Should translations run with puns?

Over at He is sufficient, ElShaddai observed the pun between cunning and naked in Genesis 3.

He wrote (Cunning punning in Genesis 3):

With this in mind, we might think about how a “Literary Equivalent” English translation might convey a sense of this linguistic relationship in the original Hebrew:

The serpent was the smoothest operator of all the creatures the Lord God had made. He asked the woman, ‘Is it true that God has forbidden you to eat from any tree in the garden?’ (3:1)

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that their naked skin was smooth; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (3:7)

I commented, however, his observation made me wonder whether paying better attention to puns would improve translations. Here’s what I said in the comment; but, first my question is:

To what extent should the observance of puns influence translation?


Your mentioning the pun made me think of an exegesis of this text I’d never considered before. Though the exegesis doesn’t change the main point, it arrives at it in a different way.

My thought stems from the fact that puns usually have an underlying semantic tie. That’s the beauty of the pun in that you can say something that really isn’t in the words of the text, and yet it makes the meaning of the text more precise. With many puns it’s this non-textual tie–determined and caused by the pun–that bursts into the mind and brings about laughter [though the pun here in Gen. 3 is far from funny].

I often wondered what the issue was with naked (not that I walk around the house nude or anything like that). However, if the core, but explicit, concept is smoothness, then that brings another thought to mind.

Let me take Gen 3:7, paraphrase it and elucidate it through expansion so as to quickly get to my point.
“Then they suddenly became aware of something they hadn’t seen before: the smoothness of their bodies showed they were exposed and unprotected.”

The point wasn’t the nakedness. The point was their exposure evidenced by the smoothness. So, to remedy the problem, they put on some kind of protection against the elements.

Now, does that help explain 3:10? Here, too, I’ve often wondered what the big deal of nakedness was. In fact, they had already covered themselves so they weren’t technically naked. I can come up with explanations; however, all of them feel like I’m reaching outside the text in order to explain the text. I’m uncomfortable with doing that. However, if I consider that Adam and Eve had now experienced sin and their whole being was changed (metaphorically and spiritually, they had died), then being exposed to a Holy God walking through the Paradise would have been a very fearful event. They would have felt totally unprotected. That’s not injecting anything into the text.

God then works to get to the bottom of this issue. That is, “Who on earth put my two wonderful creatures, the height of my creation, into a place where they are fearful of me and think that I would not protect them.” The immediately questions from Him were, “Whose responsible?” and “Have you sinned?”

The pun between 3:1 and 3:7 sets the mind into the right frame to be able to more easily grasp this flow of thought. And, more importantly, the danger of being a sinner in the presence of God. That’s excellent and very basic theology, IMO. Ideal for this location of the development of the text.


9 thoughts on “Should translations run with puns?

  1. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    Thanks for the link, Mike. I like where you’re going with this, exploring the angle of exposure and protection. I might edit my suggested wording of 3:7 to be something more along the lines of:

    Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that their smooth skin was exposed and unprotected; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

    It’s possible too that opening up the linguistic range of options in that verse could identify some other English wordplay options for v3:1. I’ll have to think about that.

  2. Charles Dog says:

    Does the pun add anything to the understanding of these verses?

    Is it a real stretch to get this pun to work for the sake of making a pun that isn’t all that good?

    Smooth skin is smooth skin, naked or not.

    There is also the tendency to contrast smooth skin as opposed to what? rough skin?

    I guess the bottom (ha) line (ha) for me is that this just doesn’t make a “Better Bible”

  3. Mike Sangrey says:

    Charles Dog asked:
    Does the pun add anything to the understanding of these verses?

    Perhaps it wasn’t the pun that helped me understand. Perhaps it was my new understanding that ‘smoothness’ was at the root of the word. I had always assumed that nudity was at the root. And nudity is not the point.

    In any case, the fact of a pun in the original doesn’t mean we have to come up with a pun in English. The goal is to bring over the meaning from the original and into the English.

    However, it is best if–at the same time–we can present the meaning in an enjoyable fashion. That’s probably part of the reason the pun is there in the original. It also aids in memory.

    Perhaps another way of coming at it is to translate 3:1 with the idea that “the serpent could worm his way past protective defenses better than any other creature in the Garden.” And then, in verses 7 and 11, refer to how Adam and Eve understood they were unprotected.

  4. Mike Sangrey says:

    Thinking about this a bit more…

    The pun sets a strong textual link between the fact that the serpent was cunning and the result that Adam and Eve experienced. This connection suggests that woven into the text is the meaning of the cunning of the serpent resulted in the understanding by nakedness of Adam and Eve.

    I think it’s somewhat easy to develop that out of the text. However, with the pun, it’s obvious that the original author intended the connection. In other words, I’m more comfortable believing the more finely tuned exegesis.

    So, IMO, it is better to understand the meaning of the text to be: the serpent, by maneuvering past protective defenses, caused Adam and Eve to be and to see they were unprotected.

    That ends up being a rather substantive point within the text. And that point is conveyed by the pun. So, yes, the original pun adds significantly to the understanding of the text.

  5. Charles Dog says:

    Precisely the problem with attempting a pun. The snake is crafty, or even “moving past protective defenses”, the post deals with smooth skin and the making of loin cloths (why would they make loin cloths if the snake could move past these defenses? They did it because for whatever reason they wanted their sexual organs covered. They were still unprotected but no longer naked in the sense commonly assumed here. I believe the snake was crafty, i.e., not going to bite their privates, but was tricky. They were naked and covered themselves. I can’t imagine that fig leaves on their loins was viewed as some form of primitive armor.

  6. Bob MacDonald says:

    It’s closer to alliteration than punning. And it is clever to try and imitate but usually impossible.

  7. Kenny says:

    One instance of wordplay that I think is really important in the NT is John 15:2-3. In English, v. 3 comes off as a non sequitur – ‘clean’ just comes out of nowhere. But in Greek, we have switched from an agricultural meaning of the word for ‘clean’ (namely, to ‘clean’ off unnecessary branches – i.e. to prune) to a ritual meaning of ‘clean’ which is not only not a non sequitur, but provides us with additional information about the meaning of the vine metaphor. I have no idea how, in English, to make both verses make sense at once while showing the connection between them. All I can think to do is to footnote. (The NASB, at least, does this, but their footnote says ‘Lit. cleanses’ and I’m not sure that’s quite right, since ‘prunes’ is one of the literal meanings in Greek.)

  8. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    I’ve posted more thoughts on this back on my blog, but I will note the REB, which translates the John 15 verses as follows:

    Any branch of mine that is barren he cuts away; and any fruiting branch he prunes clean, to make it more fruitful still. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.

    By using “prunes clean”, the REB retains at least the semantic relationships between the Greek airō, kathairō and katharos in modern English.

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