A simple idiomatic translation exercise (part 2)

Idioms are difficult to translate. In A simple idiomatic translation exercise (part 1), I raised the question of how to translate two idioms from two different languages, and I asked people to take guesses. Several people were right. The best translation is “To make a mountain out of a mole hill.”

However, that wasn’t what I was after. 🙂 “Crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery!

The exercise gives us insight into ourselves and helps us understand some things a translator (and an exegete) needs to be conscious of.

  1. With many foreign idioms, one cannot “make sense” of them. Take Énêhpoése ma’eno for example (Hi Wayne 🙂 ) What’s a turtle have to do with fog? Literally rendered in English, the foreign idiom reads, “The turtle is shrouded.” In cases such as these, the reader cannot obtain the correct meaning. The Cheyenne simply means, “It’s foggy.” And that English expression would be the right translation.

    But, I picked the foreign idioms I did because I thought you could intuit the meaning (even from two different languages!). In the examples, the meaning garnered from the literal English turned out to be semantically close to the desired accuracy. Literally rendering Sääsest elevanti tegema as “To make an elephant out of a gnat” gets the reader relatively close. If the reader recognizes that they are reading an idiomatic expression—that is, they know the above expression isn’t some kind of recipe for elephants with gnats as the main ingredient[1]—then it’s possible they can intuit the correct meaning.

    You showed me your ability to achieve accuracy since you were able to take a guess at the appropriate English idiom and get the meaning right.

  2. However, it was a guess. That means that you had to analyze the literal rendering—you couldn’t just read it. So, the comprehension of the text was a two step process for you, and not simply the normal, one step, reading effort. In this example you did this analysis quite quickly; however, it was still two steps, not one.

    What that means is the literal rendering was not natural for you. Not being natural may simply mean you need more exposure to the specific linguistic construction. It might simply mean you’re “out of the loop” as it were. It might be that the idiom, “To make an elephant out of a gnat,” is used by a majority of English speakers but not by you with your ideolect. So then, if that were the case, it would be just a matter of you learning an expression common to the larger audience to which you are a part.

    However, the expression is not natural in English. So, the vast majority of the audience would have had to analyze it, break it into smaller pieces, assess the relative merits of the different possibilities, filter out the ridiculous, and, finally, make a semantic decision. I know this is true since the comments evidenced a discussion around the meaning even though it was an idiomatic expression. If the discussion would have really got going, the comments would have overwhelmingly shown that the expression is not natural English. People would have torn it apart, wanted context (one commenter brought this out explicitly), offered alternatives, and much more I’m not thinking of. We would have heard people say, “Well, to me this means…” and offered a explanation that anyone “in the know” would have known was completely wrong.

    This is simply what happens when a reader is confronted with an unnatural expression. And it is esspecially true when a reader is reading a text they deem of very high worth–like a Bible.

    I should also point out here that an idiomatic expression triggers a single semantic concept. That is, the meaning of an idiom “snaps” into place for someone familiar with the idiom, even though the idiom uses many words. Many idioms, in fact, cannot be analyzed as a sum of parts so as to retrieve the single concept. Frequently, one can analyze the history of the idiom, or possibly intuit how someone can get from the pieces to the whole, but it’s still analysis. This is undoubtedly what many of you did to get from the foreign idiom to an accurate English one.

    The problem is, it’s this analysis into the details which leads the exegete away from the meaning of the whole.

    This kind of analysis is a natural process (and it really is a valuable one!). However, the use of it is strong evidence that the translation uses unnatural English.

So, on the one hand, you could get the accurate meaning. And, yet, on the other, it took you more effort than needed.

A frequent modus operandi for Bible translators is to go with the literal unless the literal obtains inaccurate meaning. But, the above example contradicts such a method. The best choice, in spite of the fact that accurate meaning CAN be obtained by the literal, is a non-literal translation.

The best choice is the one that obtains accurate meaning with the least processing effort.

[1] Notice the slight humor in this is a natural result of your NOT thinking of an interpretation which, nonetheless, is syntactically and grammatically possible. I’ll talk about this more in another post.

15 thoughts on “A simple idiomatic translation exercise (part 2)

  1. Brenda Boerger says:

    Hi Mike,

    I guess idioms are one of the things I love about language. But post about something else, and I could love that, as well. So glad I discovered linguistics.

    One of my first foreign languages studied was Italian and my favorite idiom is, “un altro paio di maniche,” which means “another pair of sleeves.” And it does not mean, “Give me a different shirt, mom.”

    Instead, it is best translated by the idiom: ___________________________.

