Psalm 91:3 What is a fowler?

In one of my email messages to the TNIV translation team recently, I pointed out that the word “fowler” in Psalm 91:3 is probably not known to a large percentage of the TNIV target audience. For that matter, I didn’t know the meaning of “fowler” until I looked it up in a dictionary. I don’t think the original biblical texts used language that required people to consult the equivalent of a dictionary (perhaps a knowledgeable person) to understand the words used in those texts. So, for a translation to reflect the register of the language of the original, neither should English translations today require that readers consult dictionaries to understand the words in them.

The TNIV, of course, is not alone is using the word “fowler” in Ps. 91:3. So do the KJV, ASV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, REB, and NIV.

Some versions which use other terms which can be more easily understood are:

Bishops “hunter” (This version preceded the KJV.)
Geneva “hunter” (This version preceded the KJV.)
NASB “trapper”
NET “hunter”
HCSB “hunter’s net”
GW “hunter’s traps”
BBE “bird-net”

Some might insist that accuracy in translation calls for using the word “fowler” rather than the more general terms such as “trapper” or “hunter.” But we can maintain accuracy by using a term such as “bird hunter” which means the same as “fowler” but can be understood by more people. There is no translation requirement that a single word in the original text must correspond to a single word in a translation text. Many times the words of languages do not align in that way, one-to-one, but accuracy can still be obtained with short descriptive terms.

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10 thoughts on “Psalm 91:3 What is a fowler?

  1. Talmida says:

    Is accuracy really the goal of poetry?

    These were prayers set to song, to poetry — must we lose that all to the lowest common denominator of English?

    What happens to the English language if we are constantly getting rid of “hard” words? Instead of “fowler” we have “bird hunter”. Well bird hunter in my part of the world is a smelly man in a plaid shirt and a down vest with a shotgun!! Is that the image the psalmist had in mind?

    When you say that the original Biblical texts did not require people to use a dictionary, that seems to miss the point. The people who wrote the psalms wrote them as prayers, to God. They used the images from their own lives. They chose the words that illustrated those images, as any poet does.

    If WE, so many centuries later want to use their poetry — do we have the right to simply rewrite it? Surely it would be more effective to simply explain the image??

    I note that people continue to use the image of a shepherd in the 23rd Psalm, despite the fact that the majority of Bible readers have no idea of all that being a shepherd in the Middle-East implies. But because Jesus used the image of a shepherd too, people have taken the time to find out and explain in notes about the responsibilities of shepherds. So we know. And the image & language of the psalmist can be respected.

    I don’t know, Wayne, I have a great deal of respect for poets, and it must be incredibly difficult to translate poetry, but I really hate seeing all the beauty and elegance taken out of English just because people don’t want to look in a dictionary. I LIKE dictionaries. I DO know what a fowler is (and a cooper, and a fletcher, and a smith and a wright). I learned those words by reading books like the Bible and looking up the hard words!!


  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Good comments and questions from you, as always, Talmida. You asked:

    Is accuracy really the goal of poetry?

    No, poetry itself has other goals esp. one of evoking a variety of emotions within the reader. But translation of poetry needs to be as accurate to the intention of the original poet as possible.

    If WE, so many centuries later want to use their poetry — do we have the right to simply rewrite it?

    No, not at all. A translator never has the right to “rewrite” the original text. The job of a translator is to accurately convey the totality of meaning of the original text. In the case of poetry that totality would include not only accuracy about things referred to but accurate communication of emotions of the poet.

    Surely it would be more effective to simply explain the image??

    I don’t understand what you mean here. If you feel like it, please explain further.

    The word “fowler” is perfectly fine for you to have in a Bible version. My concern is for fluent English speakers who do not know words in Bible versions. They should be able to read the Bible without having to use a dictionary very often, if at all. Using a dictionary distracts us from getting the totality of meaning, including connotative and emotional, from the translated text. It interrupts the flow of our reading.

    I’m not against using dictionaries, per se. I just think that if we use words in translation which a majority of speakers of a language do not know, then we have not adequately translated. And one reason to support this is, as I stated in my post, that the hearers/readers of the original biblical texts likely did not have to consult others to learn what some words meant. The original texts were written in a way so that most fluent speakers of the biblical languages could understand them linguistically. That is, the words and syntax were already familiar to them. The Bible was not written in a special classical dialect or a sacred language.

    Some concepts in the Bible were new to people, but at least they understood the words about the concepts. They would have likely have required some help from rabbis or Bible teachers to understand difficult concepts, but they likely did not need to ask what very many of the words meant.

    Today many English versions are very different. They have a huge number of non-English linguistic constructions which make it difficult for English speakers to understand what the Bible is saying. English Bible translators have felt that it makes a Bible sound more “sacred” if they use obsolete syntax or even non-English syntax borrowed from the biblical languages. It’s a mistaken idea, but widely believed.

    God can understand and “speak” every language fluently. Why should we Bible translators make it sound like he can’t?!

  3. R. Mansfield says:

    I think “fowler” is a much smoother and precise translation (perhaps even more elegant) than “bird hunter,” especially in a verse like Prov 6:5 (where the NASB uses “fowler” instead of “trapper”). Maybe some would have to look it up, but I’ve known what “fowler” meant since I was a kid. “Bird hunter” sounds clumsy. “Trapper” and “hunter” do not really convey the meaning of yaqush.

