God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Why is Everything Vanity in Ecclesiastes?

From the About page comes this great question:

This may be more of a philosophical/historical question than a linguistic one, but how would you render the word usually given as “vanity” in Ecclesiastes?

Abstract nouns are notoriously difficult to track even within a language — “nobility” now is not what it was — but how would you render it given a all the time and ink in the world.

I was told recently that it should be given as either “wind” or “nothing,” but that was merely a rumour.

Hevel in Ecclesiastes

The Hebrew word is hevel, and it’s important for understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes, because that book begins: “Hevel of hevels, says Kohelet, hevel of hevels. Everything is hevel.”

On the reasonable assumption that the pattern “X of Xs” is meant to convey intensity, Ecclesiastes begins along the lines of “The utmost hevel, says Kohelet, the utmost hevel. Everything is hevel.”

Although this context lets us know how central the word is to the book of Ecclesiastes, it does nothing to narrow down what the word means. So we look elsewhere.

Hevel in Other Contexts

The poetic text of Deuteronomy 32:21 uses the word hevel in parallel with lo el, “non-god.” This doesn’t tell us exactly what the word means — the other words in parallel there mean roughly “jealous” (matching “non-god”) and “anger” (matching hevel), and those two are not synonymous — but the context does tell us that hevel is something negative, like non-god.
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October 28, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , | 27 Comments