Hearts and minds

Mark 6:45-52 is the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water, which comes right after the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The narrator in v. 52 concludes that the disciples might have understood how Jesus could walk on the water if they had been able to really understand that he was able to feed the five thousand. In the Authorized Version, verse 52 reads, “For they considered not [the miracle] of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.” Is that a good translation? Well, we all know the language of the KJV is archaic, so let’s look at the RSV: “For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Okay, we know that the RSV is a faithfully literal translation, so we can be assured that the original really does say here something about hearts and about hardness. (A look at the wording of the Greek original confirms that fact.) That must be a good translation, right? Because it reflects what the original says. The NIV (both the 1984  and 2011 versions) says, “For they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” Looking also at the New Living Translation, we see “For they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.”

So, what does that mean? My understanding of the expression “hard-hearted” is that it means that someone is callous toward other people’s feelings. Huh? Is this saying that the disciples were insensitive to Jesus’ feelings? Or was it someone else, to whom their insensitivity was directed? To confirm my understanding of the expression, I looked it up, and according to the Random House Dictionary, hard-hearted means unfeeling, unmerciful, pitiless, heartless, merciless, mean, unforgiving, from Middle English hard herted. This means that the disciples couldn’t accept what was going on because they were pitiless, mean, and insensitive. Right?

Compare this with a set of other English Bible translations that do not use the word “heart” in Mark 6:52. Is it possible that these could be correct, accurate, even if they are missing a word that is in the original?

TEV: “because they had not understood the real meaning of the feeding of the five thousand; their minds could not grasp it.”

CEV: “Their minds were closed, and they could not understand the true meaning of the loaves of bread.”

GW: “They didn’t understand what had happened with the loaves of bread. Instead, their minds were closed.”

JB: “because they had not seen what the miracle of the loaves meant; their minds were closed.”

Here is what one commentary says about this expression: “This hardness of heart is something quite different from our use of the same words, denoting blunted feelings and moral sensiblities. The Biblical καρδία denotes the general inner man, and here especially the mind, which is represented as so calloused as to be incapable of receiving mental impressions.” If this commenary is right, and I believe it is, based on my own studies, then it is possible that a translation that translates καρδία into English as “mind(s)” is more accurate than a translation of “heart(s)” in this context. Or maybe an analogous idiom like “thick-headed” would be appropriate. Along those lines, we translated this verse into Saint Lucian French Creole (1999) as “paski yo p’òkò té konpwann miwak-la Jézi té fè èk sé pen-an. Tèt yo té wèd toujou.” (I’ll leave it to you to figure out that one.)

The problem, of course, is that in different cultures, different qualities are attributed to different body parts. That’s a simple way of putting it. The translation problem is cultural and linguistic. In this case, it might not be so bad if the resulting translation resulted in no meaning, such that the reader/listener might realize that a proper understanding is lacking and go looking for it. But what is worse here is that a literal translation involving “hardness of heart” would prompt a wrong interpretation without the reader/listener being aware of it. This may be debatable, but I believe that a translation cannot be accurate if does not prompt, or at least allow, a proper interpretation in the mind/heart of the reader.

Now let me back up and qualify that a little. There are different kinds of translations. There are what I consider normal, good translations, suitable for lectionary or devotional purposes or personal reading, and then there are special purpose translations, such as quite literal ones. A literal translation has a purpose of giving a word-for-word rendering, and if this results in an incomplete or inaccurate understanding, that is not their problem. The RSV falls into this category, and I appreciate the RSV a great deal. It is very dependable for certain purposes. I use it for study purposes, to get at the forms of the underlying original texts. But it is a special purpose kind of translation that I would use for study but not for general use. So I am not criticizing the RSV, considering its special purpose, and when it first came out, it was one of the few Bibles available that did not use the archaic language of the King James. What I am saying is that a normal translation is not so tied to the words of the original that it does not take responsibility for accuracy of understanding on the part of the reader, and that accuracy in a translation is tied to an accurate understanding on the part of the reader/hearer. Of course, no translation is perfect.

Layers of language and translation

Linguistics is a great thing to study! Anyone who has done a bit of formal study of linguistics will know that it has many sub-fields such as phonology, syntax, morphology, semantics and pragmatics. In this post we’re going to dig down through the layers and see how focusing on each layer results in significantly different translations. For this we’re going to use the following verse as an example:

Matthew 26:33: ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν αὐτῷ· εἰ πάντες σκανδαλισθήσονται ἐν σοί, ἐγὼ οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι.
NLT: Peter declared, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.”

