is nonetheless clear on the matter. The text uses the euphemisms “before [Mary and Joseph] came together [sunerchomai]” and “[Joseph] did not know [ginosko] her [Mary] until after she gave birth” to indicate that Mary was a virgin, and the text twice clarifies that the pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit” [ek pneumatos agiou].
These combine to create a clear account: Jesus was born to a virgin.
The text in Luke 1:26-38 is similar in nature. Though again “virgin” is replaced with a euphemism (“Mary asked the angel, `how [is it possible that I will conceive] since I do not know [ginosko]” any men?), the text is clear, adding for emphasis that “with God nothing is impossible.”
The actual descriptions indicate a virgin birth, regardless of what the words in Isaiah 7:14 mean.
The third issue is how to reconcile the virgin birth with Isaiah 7:14, which is cited in Matthew 1:23.
The most straightforward way is to note that even though Isaiah 7:14 refers to a “young woman,” not a “virgin,” the text doesn’t say that she wasn’t a virgin. She could have been. (By comparison, the text also doesn’t say that the woman had long hair, but she might have.) In other words, Isaiah 7:14, even with the better understanding of the original text, doesn’t contradict anything in the NT.
The more nuanced way to reconcile the two texts is to recognize what the verb in Matthew 1:22, plirow, really indicates. Though the word is commonly translated “fulfill” (as in, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [Isaiah]”), better is “match,” as I describe here (“What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?”). I won’t go through the whole explanation again, but for now I think it suffices to note that Matthew knew that the details in Isaiah 7:14 differed from those he was describing. After all, the name of the child in Isaiah 7:14 was Immanuel, not Jesus.
Either way (and even though it’s not really my place to say), I don’t see a huge theological problem here. And even if there were a problem, I would still be in favor of an accurate translation.
It seems pretty clear to me that Isaiah 7:14 mentions a pregnant woman (who, at least as far as translation can take us, may or may not have been a virgin) and that the NT refers to the virgin birth of Jesus. It seems equally clear that the lack of perfect harmony between the texts is in keeping with other kinds of prophesy in the NT.
Still, from the international stage (“traditionalists may see [the NABRE’s change from “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14] as a step away from the original meaning”) to local communities (“If the meaning of the language is changed to reflect that Mary may not have been a virgin, you’ve just denied the divinity of Christ”) the discussion seems skewed to me. It seems to start with theology, and then ask how the translations can be doctored to match that theology, while I think an accurate translation should stand on its own.
Or to put it another way, it seems to me that basing theology on a translation designed solely to support that theology is both bad translation technique and bad theology.
The Pope’s latest comments about condoms have again brought up the Ten Commandments, and, in particular, “thou shalt not kill,” which Catholics and some others number as the fifth commandment, while Jews and most Protestants call it the sixth.
Unfortunately, “kill” is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew, which does not say, “you shall not kill.”
The Hebrew verb here is ratsach, and it only refers to illegal killing.
We see this pretty clearly from Numbers 35, which deals with different kinds of killing — somewhat like modern murder vs. manslaughter laws.
For example, in Numbers 35:16, we learn that one person who kills another with an iron instrument has ratsached. Verses 17-18 expand ratsach to include killing by hitting someone with a deadly stone object or a deadly wooden object. The reasoning seems to be that iron is assumed to be a deadly weapon, while stones and wood come in both deadly and non-deadly varieties. Hitting someone with a deadly instrument is a case of ratsaching.
The point of these clauses is that there are lots of kinds of killing, and only some of them are instances of ratsaching.
Other kinds of killing — for example, killing the assailant from verses 16-18 — is not only allowed but required. That sort of required killing (capital punishment, as we call it now) is not ratsaching, and is not forbidden by the Ten Commandments.
Similarly, many other kinds of killing are not addressed in the Ten Commandments.
I go through much more evidence in Chapter 7 of And God Said, so I won’t repeat it here.
Much of this information, though, is not new.
From the About page comes a question about baptism, the essence of which is the observation that the words we now translate “baptize,” “baptism,” “[John the] Baptist,” etc. were actually ordinary words in Greek, like our “wash” in English. They were not technical religious terms like the English “baptize,” and the Greek words did not mean what the modern English “baptize” does.
