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Friday, August 26, 2005

Does God have a long nose?

The original language texts of the Bible include many idioms, i.e. phrases which have a meaning which is rather different from the superficial sum of the meanings of their parts. Sometimes this meaning is based on metaphorical extension of the meanings of component words, but idioms can be distinguished from metaphor in that they are fixed expressions used regularly.

An example of an idiom in the Hebrew Bible is מִלֵּא יָד mille' yad, literally "fill the hand", which is used of the ordination or consecration of priests, for example in Exodus 29:9. The phrase may have originated as a metaphor of handing a responsibility to the priest, or perhaps as a symbolic action of placing symbols of office into his hands. But as used in the Hebrew Bible this is an idiom with a meaning quite different from literally filling hands. So this idiomatic usage must be distinguished from Leviticus 9:17 where, literally, the priest fills his own palms with the grain offering - using a different Hebrew word, כַּף kaf "palm" rather than יָד yad "hand".

Advocates of literal or formal equivalence Bible translation often argue that Greek and Hebrew idioms should be translated literally word for word. For, they say, it is the responsibility not of the translator but of each reader to interpret these idioms. There are good arguments against this, in particular that professional translators are in a much better position than ordinary Bible readers to understand which phrases have an idiomatic meaning and what that meaning is. Thus, ordinary Bible readers would probably be very confused by a literal rendering "fill the hands" in Exodus 29:9, or might misunderstand it in some literal or semi-literal sense e.g. that this is how food would be provided for the priests. If these Bible readers have access to good explanatory notes, they will of course be able to read there the meaning of the idiom - but only if they recognise their need to read such notes; if they think they understand the idiom they will not look for help. Also many Bible readers do not have good explanatory materials, except for any footnotes etc bound with their Bibles.

But another argument against literal translation of idioms is that even the most extreme literalist translators do not in practice translate all idioms literally. In fact they choose to interpret some idioms because a literal translation would be too misleading. Most formal equivalence English Bibles seem to translate "ordain" or "consecrate" rather than "fill the hand" at Exodus 29:9. Young's Literal Translation has "consecrate the hand", which is misleading but at least avoids this idiom being misunderstood in a literal sense.

There is another common Hebrew idiom which even Young avoided translating literally. This is found in Exodus 34:6, and in a number of other places which are more or less quotations of this famous divine self-disclosure. Astonishingly to English speakers, the LORD describes himself literally as having "length of nose", or "length of nostrils", Hebrew אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם 'erek 'appayim. So, those who call for idioms to be translated literally should, if they are consistent, call for this statement to be translated something like "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, the long-nosed one, ..."

Of course no one does translate like this - for the very good reason that such a literal translation would be immediately misunderstood, and in a very inappropriate way, in terms of the English idiomatic meaning of having a long nose, i.e. being excessively inquisitive. This is of course not what the Hebrew idiom means. Rather, in Hebrew the word אַף 'af and its dual form אַפַּיִם 'appayim, literally "nose" or "nostrils", have a regular metaphorical sense of "anger". This is found especially but not only in the idiom חֲרוֹן אַף haron 'af, literally "burning of nose", which means something like "fierceness of anger". Similarly, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם 'erek 'appayim, literally "length of nostrils", has the idiomatic sense "slowness of anger", with "length" understood in a time sense. Thus most English versions correctly translate "slow to anger".

So, if ever anyone recommends to you a particular translation because it is literal and avoids interpretive readings, I suggest that you refer them to Exodus 34:6. If their favourite version does not translate this idiom literally (and I don't know of any which do), then you can tell them that its translators are just as "guilty" as any others of interpretive translation, of making their own decisions about which idioms to translate non-literally and how to do so. Or, to be a bit more accurate, point out that no translators are guilty for doing this, because it is in fact impossible to translate, at least to produce a translation which is comprehensible to ordinary readers, without making these kinds of interpretive decisions, and without translating idioms according to their meaning rather than their strict form.

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At Fri Aug 26, 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

FWIW, Peter, I come from a family with a heritage of long noses (as well as anger)!

At Fri Aug 26, 01:11:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...


There must be something of a backlash going against more of thought translations or paraphrases- they have dominated the past 25+ years.

With reference to my preferred translation- TNIV, it was scrapped as feministic- and so far is a victim of the culture war- needlessly so, in my opinion.

If more people were educated with what you are talking about here, much of the cloud about Bible translation would be lifted.

At Fri Aug 26, 04:53:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

All of which goes to prove, that:
(a) one cannot make a 100% literal translation - it would not work as a translation
(b) the purpose of a translation should be identified clearly before one tries to judge its "value".

I admit the second one is not actually "proved" by what you write, but (I think) it is indicated. If a translation is intended for reading by new Bible readers, or for public reading then none of the literal translations you mention "work". If, however, the translation is aimed at being a study Bible for experienced Bible readers, then some of them may "work", because they allow echoes and repetitions to be spotted without learning Hebrew. (Though of course I'd much rather everyone learned the language God spoke!)

At Sat Aug 27, 05:26:00 AM, Blogger Godsdragon said...

I think only Pinochio and humans have long noses...

At Sat Aug 27, 06:16:00 AM, Blogger BJ Mora said...

There's a reason why pastors and scholars should know the original languages - to resolve issues of meaning in our Biblical texts. Other solutions for us laymen include the use of several translations to contrast and compare, and access to good commentaries. Commentaries are an extension, hopefully, of the ultimate resource: one's church and its teachers.

At Sat Aug 27, 07:41:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

In answer to Ted: TNIV has not been scrapped, although it has been banned in a few bookshops. The earlier NIV Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI) was withdrawn in the USA after a campaign of vilification, but remained on sale in the UK and elsewhere. TNIV is in some ways a revision of NIVI but the team has pulled back from some of the more extreme and controversial gender-related changes. And there are also many improvements over NIV which are not related to gender.

At Sat Aug 27, 07:48:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

In reply to beej65: Don't assume too easily that readers have access to good commentaries. These are expensive (a full set costs MUCH more than a Bible!) and only the best and most comprehensive really explain all of the difficult idioms. As for one's church and its teachers being a resource, how many churches have someone who can be approached at any time to give reliable exegetical answers? Or is anyone with a difficult issue expected to wait probably years, maybe for ever, for their question to be answered at a Sunday service?

Now I agree that the pages of a Bible are not the place to answer every question which a believer or a seeker might have. But in my opinion this is the place for the basic linguistic meaning of the text to be set forward in a clear way.


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