Does God have a long nose?
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.
Categories: Hebrew, idioms, interpretive