Translating Hebrew nefesh

Joel Hoffman’s latest post is on translation of the Hebrew word nefesh. As usual, it’s another good post from a scholar who demonstrates that a good background in linguistics as well as the biblical languages can combine to produce better Bibles (in translation).

21 thoughts on “Translating Hebrew nefesh

  1. Bradley Weidemann says:

    Dr. Hoffman makes a good point. I especially liked his analogy to hardware and software. However, I expected him to suggest an alternative translation, and he did not. How would you translate Deuteronomy 6.5?

    The Message seems to do a good job of suggesting that wholeness: “love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!”

    Also, the Common English Bible seems to come close: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.”

  2. Joel H. says:

    Thank you, Wayne, for your kinds words.

    Bradley: I’ll suggest a translation in my next post about the topic. I didn’t want to mix up what I see as two different issues: (1) what the text means; and (2) how we can capture that meaning in English, if we even can. (In this case, I think we’re lucky that we happen to have a great translation available.)

    It seems to me that The Message (which often does a good job paraphrasing the content of the Bible) misses the mark here. I don’t see anything in that translation that reflects the combination of intangible and tangible. I think an accurate Message-like rendering would be, “Love God with everything about you that is intangible and everything about you that is tangible.”

    Regarding the CEB, I don’t think it comes close at all. “Heart” for levav is wrong, as I’ve pointed out. And being doesn’t seem to suggest flesh, blood, or breath. Rather, “being” — at least for me and people I’ve spoken to — refers to something much more ethereal and intangible than the very physical and tangible nefesh.


  3. Bradley Weidemann says:

    Dr. Hoffman, sorry to be so impatient. I see the sense in separating the issues, and I look forward to both your suggested translation and the revelation of which “great” translation you were referring to in your post.

    It seems to me that, if you love God with everything about yourself that is tangible and everything about yourself that is intangible, then you are loving God with your whole self. Described as a set, you are including N and not-N.

    So, to me, both the Message and the CEB seem to imply that 100%-ness, that everything-ness. (The Message: “all that’s in you . . . all you’ve got.” CEB: “all your being.”)

    Is there a nuance that I’m missing?

    Thanks again for an interesting post.

  4. Robert Murphy says:

    I think there is a third issue to consider: reforming English. Another example:
    We have the word ‘love’, but it is tinged with overtones from “make love” and love (remarkably similar to Koiné’s kerfuffle between ἀγαπέω and φιλέω). We still use the word ‘love’ to translate 1 Corinthians 13, but we let the Bible reshape our idea of it. The idea of ‘soul’ as found in modern, English speaking countries is entirely unbiblical, but we should use ‘soul’ for נפש/ψυχή and let the Bible fill in the definition.

    Perhaps this is too much a post-mill, triumphalistic approach to translation!

  5. Gary Simmons says:

    Robert: it’s easy for people to see that love in the Bible can mean more than just “attraction”. It’s harder for words like “soul” and “heart”, though. If you plug in the normal American uses for “love” in the Bible, you’ll eventually come across ones where it doesn’t fit, and you’ll find cognitive dissonance.

    But you can plug in our (mis)understanding for “soul” and “heart” and not realize that it often doesn’t fit. If there’s no cognitive dissonance, then you’re not gonna realize that “soul” doesn’t usually work.

    Or, maybe the reason we can get “love” more easily is just God’s grace to us that we at least get the most theologically important of the three terms right!

  6. Joel H. says:

    So, to me, both the Message and the CEB seem to imply that 100%-ness, that everything-ness. (The Message: “all that’s in you . . . all you’ve got.” CEB: “all your being.”)

    Is there a nuance that I’m missing?

    I think the nuance is that, in my opinion, a translation should do more than just imply the right message.

    In this case, the text is specific: people have two parts — roughly, the software and the hardware — and we are supposed to use both of those parts to love God.

    To continue the computer analogy, there’s a difference between saying, “the whole computer is great” and “the software is great and the hardware is great,” just like there’s a difference between a poet who says, “my eyes saw the wonder and my ears heard the beauty…” and a “translation” along the lines of “all my senses appreciated the wonder.”