    The Bible was written in a different time and culture, and this will always be an initial partial barrier for the reader’s understanding of certain terms and concepts. But this is why we don’t just read the Bible, we -study- the Bible.

    I never read a book without having a dictionary close by. When I first started engaging in serious Bible study as a teenager, one of the first things I did was get access to a good Bible dictionary. No translation should be so complicated that we have to run to a dictionary of some kind for every verse, but sometimes there is value in technical accuracy just as there is also value in elegant translation.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Rick, I appreciate your comments and can identify with much of what you say. Like you, I enjoy using dictionaries. I have good ones and use them when I come across words I do not know in whatever I am reading.

    But not everyone is like that. We always need to be aware of translation audience. Some people are barely literate. Others are highly educated. We never want to dumb down the Bible, but also we should never make it inaccessible to people who need to hear its message.

    The purpose of the Bible is not to teach people new words. That concept is nowhere found in the Bible itself. The purpose of the Bible is to teach us what God wants us to know and do. The original texts of the Bible were written to people who could understand what was written because they were written in the ordinary language (not slang) of the people. Our translations of the Bible should be in similar language.

    Yes, we need to study the Bible. But I don’t think the purpose of Bible study is to learn new words. Instead, the purpose is to learn how to follow God better, to have stronger faith, to learn where there is sin in our lives.

    When it comes to Bible versions, one size doesn’t fit all. My passion is especially for people who have an “ordinary” vocabulary. I don’t want to see them turned off by the Bible because they find unknown words in it or non-English syntax.

    We need to translate for particular audiences, aware of what their literary needs are. I am glad that many readers of my blog understand Bible versions which have a higher register vocabulary. But we also need should not forget those who do not have such a well developed vocabulary. It is possible to translation accurately and clearly for them, as well.

    Have a good week, Rick.

  5. Talmida says:

    Wayne, by “explain the image,” I was thinking of a note in the text defining the word.

    Perhaps something explaining what a fowler was, and why the image of being caught in a net might be important.

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    Talmida, how would you word such a note, to make it clear that the reference is to someone who hunts birds but without connotations of “a smelly man in a plaid shirt and a down vest with a shotgun”? Or, if there isn’t a note, won’t people get those same connotations from the dictionary definition. This is a serious question, for I don’t see how we can avoid this kind of inappropriate connotation with many biblical words, whether or not they are well understood. For example, “king” and “priest” give us all kinds of wrong connotations in English, but should we therefore avoid using them in Bible translations, and what should we write instead?

  7. Talmida says:

    Peter, I truly do not know.

    I get involved in the poetry of the Psalms and it bothers me to see things simplified when they were intended to be complex.

    But what if they were indeed intended to be simple? Then I guess I’m in the wrong. For all I know, the fowler WAS the equivalent of the smelly guy w/ plaid shirt, vest & shotgun.

    When I do a translation exercise, I don’t even try for a smooth English — I try to capture the meaning of the original, even if that means lots of parenthetical statements, repetitions, etc. It is the only way that I can hope to understand what was meant in the original, even though it is not anywhere near grammatical English.

    “King” is a great example — it will give you a different connotation in American English and Commonwealth English! And “priest”? Goes over well with religions that have a priesthood. Not so much with faiths that do not.

    So it’s not just which English that you choose when you translate, but which culture – geographical, secular, religious, who knows what else.

    This is all far more complex than I thought previously. Thank you for helping me to see that.

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    I’m glad I could help you, Talmida. There are certainly no easy answers. I would probably argue that it is impossible to translate such that all of the original connotations are preserved (in the case of the Bible we don’t know most of those connotations anyway) and no new ones are added. After all, even “man” now connotes for most of us someone wearing a shirt, even if it is not plaid, rather than an ancient long robe. The best we can hope to do is to translate the basic denotations, and let the connotations look after themselves. We can of course correct some major mismatches in connotations with footnotes, study notes, illustrations etc, or perhaps by some expanded readings in the text. But the only way that readers are going to get near to understanding the original connotations is by studying in some depth the culture etc of the original author and audience.

  9. Kenny says:

    I think the NKJV does the right thing by footnoting “That is, one who catches birds in a trap or snare.” The Oxford English Dictionary lists this word as “now rare,” i.e. becoming obsolete. However, English language poetry often makes use of archaisms or near-archaisms, and so this does not necessarily detract from the translation provided that the target audience understands the word. Certainly the word is the most accurate rendition, and the explanatory footnote keeps it from evoking the image of a redneck with a shotgun.

  10. uche says:

    Having read previous comments,I could argue well for both sides but don’t tink d bible was intended to be that plain. Even Jesus dint speak to d people in his time without a parable and did not undastand him till they asked further. The bible is supposed to be interpreted/understood with d help of the holy spirit and not just with our minds. So we have to search and study and meditate and ask questions so we can get the true meaning of a passage and not just the dictionary meanin of the words. Fowler is not such a hard word as the passage talks about the snare of the fowler and we know snare is a trap so its not so vague. But I also think that some translations can use a bit of smiplicity that’s where things this like this page come in,people spreading knowledge so people searching can find the answers they need. Thank you all

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