    What do you think? Anyone?


  2. bobmacdonald says:

    Guessing at idioms is all we can do with the Biblical languages. We have no native speakers. Only a native speaker of both languages can translate idioms. Example – can you spot the sarcasm in Psalm 78:20?
    הֵן הִכָּה צוּר
    וַיָּזוּבוּ מַיִם
    וּנְחָלִים יִשְׁטֹפוּ
    הֲגַם לֶחֶם יוּכַל תֵּת
    אִם יָכִין שְׁאֵר לְעַמּוֹ
    What method do you use?

    Or what about the tone of Psalm 49? How does it strike you? I think we need to make it up. (!) It is not always pious, that Bible. Idiom, tone, irony, sarcasm, a joke. These are serious difficulties.

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob wrote:

    Guessing at idioms is all we can do with the Biblical languages.

    I disagree, Bob. We know the meanings of words and idioms in the biblical languages well enough not to have to guess at most idioms in the biblical texts. We don’t have to have native speakers of Biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek to know the meanings of most words, idioms, and other linguistic units in the biblical texts. We have access to a historically continuous thread of commentaries on the biblical language texts. Rabbis and other scholars have kept alive study of the original Hebrew texts. Because of their work, you are able to study the Hebrew Bible in the original language. Church fathers and others commented on the N.T. documents. And there is a continuous train of Greek dialects spoken from biblical times to today, so that we are able to study the Greek N.T. and know the meanings of its words and its idioms.

    Scholars, of course, do not know everything we would like to know about the biblical languages. But we know enough to continue to have quality courses and grammars and lexicons published on the language of the original biblical texts.

    I know that you know all of this alread, so I suspect that you are trying to make a point that I have not grasped yet from your words, which, ironically, reinforces one point that you are probably making, that it is often difficult to understand exactly what someone means by what they say (or write), even when both speak the same language.

    So, please give a few more details so that I can understand better what you meant by your first sentence. Thanks.

  4. bobmacdonald says:

    Well, perhaps I was a bit extreme. But I think we don’t have commentaries going back far enough to substitute for native speakers. I am not alone in using the word guess – several translators I have read use it. Not always with respect to idiom.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    I agree, Bob, that there is no substitute for native speakers. But we still have a wealth of material on the biblical languages. And, yes, there are uncertainties in the text, but in most of those cases, I’m guessing that they are due to textual issues, rather than questions about the meanings of words or idioms. But you are wise to raise the caution you have. And you speak from experience with the Hebrew text.

  6. bobmacdonald says:

    I have been pondering this question over the evening TV – a little tennis. I would be satisfied with one or two examples in Hebrew and Greek. I gave one in Psalm 78. I identified what I think is a sarcastic tone because the words are not exactly repeated, they are repeated with a twist. (Compare vs 20a with vs 15-16). Tone is not exactly idiom but it is similar. Any other examples from someone else?

    And what about ancient Greek idioms? I am just reading Willis Barnstone’s the Poems of Jesus Christ. My copy arrived yesterday. There must be some sleuth work here – moving back from Greek to Aramaic, but Paul and Luke ought to have idiomatic examples in Greek alone.

    Games – puns, and ‘sounds like’ are much easier. Psalm 49 like Psalm 78 – both being labeled mashal might yield examples. The opening of Psalm 73 has a tone that is leading the reader astray until verse 15 (really? a psalm that leads astray?) – How about this for verse 10 – certainly an English idiom the way I have translated it. But is it a Hebrew idiom – or have I guessed wrong?

    לָכֵן יָשׁוּב עַמּוֹ הֲלֹם
    וּמֵי מָלֵא יִמָּצוּ לָמוֹ
    “So! his people will return here
    where they can be fully milked.”

    You may note that this is a bit different from the KJV
    Therefore his people return hither and waters of a full [cup] are wrung out of them.

    There is no dictionary I know of where my guess could have been been codified. But notice the mem in each word in the second line, doesn’t it just mince itself along: u-mi ma-le yimatsu lamo. A sneer from the rich who delight in exploiting the religious.

  7. Egad says:

    > The best choice, in spite of the fact that accurate meaning CAN be obtained by the literal, is a non-literal translation.

    This, need I point out, is a problem that translators of modern languages, though they may be absolutely current and fluent in both source and target languages, have to deal with every day. It isn’t easy even then.

  8. bobmacdonald says:

    The bit from psalm 73 with its repeated mem’s sounds like the smacking of lips. And here’s another lively example: a piper’s maggot. What do you think that is if you were translating from Scottish to American?