  7. Bradley Weidemann says:

    Dr. Hoffman, I think that I can see what you’re getting at.

    Expanding upon your example of “my eyes saw and my ears heard” being richer than “all of my senses,” there are translations that do that. For example, the Contemporary English Version and the Good News Version take Hebrew parallelisms and conflate them into one statement. What do you think of translations that do that? Are there circumstances (or audiences) which might make that appropriate?

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Bradley asked:

    For example, the Contemporary English Version and the Good News Version take Hebrew parallelisms and conflate them into one statement. What do you think of translations that do that? Are there circumstances (or audiences) which might make that appropriate?

    I’m chime in here, also, since this is a topic I’ve studied for a long time. I hope that Joel will also address your questions, either here or on his own blog.

    To answer your question, the only circumstance I understand that calls for conflating Hebrew parallelism in English translation is when the meaning of the Hebrew parallelism does not match the meaning of an English translation that retains that parallelism. In other words, if the parallel meaning of the Hebrew is not transferred to English by retaining the parallel structure, the translation is inaccurate. And an inaccurate translation needs to be revised until it is accurate.

    Psalm 119:105 is a good example. It actually has two pairs of parallelism, literally:

    Your word is a lamp for my feet
    and a light for my path.

    This translation is actually inaccurate because English “and” (unlike Hebrew vav) cannot join synonyms or near synonyms (which is what much of Hebrew parallelism is about). The literal translation then communicates to English speakers that the lamp and the light must be two different things. In Hebrew, however, they beautifully refer to the same thing.

    Next, my feet and my path refer to the same thing (in Hebrew), both referring to where I walk. But in the English translation we don’t get that Hebrew “synonymous” meaning.

    Languages are different in their grammars. The behavior of the Hebrew conjunction vav and English conjunction and are different. These two conjunctions do not match up exactly. If we try to match them up when translating Hebrew parallelism, the result is inaccurate.

    Now, it IS possible to retain the Hebrew parallelism, without conflating, if we use English syntax which does not communicate the wrong meaning. The English appositive syntax can do that. Here is an attempt using appositive syntax to translate the Hebrew of Psalm 119:105 while allowing the Hebrew parallel meaning to be be communicated accurately in English:

    “Your word is a lamp for where my feet walk,
    a light on that path.”

    In summary, when the grammar of one language does not match the grammar of another language with regard to how parallelism is treated is the only circumstance I can think of that may require that we adjust matching parallelism exactly, if doing produces an inaccurate translation.

  9. Bob MacDonald says:

    It is delightful to see the real problems of translation being wrestled with. Re ‘being’, it means much more to me than ‘soul’ – but that’s because I include the sense and duration in it. For nephesh following several leads, I have used being, self, me, etc. (You could I guess say that my translation is soulless!)

    Soul would be a good choice except that to many people, the soul is immaterial, and the Hebrew נפשׁ is not. I have avoided the use of soul because it is misleading. The bodily life of the individual is of considerable importance. The psalms are not for the bodiless, but for the present formation of a body comprised of people who know how to exercise covenant mercy.

    Re psalm 119 – just where I was at. If we also retain some poetic awkwardness and refuse to mess with the Hebrew we get
    Nigh a lamp to my feet is your word
    and light to my pathway

    And we see that ‘your word’ is the focus of the verse. (The nigh is for the N of course, this being an acrostic). Today was the day at the Poetry of Christ for Psalm 119.

  10. J. K. Gayle says:

    I would agree that “soul” may be immaterial only to many people, but to many of us it can be also a referent inclusive of the body.

    As for the Hebrew נפשׁ, it seems that Robert Alter calls it “polyvalent.” Everett Fox, likewise, identifies multiple meanings, not all material. For example, in his note on Leviticus 17, Fox writes: “Finally, in through 15, the word nefesh occurs nine times, with the alternating meanings of ‘person’ and ‘life’ (the pattern is 1-3-1-3-1 in these meanings).” Likewise, in Alter’s footnote for his English translation of Leviticus 17:10, he explains:

    “In similar contexts elsewhere, the polyvalent Hebrew nefesh is rendered in this translation simply as ‘person,’ but here it is important to add the notion it implies of life because the use of the term puns on nefesh in the sense of ‘life’ as it appears in the next verse.”