Each layer is a little further from the source, a little more abstract and a little (or a lot) harder to study. But I hope you’ll see that the deeper you go the more potential there is for exciting and powerful translations!

Phonology is the study of sound in language. There is of course no translation which attempts to fully convey the phonology of its source – such a translation would really be a transliteration instead! Most translations do however transliterate occasionally. Although names, both of people and places, frequently are given a meaning in in the Bible, they are usually transliterated or transferred into the target language. For example Πέτρος /petros/ becomes Peter in most Bibles.

Many translations however also transliterate other words. These transliterated words have become English religious jargon, but in many cases they were regular words in the Hebrew or Greek. Words like apostle, baptise, messiah and sabbath are all basically transliterations. While it might be easiest to stick with tradition and use these words, it is worthwhile considering if they can be translated, and what effect that would have on the translation as a whole.

Morphosyntax, or morphology and syntax, is the study of structure in language, of words and sentences respectively. Translations that focus on morphosyntax will try to mimic the structure of the source text as much as is possible. Our example has two verbs in the main clause, ἀποκριθεὶς and ἀποκριθεὶς, and the strictest mimicking translations will actually include both, such as the NKJV: “Peter answered and said to Him…” Most translations recognise that this phrase is a common idiom and instead just use a single verb in English: for example the ESV has “Peter answered him…”

A better example is found in the next phrase, for which the ESV has “Though they all fall away because of you…” Some verbs must always have a preposition, as David Ker recently discussed. These are sometimes given the technical name of bipartite verbs, i.e. two-part verbs. The phrase looked over has a unique meaning which look by itself does not have – essentially it is a distinct verb. I suspect that σκανδαλισθήσονται ἐν is similar. Translations which are attempting to mimic the source’s morphosyntax will translate this phrase with a verb and a preposition, as the ESV did, with “fall away / because”. Okay, that’s really a three part verb! Other translations however might treat the Greek verb as a unit, and replace it with whatever conveys the meaning of the whole unit best. That may also be a multi-part verb, or it might be a single word. This is what the NLT does, which translates it as desert.

A morphosyntax-mimicking translation might be written by using the same types of clauses and phrases as the source, representing them as is natural for the target language. The most extreme mimicking translations however also attempt to mimic the source’s word order of regardless of whether that is the target language’s normal way of representing those structures. To me this seems especially ironic considering that both Hebrew and Greek have a significantly free word order, and so any significant word orders will be for reasons other than syntax!

Semantics is the study of meaning! To some extent I covered this in the previous section, as most translations which don’t focus on conveying morphosyntax instead focus on conveying semantics. So semantic translations are free to pick whichever words and sentences they need to most closely translate the meaning of the source, regardless of whether the structures are similar or not.

Each of these layers we’ve been digging through is more abstract, and so translations that focus on lower layers are harder to produce. Sometimes there is significant ambiguity, or even if the source is understood clearly, the target language’s culture may think about some issues in a very different way. One further example from our verse is the noun πάντες, which has the basic meaning of all. There are though a great many ways in which it has been translated, some of which are all, all men, or everyone. A semantics-sensitive translation will ask what was implied in the source language, and what will be inferred from the translation, and if they do not match up the translation will need to be edited further.

Pragmatics is the study of language in context. This is necessarily more abstract than the other layers we’ve covered as we have a far from complete knowledge of the context in which the Bible was written. As the focus of pragmatics is context, a big part of it is studying language as whole texts or conversations, rather than as individual sentences or words. Mike looked at some interesting contextual issues in Matthew recently.

One thing that comes under pragmatics is the intent of a text’s author. Everything ever said or written has been said or written with some purpose. Parts of the Bible have been written to encourage and to rebuke, to excite the readers and to express deep grief. I suspect that The Message as a translation aims to convey these author intentions as its highest priority, even if that means that the individual semantics of a sentence must be changed. Sometimes I think it does this very effectively, but at others times I think the intentions it conveys have been too strongly tainted by speculation. While The Message is an interesting experiment and other translation teams would be wise to study it, I personally don’t think that intentions should be ranked over semantics for most general purpose translations. These translations will remain a niche item.