  9. Nor says:

    The Bible isn’t just a day to day conversation. We don’t live or die by the general meaning of Scripture, but rather, what did Christ Himself say? “Man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.” Also note that Scripture differs from other literature in a special and sacred way, for it has at least two authors for every book, every chapter, every verse. Each word of Scripture was composed by a man and by “the Spirit of Christ” as 1st Peter 1:11 says.
    Perhaps this seems strange, but we know who this book testifies to, namely Jesus Christ. He who has two natures, human and divine, but is one person, Jesus, how should the book inspired by His Spirit be composed dissimilar to His own existence? For God the Spirit came upon Mary the human, and from this came Jesus. He is God and man, Deus de Deo and incarnatus est. It is a sacred mystery how this took place, but we confess it. So also is the Scripture. The Spirit came upon men and they wrote, but St. Paul and John the Blessed say often enough that they themselves have written for us to be confident that they weren’t mere robots but real authors. Yet the Spirit also authored the Scriptures. Or so the Bible claims. That means there are two authors, that is, two natures, in one book, one existence. The Scriptures exist in a Hypostatic Union. Therefore translating them is both like and unlike translating what one human says to another.
    Take the Aaronic Benediction from the end of Numbers 6 for example. Many churches still use this at the end of their liturgy. In my denomination, our hymnal has translated the last line as, “look upon you with favor,” rather than a more literal, “lift up His face over you,” or even the old standard, “lift up His countenance upon you.” “Look upon you with favor” is a good idiomatic translation, yes?
    The notion of lifting up one’s face doesn’t immediately mean the same thing for us as it seems to have for the Hebrew people. The translators of our hymnal took your advice in translating one idiom into another idiom.
    Except now our members no longer hear the parallel in the last two lines. They no longer hear “his face to you” or “countenance to you” repeated twice. Suddenly they’re hindered if they try to reflect on a Christological interpretation of the blessing. Instead of the face of God being lifted up twice, it is now once. How can they use this blessing to picture Christ first being transfigured, i.e. the face of God shining on you, for Christ is God’s face, then Christ ascending to His Father where He sits in heaven as our peace? The language of “His face” is incredibly important to this meaning!
    But if it says, “Look upon you with favor,” then it sounds more like the free gift of faith which gives us peace with God. Now that is true, but this text speaks of a different peace. Other parts of Scripture talk about faith, but this is talking about the transfigured and ascended Christ blessing and preserving His Church by the peace He made with God through His death on the Cross.
    Now if you don’t think the Old Testament could possibly be Christological, then you have other issues. But we’re talking about Christian interpretation of Christian Scripture.
    Two things I despise: artless hyper-“literalism” as translation, shameless dynamic-“paraphrase” as translation. Yes, three things I hate: adoration of the Autograph, bowing before the Translation, and denying the depth of He who speaks like many waters και εκ του στοματος αυτου ρομφια διστομος εκπορευομενη.

  10. Mike Sangrey says:


    A lot of what you say I agree with. But allow me to offer a differing point when it comes to what you say about Hebrew Parallelism.

    It seems to me your description interprets the Hebrew Parallelism as English Parallelism. English Parallelism doesn’t really exist, so we use other things we know about English to make sense of it. The end result is we glean some meaning from the form which wasn’t there in the original Hebrew. Your description of “Instead of the face of God being lifted up twice, it is now once shows this. The problem, as I see it, is that the author was using a Hebraic poetry device, each side re-enforcing the other. So, there are not two liftings, but one viewed from two perspectives in order to bring greater clarity to the meaning.

    Let me see if I can illustrate this.

    Say we have some English poetry.

    The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
    The honey’s sweet, and so are you.

    So, we notice the rhyming, and therefore interpret it as something special. We start down the pathway of connecting blue and you. Perhaps the person was sad (ie. blue) and therefore needed cheering up. Perhaps they were red-faced embarrassed and so this made them sad. Honey puts a smile on the face because it is sweet and so the recipient of the poem should also smile.

    That would be a wrong interpretation. The rhyming was chosen for other reasons.

    Obviously, Hebrew Parallelism is a poetic device based far more on semantics then the simple rhyming scheme of English. So, I agree with you to the extent that there is something semantic going on–so, my English example breaks down somewhat. But, as I see it, we don’t want to analyze the foreign mechanism according to local custom. We want the text to say using the English way of saying (the English idiom, as it were) what the original text said by way of the Hebrew way.

    Replacing the Hebrew poetic device with an English counterpart is particularly difficult. However, I’ve often thought that the reason for the difficulty has more to do with our reticence to let go of the original form. We tend to think the original form had some special meaning in and of itself as opposed to the original form being a special way of conveying the meaning. English has a special way of conveying that meaning, too. We just have to find it.