    Alter doesn’t like the English “soul” not because this word seems mostly immaterial for most English readers and not because the Hebrew “nefesh” is indeed sometimes immaterial. Rather, he finds that the English is actually less meaningful than the multi-dimensioned Hebrew, a theological mismatch in fact. In the introduction to his English translation of the Psalms (page xxxii), Alter writes:

    The two most notable instances of resistance to inappropriately theological language in this translation are the pointed absence in it of “soul” and “salvation.” The avoidance of these terms, which many readers may automatically associate with Psalms, is not the result of contrariness on my part but reflects a commitment to philogocial fidelity and to the notions of reality manifested in the Hebrew words. Nefesh, as I observed above, has a core meaning of [immaterial] “life breath,” but the Vulgate generally rendered it as anima, and that in turn predisposed the King James translators to represent it as “soul.” It covers so many different meanings that it is impossible to translate in all contexts with the same English equivalent, something I attempt to do with all the Hebrew terms that will allow it. The possessive “my nefesh is often chiefly an intensive form of the first-person-singular pronoun and, given the lack of any analogous term in English, is usually rendered here simply as “I.” When nefesh is the object of a verb such as “to save,” the reasonable English translation is “life.” Because it is the very breath that quickens a person with life, it sometimes carries the sent of “essential being”…

    At I Samuel 18:1, Fox translates nefesh as “own self” and as “self.” In the footnote, Fox explains: “nefesh, a person’s life-essence or emotions, often translated anachronistically as “soul.”

    So, the objections to “soul” from Fox and from Alter seem to have nothing to do with immateriality since nefesh for both English translators seems to have several immaterial meanings, overlapping with the English word “soul.”

    (My own thoughts about “soul” are that it’s still in English use today, with many of the senses that nefesh had — some of which I’ve tried to show at Dr. Hoffman’s blog. He says these may be exceptional uses, which is quite possible. I’m still wondering about better matches between English and the Hebrew phrase.)

  11. Bradley Weidemann says:

    I was reading Zechariah recently, and I thought that I noticed parallels conflated quite a bit.

    For example, while the New Century Version preserves the parallel in Verse 3 nicely:

    She has piled up silver like dust
    and gold like the mud in the streets.

    A is like B/and A’ is like B’.

    The Contemporary English Version combines it into one:

    Tyre has . . .
    piled up silver and gold,
    as though they were dust or mud from the streets.

    A and A’ are like B and B’.

    The Good News does the same thing:

    Tyre has . . . piled up so much silver and gold
    that it is as common as dirt!

    A and A’ are like B.

    Also in Verse 17, the NCV says:

    The young men will grow strong on the grain
    and the young women on new wine.

    The A will consume B/and the A’ will consume B’.

    But the CEV combines it as:

    Young people will grow there like grain in a field
    or grapes in a vineyard.

    The A will B and B’.

    And the GNT:

    The young people will grow strong on its grain and wine.

    The A will B and B’.

    Or am I choosing poor examples?

  12. Joel H. says:

    To me, the question of what “soul” means in English is pretty easy to answer, at least enough to rule it out as an accurate translation here.

    When you first read “love the Lord … with all your soul” did you think of “flesh, blood, and breath” or something else? If something else, “soul” is the wrong translation. (I’ve asked a lot of people this question, and what they usually think of is something ethereal and intangible.)

  13. Mike Sangrey says:

    I’ve been of the opinion for quite a while now that nephesh and psuche should be defined something like, “the complete, fully formed, living being.”

    Lev. 7:18 then becomes something like, “Any living person who eats any of the offering will be held responsible.” Lev. 7:27 is similar: “Any living person…”

    Psalm 63:1 is then close to, “My entire being…”

    I see 1 Kings 17:21 as somewhat idiomatic. Because of that, we (English people) tend to interpret the original with much more effort, bringing our own idiom and preconceptions to the text. As I see it, it’s basically saying the abstraction called “a living being”, which distinguishes a dead boy from a living boy, came back into reality. It’s not neccesarily referring to a specific entity, something concrete, which moved from one spiritually spatial location to another. It’s more like the English ‘life’ than the Englsh ‘soul’. I think the NIV captures it quite well by translating, “…this boy’s life return to him!”