Another aspect of pragmatics is to do with information. The study of information structure looks at how language is used to mediate between the different collections of knowledge we all have. One significant concept is that of focus, which is used to bring to the forefront something which the speaker thinks their listeners do not know. In Biblical Greek pronouns, like ἐγὼ “I”, are frequently optional, and using them adds emphasis. Both οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι and ἐγὼ οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι have the semantic meaning of “I will never desert you,” however the second has a pragmatic focus on the “I”. A translation could even consider printing I in italics in this verse. I’ve only found one translation which seems to convey this emphasis, the ISV: “Even if everyone else turns against you, I certainly won’t!”

Other layers
There are many other layers to language which are rarely considered to much depth for Bible translations. Some of these are the genre of texts, the register of texts (is it high brow or low brow?), the differences between individual authors etc. The list just keeps on going! I believe that the majority of current Bible translations focus on either morphosyntax or semantics. Clearly there is still much room for improvement!

It is easier for a hippopotamus to…

I recently returned from Africa, where I was working with a translation of the Gospel of Luke into a language that has had no previous Bible translation and a culture that has had very little contact with Christianity. I was not responsible for producing the translation into this language, but I was responsible for evaluating the translation. This was a very isolated language group, geographically and culturally. But the people were not what I would consider primitive. They are sophisticated in their own way. The traditional language and culture provided some key language for the translation that I would not have expected, including words for “altar,” “priest,” “miracle,” “holy,” “spirit,” “disciple,” “righteous,” “grace,” “savior,” and even “synagogue” (literally, their word for a meeting house).

As to be expected, there were some translation challenges when it came to certain terms for flora and fauna and geography. Though there are sheep and cows, this group has no donkeys or camels, and no words for them. It is possible to say “east” (the side where the sun rises) and “west” (the side where the sun sets), but no simple way to say “north” or “south.” Some concepts in the Bibe have to be translated as a phrase, such as “people mouth of God” for “prophets” and “woman death of man” for “widow.” (I believe these phrases come off sounding better in this language than they do in English.) It is just a fact of translation that you cannot always expect to have a matching target language word for every source language word, but that doesn’t render translation impossible.

I was fascinated to find out that in this language group, people ride cows. And their translation of Jesus riding into Jerusalem had him riding in on a cow. Interesting! Unfortunately, this was not historically accurate. I would only resort to borrowing a word if there is no other good option, because if you are borrowing words, you aren’t translating. However, in this case, we borrowed a word for “donkey” to say what Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The story of the Good Samaritan still has the Samaritan putting the injured man on a cow to take him somewhere where he can be fixed up. Some English translations like the NIV, CEV and NLT have “donkey” there, but the Greek has a more generic word.

This brings us to the verse in Luke that reads, in this language, “It is more easy for a hippo to pass in the hole of a needle than a rich person to accept that God can be king over him.” This is the English backtranslation of Luke 18:25. Interesting! Is this legitimate, or, for the sake of accuracy, do you have to insist that a word for “camel” be borrowed into the language to translate this verse? I have a hard time saying that the translation is not accurate and legitimate. I kind of like it, really. Now, obviously, if you were looking for a match for the Greek word κάμηλος, this target language word backtranslated as “hippo” wouldn’t seem to be a good match. But if you widen your perspective a bit, and don’t just look at words but rather at meanings in context, then in this particular context, a target language word for “hippo” is arguably a good translation of Greek κάμηλος.

In Bible translation, as in any kind of translation, there are norms that govern acceptable behavior. The norms don’t answer the question of what is and is not legitimate translation, which is very elusive to try to answer, but rather what is and is not considered acceptable in a community of practice. Granted, there are different subgroups, and not all Bible translators adhere to the same set of norms. But one norm in Bible translation that is widely–though not necessarily universally–accepted is that it is possible to take a little more liberty in translating an idiom, metaphor, proverb or parable, because the meaning of those language units is more than just the sum of the parts. I would argue that, for a language group that knows about hippos but not about camels, and based on testing with representatives of the target audience, it might be more accurately meaningful to translate Luke 18:25 using a target language word that corresponds to our English “hippo” than to try to find some way to use a word that corresponds to our English word “camel” that is not naturally a part of that language.