    Basically, what I’m saying is it’s very important to analyze according to the Hebrew. But, we need to translate into the English (or any one of the other 7,000 languages).

    Thank you for joining in.

  11. Andrew says:

    Here’s my favourite Hebrew idiom massacred by Greek translators either not knowing the Hebrew idiom or other instances found in the Septuagint:

    From [Rom 11:25] we see “..τὸ πλήρωμα τῶν ἐθνῶν εἰσέλθῃ” translated something like “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” [ESV].

    Yet variants of “πλήρωμα τῶν ἐθνῶν” exist in the Septuagint in places such as [Gen 17:4-5] (as πλήθους ἐθνῶν or πολλῶν ἐθνῶν) and [Gen 48:19] (as πλῆθος ἐθνῶν). The Hebrew idiom underlying the Greek in Genesis is translated something like ‘multitude of nations’ meaning when Abraham’s descendants, specifically Israel, becomes many nations rather than one (this began incidentally when the House of Israel split from the House of Judah). If this idiom under-writes the Genesis quotes, why wouldn’t the same idiom underwrite the [Rom 11:25] quote?

    In [Gen 17:4-5] the Hebrew is (Masoretic Text) “הֲמֹון גֹּויִֽם” (H1471,H1995) and “גֹּויִם נְתַתִּֽיךָ”. In [Gen 48:19] it appears as “מְלֹֽא־הַגֹּויִֽם”

    This means that המון (hamown H1995) and מלא (mĕlo’ H4393) (both from the same root הָמוֹן H1993) are translated into the Greek as πλήρωμα (G4138), πλῆθος (G4128) and πολύς (G4283) with the same same root πλήρης/πληρόω (G4134/G4137)

    Restored of it’s idiom [Rom 11:25] would read something like “For I would not, brethren, have you ignorant of this mystery, lest ye be wise in your own conceits, that a hardening in part hath befallen Israel, until the ‘multitude of nations’ has come in (or come about);”

    Given Paul’s argument in Romans 11, the idea that Israel would be blind until God has completed the Abrahamic covenant makes far more sense than the way most translations gloss over the idiom.

    It would be nice to have a translation that more perfectly captures the Hebrew idioms than is currently the case. Perhaps a translation that undoes the damage to the recorded ideas by removing the intermediary Greek filter is in order.

  12. Mike Tisdell says:


    I like your example of the difficulty of translating tone. But I also think you have exaggerated a little the difficulty of translating Hebrew idioms. In many cases we have translations in other ANE languages that give us a clue as to how an idiom is understood i.e. the LXX, Aramaic Targums, etc… and we have ancient commentaries that also give us insights.

    That isn’t to say that there are not significant ambiguities that still exist. Some difficulties arise when a word is used very infrequently and translations diverge significantly; the “glowing metal” of Ezekiel comes to mind as an example. חשמל was given a new meaning of “electricity” when they needed a new word precisely because this word was no longer used and poorly understood. When a double meaning may have been intended i.e. in Ho. 4:13 does טוֹב צִלָּהּ insinuate a “hiding place for sin?” In Ho. 5:13 is this a king named “Jereb” (Jerim LXX)who is place in history has been forgotten, or is this a grammatically unusual title for “a great king?” In Ho. 6:9 the text of the LXX appears suggests a vorlage of עולה rather than עלוה, note this is the same vocabulary used in vs. 13. Is the NIV interpretation of “lawsuits” in Ho. 10:4 valid? Is the interpretation of Idol (from Teraphim)in Ho. 3:4 valid or did the LXX translators pickup on an idiom that has been lost in antiquity? What war is being alluded to in Ho. 10:9? These examples only scratch the surface of the ambiguities that the biblical translator faces when reading the biblical text.

  13. Mike Tisdell says:

    One of my favorite Hebrew idioms (although slightly post biblical) is:

    You want me to do {what ever task is at hand] “standing on one leg?”

    “עומד על רגל אחת”

    It means that “you have given me an impossibly short time in which to complete the task.” In order to understand the idiom you need to know a little about the stories that are found in the Mishnah. In the Mishnah there are a number of stories meant to demonstrate the patience of Rabbi Hillel. One such story speaks of some men who ask him to explain the entire Torah “standing on one leg.” He begins by raising his leg and stating “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary now go and study it for your self.” The absurdity of this request has become the basis for the idiom that is used even to this day in Israel (although some today do not know where it comes from or why it means what it does).

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