    For the Greek, it’s basically the same story. In Matthew 6:25, the NIV has, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…” ‘Life’ doesn’t quite capture what is being said here. As Joel has pointed out, the psuche is connected to food in much the same way as the body is connected to clothes. The grammar of the sentence works that way. So, as I see it, the Greek text is literally saying something like, “…do not worry about your living physicality…” (the thing you feed, so in that sense it’s almost a synonym for body here; but, it’s more than just that). ‘Living physicality”, of course, makes horrible English. But, it connects the physical part and the inmaterial part (the ‘life’) of a person in a way I think psuche does.

    To summarize where I’m coming from, I think nephesh and psuche refer to the immaterial/material composite of who we are as a living person.

    Secondly, I think the other issue with translating these words does not have so much to do with polysemy, but it has to do with the fact that nephesh and psuche colocate in Hebrew and Greek differently than any gloss does in English. So, while “living being” comes close to what the individual, original word means, when you translate that meaning into English, you either have to modify the words collocated with it, or you have to mold the word itself to its surrounding. Given the assumption of nephesh and psuche being technical terms, seeking a more idiomatic rendering becomes very difficult.

    One last thing I’ll share so some of what I said won’t be misinterpreted (well, I can be hopeful, can’t I), though, obviously, it might be disagreed with. I believe, generally speaking, the ‘spirit’ is the immaterial part, the ‘body’ is the material part. The ‘nephesh’/’psuche’ is the whole person–body and spirit.

    Thanks for the post, Joel. I know I never got back to you about ‘heart’. I just can’t do everything.

  14. Wayne Leman says:

    Bradley, your examples are appropriate. The conflation is not required, IMO. As I mentioned in my preceding comment, Hebrew parallelism can be retained in English translation with appositive syntax. English allows a comma, but not “and,” to conjoin synonyms.

  15. Wayne Leman says:

    Joel asked:

    When you first read “love the Lord … with all your soul” did you think of “flesh, blood, and breath” or something else?

    something else, absolutely. Both soul and spirit are intangible in English, except for the frozen metonymic usage of how many souls perished in some tragedy.

  16. Bradley Weidemann says:

    Mr. Leman, thanks, I thought that maybe I was on the wrong track.

    I am of two minds about the CEV and the GNT conflating the parallelism. I can understand separating form from meaning, and trying to convey the meaning as directly and simply as possible. Maybe the audience for the CEV/GNT doesn’t care about Hebrew poetry.

    Nevertheless, I felt a little let down when I saw the parallelism in the other translations that I consulted. The NCV aims at an easy reading level just as the CEV/GNT, and managed to keep the parallelism.

    Still, the GNT is one of my personal favorites, and I respect the CEV a great deal. Usually when I compare another translation to the GNT I find that no one has been able to improve upon the GNT’s way of putting things, but I suppose every translation has a clunker or two.

    Sorry about getting this discussion off the track of “soul.”

  17. bobmacdonald says:

    Kurk, thanks for drawing my attention to Alter. His statement, ‘as I observed above’ (page xxxii) I presume refers to his comment on page xxxvii where he says “nefesh means ‘life breath’ and by extension ‘life’ or ‘essential being'”.

    Whose extension?

    I don’t find the conclusion that nephesh is sometimes ‘immaterial’ believable. I don’t see an immaterial usage anywhere in the words I have read from Scripture. In fact, his objection to anima as its translation in the Vulgate seems to me to work against his argument.

  18. Axel says:

    I heard that translators of the olden times are inspired by the Holy Spirit. God remains the same God as before. So therefore, not eveyone who can translate and intellectual can actually translate the Bible unless guided by God Himself. Just a thought…

  19. Wayne Leman says:

    And, folks, let’s try to move discussion of Joel’s posts to his blog. It’s nice to have discussion here, but I think it’s the polite thing to discuss something on the blog on which it is posted. Sorry I didn’t mention that sooner. My apologies to you, Joel.

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