Burning Coals redux

Wow, way back in 2006, Suzanne looked at this verse. She wisely writes:

It has been my feeling for a long time that we should not worry about understanding the more difficult parts of the Bible until after we have obeyed the parts that are crystal clear. Since I have personally not yet accomplished this, I have never been in a position to say, “Lord, I will follow your word when I can understand it”, but rather, “Help me to follow that which I understand.” Coals of Fire

I found out on Saturday that  I was the preacher on Sunday so I chose this passage, especially verse 21. But I did linger on the burning coals business. It’s an enigma. Suzanne linked to a wonderful collection of interpretations of this verse. I’ve heard most of them and none has convinced me. The leadership of the Bible college meets on Sunday nights to pray and discuss the sermon of the morning. Apparently some of them had been debating my sermon during the day.

In Afrikaans there is a marked difference between the 1953 and 1983 versions:

1953: As jou vyand dan honger het, gee hom iets om te eet; as hy dors het, gee hom iets om te drink, want sodoende sal jy op sy hoof vurige kole ophoop.

1983: As jou vyand honger is, gee hom iets om te eet; as hy dors is, gee hom iets om te drink; want deur dit te doen, maak jy hom vuurrooi van skaamte.

In 1983, the burning coals turned into “red with shame.” (Source)

In cases where the interpretation is ambiguous it’s best in my opinion for translators to choose the option they think is best and then footnote alternate readings. I’m not sure if the 1983 has a footnote.

In Chichewa, the traditional version has been heaping burning coals. I mentioned the Nyungwe word for neighbor, nyakupala moto literally “the one who scrapes some fire” i.e. from your fire to make their own. And Pastor Manasse mentioned that there is an old tradition of carrying coals in a clay pot on your head when you go out to work in the fields.

Origen said only God knows who wrote Hebrews. And possibly God only knows what this verse means.

My question is, “Can you take the phrase out without changing the meaning of the passage?” What I mean is, If as I understand it the passage can mean any of three contradictory things how crucial is the phrase to interpretation of the passage as a whole?

  1. Your enemy will be punished.
  2. Your enemy will be blessed.
  3. Your enemy will be ashamed.

It seems that most modern translations choose option three.

What do you think?

There’s a fine comment section on Suzanne’s post that you might want to browse before commenting here: Coals of Fire

In which is all in all

I almost made a pretty big mistake the other day, because of a poor translation choice. Imagine you read the following somewhere, perhaps on a billboard, or a coffee mug:

Brahman is all in all

What would you think? Would there be much question as to what it meant?

The problem I faced was that I read in the Bible that God is all in all. I almost made the mistake of thinking the Bible taught pantheism. But no, I knew that could not be the case, and this phrase must have been used to mean something else.

This phrase occurs a couple of times in the NT. I read it in 1 Corinthians 15:28 in the ESV, though most English translations use the phrase. It’s pretty clear why they do, for it’s a simple literal translation of the Greek (παντα εν πασιν).

Is this good enough? I don’t think so. When a Bible translation like this could be mistaken for teaching pantheism it is a poor translation. It seems especially poor considering the context, where everything is put in subjection to God.

I’m not sure what the best translation would be. I’m not sure if this was a Greek idiom, or just a phrase Paul made up. But there are people who do know those things, and they have probably been involved in the creation of these translations. Lets just hope any future translations will find these flaws before they are published.

Here’s the NLT:

[God] will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere.

Now that is a much better translation. It doesn’t suggest heresy and it actually fits with the preceeding verses. I won’t say the NLT is necessarily correct, but at least they tried. The NCV isn’t too bad either.

For those interested in meaningless stats, Jesus does beat Brahman in the battle of Google search results, but not by much. Surprisingly Allah smashes them both, but I think that means something different again.

Have you ever cut a covenant?

I’m checking a translation of Genesis these days. I came across a passage where the translation spoke of God “cutting” a covenant. I had never heard anyone refer to cutting a covenant before, so I had to check to see if the word “cut” was a typo or accurately reflected something in the Hebrew original.

The translation in question is based on the Hebrew words karath b’rith which literally refer to cutting a covenant. The Hebrew words form an idiom whose meaning we normally express in English with wordings such as “make a covenant” or “establish a covenant”. The Hebrew idiom is, as so often, descriptive and powerful, for Hebrew speakers, at least.