So perhaps instead of “baptism” we should translate “washing.”
But it’s a little more complicated than that.
The Greek word for “baptize” is baptizo.
We know from passages like Mark 7:4 that the word can mean simply “wash”: “[The Pharisees and Jews] do not eat after returning from the marketplace unless they have washed [baptizo] … [Other traditions include] the washing [baptismos] of [various eating vessels].”
We see similar evidence in Luke 11:38: “The Pharisee was amazed to see that [Jesus] didn’t wash [baptizo] before the meal.”
We also see the verb in the OT, once in II Kings 5:14, where it’s the Greek translation of the Hebrew taval (“dip” or “immerse”), and once in Isaiah 21:4, where the word seems out of context.
Equally, we find the verb baptizo in non-Biblical Greek texts — more on this below. In those contexts, too, the verb seems to be a general one.
From all of these sources, it’s clear that baptizo is a common verb, and the specialized “baptize” in English misrepresents the original Greek.
James 2:23-24 uses the same root twice to highlight the point that Faith requires Works. But that important rhetorical device — duplication of the root — is lost in most translations. For example (NRSV):
(23) …”Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Genesis 15:6] … (24) You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
That translation, like most others, is ambiguous regarding the exact connection between Abraham’s belief (in James 2:23, which quotes Genesis 15:6) and faith (in James 2:24).
But in Greek, “believed” is pisteuo and “faith” is pistis. The text connects Abraham’s pistis with the general nature of pistis. It’s essentially a grammatical accident that we see a verb in Genesis 15:6 — so also in James 2:23 — and a noun in James 2:24.
Why do translations have such a hard time capturing this basic effect? The KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV all have “Abraham believed” here, instead of the obvious other choice: “Abraham had faith.”
(The NAB’s lapse is particularly surprising. In Genesis itself that translation reads, “put his faith.” The CEV opts for “had faith” in James 2:23, but then goes with “what we believe” in verse 24.)
I also think it’s no small matter that the same root appears twice, a topic I’ll turn to soon.
The Ten Commandments — listed in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5 — aren’t called commandments in the original Hebrew or in the Greek LXX.
In Hebrew, they are d’varim in Exodus 20, either “things” or “words.” (This dual use of d’varim is a bit like “things” in English — I can own ten things or tell you ten things.)
To the best of my knowledge, of the major translations only the NAB renders the Hebrew as “commandments” in Exodus 20.
For that matter, the number “10” doesn’t come from Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, but rather from Exodus 34:28 and two other places in Deuteronomy. There, the KJV and other translations (NIV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, and others) translate “ten d’varim” as “ten commandments,” sometimes capitalizing the phrase and sometimes with a note that the Hebrew doesn’t say “commandments.”
(Later Jewish tradition would replace d’varim with dibrot, which also doesn’t mean “commandments.”)
Two questions come to mind: Should we keep calling these the “ten commandments” even though that doesn’t seem to be what they are in the Bible? And is the NAB justified in its translation decision?
We see them both in Matthew 9:17 (as well as Mark 2:22 and Luke 5:37), where Jesus relates that people “pour new wine into new wineskins” (NIV). The problem is that this translation (along with the NLT, CEV, and others) wrongly makes it sound as if it is the newsness of the skins that makes them suitable for the new wine. That is, the translation seems to suggest that the wine and the skin should match.
But the Greek uses neos for the wine and kainos for the skins. So in Greek, the wine doesn’t match the skin. Rather, there are two kinds of skins (palaios and kainos) and the question is which is better for wine that is neos.
In other words, the original question is “should neos wine go in to kainos or palaios skins?” Some translations prejudice the issue by asking instead, “should new wine go in to new or old skins.”
Simply as a description of the skin, I’m not sure that “fresh wineskin” — the other common option, from the KJV, NAB, NRSV, etc. — is better than “new.” (This might because I get my wine from bottles, so in truth I’m not really sure what this wineskin [askos] is, and what a fresh one looks like.) But in the context of Matthew 9:17, I think it’s more important to convey the point of the lesson than to describe the exact quality of the skin.
I also think that this is a perfect demonstration of why translating each word is not enough to create a good translation.