If we translate any of the following English idioms to another language, speakers of that language will not understand the idiomatic meaning, which is the meaning that is intended by the person who uses these idioms:
It's raining cats and dogs.Idioms are usually impossible to translate literally because their meaning is not built up of the meaning of their parts. Instead, they have a unique meaning which has nothing to do with the meaning of their parts. When we say "It's raining cats and dogs," we are not saying anything about cats or dogs. When we say that someone is stacking furniture, we are not referring to anything about stacking or furniture.
He's pushing daisies.
She had a cow.
He's two sheets to the wind.
He's stacking furniture.
Translation of biblical idioms is no different from translation of any other idioms. If the words of an idiom in any source language, including any idiom in the biblical source texts, are literally matched up with words in a target language, those who read or hear the translation will not understand the original meaning of the idiom.
There are many idioms in the Bible. We can only understand their meaning by having someone teach it to us, whether that is done in person or Bible footnotes, through a book or another resource tool. Here are some idioms from the Bible, along with their idiomatic meaning after the equal = sign:
You will go to your fathers = you will die (Gen. 15:15)Biblical idioms are fascinating. They help us recognize that those who spoke the biblical languages often spoke figuratively, not literally, just as we do in English, and just as people do in many other languages.
He will lift up your head = restore to honor (Gen. 40:13)
They knew no quiet in their bellies = They were greedy (Job 20:20)
their throat is an open grave = they speak deceitfully (Ps. 5:9)
lifted heel against = turned against (Ps. 41:9)
lift horn = defy God (Ps. 75:5)
son of wickedness = wicked person (Ps. 89:22)
their lamp will be put out = they will die (Prov. 24:20)
son of the morning = morning star (Is. 14:12)
spread feet = offer self for sex (Ezek. 16:25)
had in the belly = pregnant (Matt. 1:18)
what you hear in your ear =what you hear in secret (Matt. 10:27)
those having badly =those who were sick (Mk. 1:32)
sons of the groom =guests of the bridegroom (Mk. 2:19)
taste death =die (Mk. 9:1)
they hear heavily with their ears = they are slow to understand (Acts 28:27)
But if we want to translate the Bible accurately so that people who read the Bible understand the meaning of what we have translated, we cannot translate biblical idioms accurately, unless English happens to have the same idiom. It is perfectly fine to footnote the translation of the meaning of an idiom, giving the literal meaning of the words of that idiom. Many people find such information interesting.
There is another problem with literally translated idioms: Many churched people, including some Bible scholars, recognize that idioms are not intended to be understood literally, but they try to get some spiritual or theological meaning from their literal translation. Yesterday we blogged about a post where it was claimed about 1 Kings 2:10 that its Hebrew euphemism for dying (literally, "David slept with his fathers") should be retained in translation, rather than its idiomatic meaning of "David died."
But there are problems with this approach of translating biblical idioms literally. First, David did not literally sleep with his fathers and that is the meaning that the literal translation communicates to its readers unless they have a footnote or other teaching resource that lets them know that the literal meaning is not the intended meaning in this case. If we think about the literal meaning of the literal translation, we can easily assume that the Bible is saying that David's fathers committed incest with him. So there is the problem of communicative accuracy. We don't get communicative accuracy with a literal translation, unless extrabiblical information giving the actual meaning of the idiom is supplied for the translation user.
The other problem raised is that the blogger claims that versions which translate the idiomatic meaning, rather than the literal meaning of each word
do not allow their readers to see the beauty of "resting with his fathers." Instead, David simply died. What a tragic loss! Readers of these translations will not see any hope beyond the grave. They will not know that David has gone to be with his fathers and that he is merely resting.But David was not "merely resting." He had died, and every speaker of Biblical Hebrew understood that idiom to mean that he had died. The blogger was importing the theology of hope after death into the Hebrew idiom, but doing so is speculative. There is no proof that the Hebrew idiom intended to state that there was life beyond the grave. Many Jews believed there were no life after sheol. The Hebrew idiom is a euphemism for death, just as many languages, including English have euphemisms for death. Euphemisms are used to decrease our discomfort with uncomfortable events.
There is a place for letting Bible users know what the words of biblical idioms literally mean, but that place is not in a Bible translation intended to be used by anyone who has not learned to speak "church language." Biblical idioms, like idioms in any language, have figurative, not literal meanings, and so it is a logical fallacy to translate literally what was intended to be understood figuratively. Speakers of the biblical languages did not need to be taught the meaning of the idioms of their languages. Neither should we who read the Bible in translation.
Categories: Bible translation, figurative language, idioms, literal translation