In the Bible translation process we are interested in what speakers of the biblical languages understood their idioms to refer to, and we use that information to help us sort through the options for translating the meaning of those idioms to other languages.

If you came across the wording “cut a covenant” in an English Bible, would you have known what those words referred to? If so, how did you learn what those words refer to?

Matthew 4:17, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

I'd better check the time.

This semester I’m teaching an entire course on this phrase. And essentially I’m teaching the class on one verb in this one verse. The question is how to translate ἤγγικεν.

Mat 4:17 τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς κηρύσσειν καὶ λέγειν, Μετανοεῖτε· ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

KJV From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

NIV From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

I have my opinions about how this verb should be translated. It needs to take into account Matthew 3:2 and 10:7. You need to look at the 14 occurrences of the verb in this tense and the 42 total occurrences of this verb in the New Testament.

You need to look at how people use English today. I was rather doubtful of the contemporary use of “is at hand” but this video convinced me that it is still very much recognizable English:

So I guess I’ll ask you for help. What did Jesus say? And what did Jesus mean? And how can we best translate this verb to communicate ancient meaning to modern readers?

Date and time

In a post reacting to Wayne’s Eye Opening post, Wezlo comments:

It caught my interest because I mentioned the phrase, “No one knows the day or the hour”  of the Son of Man’s return in my sermon yesterday, and how people mistakenly believe that this means the year is still open for us to figure out (oh the headaches).

In my darker moments I think all literalism in the evangelical world could be eliminated simply by getting rid of Biblish. (But that would be a mistake of the kind Orwell made in his essay, Politics and the English Language, which I pointed out in a post last year.)

Still, dealing up front with Biblish is a worthy undertaking.

In some places even DE translations succumb to the inclusion of Biblish. In this post I’ll pick on the Holman Christian Standard Bible. That’s not because I think it’s bad. In fact, I think it gets a lot spang on referentially. But no one gets this baby right. I could just as well go after the TNIV, CEV, or NLT.

The phrase at issue is the juxtapostion of ἡμέρα and ὥρα. The key passages are:

περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι τῶν οὐρανῶν οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός εἰ μὴ ὁ πατὴρ μόνος
Now concerning that day and hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father only. (Mat. 24:36)

… ἥξει ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ᾗ οὐ προσδοκᾷ καὶ ἐν ὥρᾳ ᾗ οὐ γινώσκει
… that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. (Mat. 24:50)

γρηγορεῖτε οὖν ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν ἡμέραν οὐδὲ τὴν ὥραν
Therefore be alert, because you don’t know either the day or the hour. (Mat. 25:13)

περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης ἢ τῆς ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι ἐν οὐρανῷ οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός εἰ μὴ ὁ πατήρ
Now concerning that day or hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven nor the Son — except the Father. (Mk. 13:32)

… ἥξει ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ᾗ οὐ προσδοκᾷ καὶ ἐν ὥρᾳ ᾗ οὐ γινώσκει
… that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know. (Lk. 12:46a)

and possibly also:

καὶ ἐλύθησαν οἱ τέσσαρες ἄγγελοι οἱ ἡτοιμασμένοι εἰς τὴν ὥραν καὶ ἡμέραν καὶ μῆνα καὶ ἐνιαυτόν ἵνα ἀποκτείνωσιν τὸ τρίτον τῶν ἀνθρώπων
So the four angels who were prepared for the hour, day, month, and year were released to kill a third of the human race. (Rev. 9:15)

The Biblish word hour and the English word hour differ. In Biblish (as in Latin and Greek) hour (hōra, ὥρα) is ambiguous between referring to a point in time and a period of time. (I posted on ὥρα as a point of time here.)

καὶ ἰάθη ὁ παῖς αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐκείνῃ
… And his servant was cured that very moment. (Mat. 8:13b)

In modern English hour is a (shortish) period of time. You can do something for an hour. You can complete it in an hour. But you can’t say that it is the hour to do something. In modern English we mostly use the word time for point of time meanings.

It’s time to go.
I have been looking for a new car since that time.
At the time he left, I was still asleep.

In Shakespeare’s day the word hour was ambiguous.

