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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Biblical toothpaste: Do you have clean teeth?

In recent posts I have discussed translation of biblical idioms. Again, idioms are word combinations in a language whose meaning does not consist of the total of the meaning of their parts. That is, you cannot tell what an idiom means just by knowing what the meaning of the words and their syntactic relationships to each other are. Translation professionals tell us that idioms are unique to individual languages. Very few idioms are shared between languages. It is almost never possible to translate an idiom both literally and accurately, that is, if an idiom is translated literally, those who use the translation cannot know the meaning of that idiom from the translation itself. By definition, therefore, literal translation of idioms is almost always inaccurate, since translation accuracy requires that translation users get the same meaning from the translation that those who heard the original biblical texts did.

Let's look at translation of another interesting biblical idiom. In Amos 4:6 a literal translation of the Hebrew gives us:
I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities
This English appears to be fairly clear. The wording "cleanness of teeth" is non-standard English, but we can fairly easily translate this to standard English which would be something like "clean teeth." From reading this translation, we get the idea that the speaker, God, is telling the people that he caused their teeth to be clean in all the cities in which they lived.

But is that an accurate translation? It is at the word level. And the translated words relate to each other syntactically (and, therefore, we assume, semantically) in English to reflect the syntactic relationships among the Hebrew words.

Now, if you ask your children, or people in your Sunday School, Sabbath School, or Hebrew School classes what understanding they get from this English translation, we would expect them to tell us something to the effect that God must have caused the people's teeth to be clean in all the cities where the people lived. That's good field testing. Does the translation pass field testing? No, it does not. The translation has given the wrong meaning to those who read or hear it, unless those being tested have already been taught that the meaning that the translation communicates is not really the meaning that Amos intended. And having to be taught the meaning of something in a translation, when it is possible for the translation to more accurately communicate that meaning, should not be a required step for using a Bible translation. We should be able to get the original linguistic meaning of the words, syntax, pragmatics, rhetorical devices, and inferences from a translation itself. We will often not be able to understand all of the concepts behind those words from a translation alone. That is why we need pastors and Bible teachers to help us understand the concepts better, even though we get the linguistic meanings through translation correctly. And, of course, pastors and Bible teachers also are needed to help us apply the concepts. And we need them to challenge us to do so.

Amos used a vivid idiom where "clean teeth" does not refer to teeth being clean, but, rather to stomachs being empty, that is, to people being very hungry. Now, it is not too difficult to speculate how this idiom came to be. When we eat, we often leave some food on our teeth. We can use a toothbrush or dental floss to clean that food from our teeth. A lack of food on our teeth can, by inference, indicate that no food went into our mouths.

So, which English translations accurately translated the meaning of this idiom to English and which did not? Here are accurate renderings of the meaning of the Hebrew idiom:
I gave you empty stomachs in every city (NIV, TNIV)
I brought hunger to every city (NLT)
I was the one who brought famine to all your cities (TEV/GNT)
I, the LORD, took away the food from every town and village (CEV)
I did not give you any food in your cities (NCV)
I left you with nothing to eat in any of your cities (GW)
But I gave you no food to eat in any of your cities (NET)
I gave you absolutely nothing to eat in all your cities (HCSB)
Here are renderings which accurately translate the Hebrew words and syntax, but do not accurately translate the meaning of the idiom:
And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities (KJV)
Also I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities. (NKJV)
I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities (RSV, NRSV, ESV)
But I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities (NASB)
I, on My part, have given you Cleanness of teeth in all your towns (Tanakh)
I have studied how English versions translate a number of other biblical idioms. You can read more about this translation topic by clicking on links to the Accuracy and Idioms sections on my webpage listing my quantified Studies evaluating English Bible versions.

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