I have served him from the hour of my
nativity to this instant (The Comedy of Errors Act IV Scene IV)

But give me leave to try success, I’ld venture
The well-lost life of mine on his grace’s cure
By such a day and hour. (All’s Well That Ends Well Act I Scene III)

In modern English there are only a few remnant constructions in which hour can refer to a point in time, mostly as the object of at and referring to the time of day (or night).

What are you doing up at this hour?

He works on his car at all hours of the night.

It’s interesting (but not surprising) that there are few limited expressions left over from an earlier time, but not sounding archaic — a phenomenon well known by linguists. But the fact remains that in 21th century English, all non-idiomatic uses of hour as a point in time are Biblish. This is not limited to Protestants, by the way. The English Ave Maria also has this mistake (compounded by the odd use of in). (1)

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and in the hour of our death.

A similar argument can be made for day – it generally refers to a period of time in modern English. but the situation is a little more complex than with hour. There are a number of regular usages with day as a point in time, for example on a day. Nonetheless, the normative point in time word that corresponds to day is date.

So translations of the two different texts with parallels above should read as follows:

περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι τῶν οὐρανῶν οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός εἰ μὴ ὁ πατὴρ μόνος
No one knows the date and time — not the angels in heaven, not even the Son — just the Father. (Mat. 24:36)

… ἥξει ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ᾗ οὐ προσδοκᾷ καὶ ἐν ὥρᾳ ᾗ οὐ γινώσκει
… that slave’s master will return on a day he doesn’t expect and at a time he doesn’t know. (Mat. 24:50)

There is the temptation to simplify the whole thing (including moving information up from the following verse).

No one knows just when the Son of Man will return – not the angels in heaven, not even the Son himself – just the Father. It will be like it was in Noah’s time. (Mat. 24:36-37)

As a final note, the usages I’ve talked about here are subtle. When does it sound OK to say at that hour? What’s the difference between at [modifier] time and at [modifier] hour? — to which I plead ignorance.

OK: What are you doing up at this hour?
Odd: What are you doing up at this time?

Bad: He was eating at the hour.
OK: He was eating at the time.

By comparison with real English Biblish is flat. And for my money that’s a crucial reason to avoid Biblish — especially for those who claim they want literary quality translations.

(1) In my wife’s Catholic family, they said at the hour of our death.

Your blood be on your own head

In 2 Sam. 1 a young Amalekite comes upon the wounded king Saul who is near death. Saul asks the young man to finish him off. The young man complies. Then he goes to David’s camp and tells David what happened. David orders one of his men to kill that Amalekite for having killed God’s anointed king. David then says to his corpse (I had added boldfacing):

Your blood be on your own head! Your own mouth has testified against you, saying ‘I have put the LORD’s anointed to death.’ (2 Sam. 1:16 NET)

In Acts 18:6 Paul tells people at Corinth who opposed the message he was preaching:

Your blood be on your own heads! I am guiltless! From now on I will go to the Gentiles! (NET)

The idiom, “Your blood be on your own head,” was commonly used and understood within the cultural contexts of these two episodes. Field testing can determine how many English speakers understand the figurative meaning of this idiom.

When translating the Bible there are two main solutions for communicating the figurative meaning of an idiom, as well as its literal meaning, to people who do not understand the idiom from their own cultural and language background:

  1. Translate the biblical idiom literally and footnote its figurative meaning.
  2. Translate the figurative meaning of the biblical idiom and footnote its literal meaning.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. English Bible versions illustrate both solutions. Translators must weigh a number of factors for each translation audience to come up with a solution which works well for them at a particular time in their knowledge of the Bible.

But I would like us to discuss possible wordings for both translation solutions.

As I was thinking upon this issue yesterday, I realized that Cheyenne, the language which my wife and I helped translate scripture for, already has a word which is a translation equivalent for the figurative meaning of the biblical idiom. It is: Netaomenêhešehahtseme! We used it many times in the Cheyenne Bible translation. It literally means ‘You (plural) did it to yourselves.’

If you were translating the Bible to English and chose solution #1, how might you word the footnote to explain the meaning of the biblical idiom?

If you were translating and chose solution #2, how might you word the figurative meaning of the biblical idiom in your English translation?

NOTE: In this post and comments on it, we ask that we limit our comments to address these two questions. This time let’s not open the floor to all possible comments, especially any attempt to say that either translation solution, in general, is better than the other. And we ask that no one denigrate any solution chosen by translators or those who comment here.