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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Translating idioms

Translators generally agree that idioms are usually impossible to translate literally from one language to another so that their original idiomatic meaning is translated accurately. The exception is when two languages have the same idiom. Occasionally this happens, as with the euphemism "he's gone" which idiomatically means "he died" in both English and Cheyenne, the language I have helped translate the Bible into.

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.
He's pushing daisies.
She had a cow.
He's two sheets to the wind.
He's stacking furniture.
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.

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)
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)
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.

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.

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17 Comments:

At Wed Nov 16, 07:53:00 PM, Blogger Noah said...

What the heck does stacking furniture mean?

 
At Wed Nov 16, 09:27:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

What the heck does stacking furniture mean?

It means going into such a rage that almost any kind of damage can be done.

Thanks for asking. Your question proves the point that we can't know the meaning of idioms simply from knowing the meaning of their individuals words.

 
At Thu Nov 17, 09:22:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

It also perhaps suggests just how culturally specific idioms can be, neither my wife (Northern Ireland overlaid with New Zealand English) nor I (English English overlaid with New Zealand) understood either "stacking furniture" or "having cows" in anything but a literal manner. As for "David slept with his fathers" it just sounds like necrophilia and incest, in our dialects "sleep with" means "have sexual intercourse with"!

 
At Thu Nov 17, 09:47:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

I think the meaning of the following is obvious or easily understood from context. To make them more explicit might do violence to the poetry (such as is found in Psalms).

You will go to your fathers = you will die (Gen. 15:15)
their throat is an open grave = they speak deceitfully (Ps. 5:9)
son of wickedness = wicked person (Ps. 89:22)
their lamp will be put out = they will die (Prov. 24:20)
spread feet = offer self for sex (Ezek. 16:25)
had in the belly = pregnant (Matt. 1:18)
taste death =die (Mk. 9:1)
they hear heavily with their ears = they are slow to understand (Acts 28:27)

 
At Thu Nov 17, 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I think the meaning of the following is obvious or easily understood from context.

To you, Eric, yes, and to many others who are biblically literate. But I would like the meanings of Bible passages to be as accessible to English speakers as the biblical source texts were to those who spoke the language of them.

To make them more explicit might do violence to the poetry (such as is found in Psalms).

Yes, one must be careful about this. But with a lot of careful thought (and divine wisdom) we can often have our cake (poetry) and eat it too.

Again, the ultimate questions are "Who will understand this?" and "What will they understand by it?" If a large percentage of English speakers, of a similar status to the original biblical hearers, are unable to understand literal translations in the Bible because they do not adequately communicate the original meaning to them, then we have not produced an accurate translation for them. The original hearers of the Bible did not have to be taught the meanings of the words in the biblical texts, nor should users of Bible translations today.

 
At Thu Nov 17, 02:12:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Funky Dung wrote: To make them more explicit might do violence to the poetry (such as is found in Psalms).

This point has some validity concerning poetic passages like Psalms, for there is a fine line here between poetic imagery, which should be preserved, and idioms, which need not be translated literally. But only two of the eight verses you cite are in the Psalms, and one more (Acts 28:27 quoting Isaiah 6:10) is poetic. So you need a better argument if you want to argue that in general such idioms should not be translated meaningfully.

As for the specific idioms you mention, I dispute that they are all easily understood, even by people who are quite familiar with poetic language. "Son of wickedness" (Ps. 89:22) will probably be misunderstood as "son of a wicked person" rather than "wicked person", for the characteristic Hebrew idiom "son of" meaning "person characterised by" is unknown in English. As for "had in the belly", in English that is not poetic but ridiculous.

 
At Thu Nov 17, 02:13:00 PM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

I didn't make myself clear. I meant that the meanings are obvious to an educated user of English, regardless of biblical literacy. One need not be a translator, such as yourself, or a nerd who reads too much, like me, in order to grasp the intended meanings of those phrases. Also, I wonder how many of them are truly idiomatic, rather than just symbolic, subtle, and/or suggestive. I worry that attempts to "decode" idioms might result in rather dull and lifeless language, lacking in evocative power. "Throats like open graves" says a mouthful.

 
At Thu Nov 17, 03:45:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Funky, I agree with most of your comments. We need to distinguish between idioms and language which is "just symbolic, subtle, and/or suggestive", and this is not easy.

But the Hebrew "son of..." idiom is certainly an idiom, and a very regular one, which is not "just symbolic, subtle, and/or suggestive" and is not understood by educated users of English who are not familiar with the Bible. So I would consider "son of wickedness" to meet the requirements for rephrasing in a translation. "Sons of the groom" (Mark 2:19*), which you did not list, is an even clearer case for rephrasing, because of the obvious danger of the misunderstanding that these are the groom's or bride's literal children, from a previous marriage or from premarital cohabitation.

* I think "sons of wedding hall" is more literally accurate, cf. KJV "children of the bride-chamber" which also correctly makes this gender generic.

 
At Thu Nov 17, 04:55:00 PM, Blogger Dave Spaun said...

Hey all...long time lurker - welcome to my first comment :)

What's interesting to me about the debate on translating idioms is that even those promoting the 'essentially literal' translation theory aren't truly consistent with their position. That is, they have no problem translating certain idioms, but not others.

Two examples you may already be familiar with but that illustrate the point:

1 Sam 25:22 has David using a common Hebrew idiom for 'Male': "One who urinates against the wall." Ironically, only the KJV translates this literally, using the word 'pisseth' (which, I might add, was a constant source of hilarity for me and my peers as pre-teens).

However, none of the 'essentially literal' translations (ESV, et al) translate this idiom literally. They all translate it "male" (correctly, in my opinion).

In Gal 2:6, Paul is speaking to how God shows no partiality, not even to the Apostles or leaders of the Jeruslem church, and uses a Greek expression: 'God does not receive the face of a man'. NO major translation, not even the KJV, translate this literally (although the KJV does come closest with 'accepteth no man's person'). To reinforce what you've already said, Wayne, I agree that this would be the correct decision.

My point is simply this: For as passionately as the 'essentially literal' proponents argue, when it comes down to it, they are arguing a matter of degree, not principle. I don't say this to in any way impugn their motives, as I believe they are godly, sincere people (note the gender-neutral there? :), besides the fact that I used to be firmly in that camp (farther even, as I was a ASV/NAS77 guy).

On a practical note, I have found it helpful in discussions with others to point out these examples in order to illustrate that we are simply at different points on a spectrum and, generally speaking, when people realize this, they can accept that this is a matter of judgment. The discussion can then center around things like "to what extent should we translate idioms?" (which I think the above poster quoting the Psalms was speaking to), recognizing that we all accept the principle at some level.

 
At Fri Nov 18, 11:23:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

"One who urinates against the wall."

It seems to me that such a statement carries more meaning than just maleness. Those who would urinate against a wall, rather than a more appropraite place, show a certain lack of class or proper upbringing.

"But the Hebrew 'son of...' idiom is certainly an idiom, and a very regular one, which is not "just symbolic, subtle, and/or suggestive" and is not understood by educated users of English who are not familiar with the Bible."

How so? English strikes me a replete with examples of progeny-related metaphors. The chief difference might be that in English, the "child" is usually a concept rather than a person ("Repentance is the daughter of hope."). It shouldn't be difficult or counterintuitive to understand the metaphorical meaning of "son of wickedness" and simialr phrases. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as the saying goes, so any child of wickedness is likely to be wicked himself. Worse yet, it's part of his nature rather than a choice. It's a congenital defect.

 
At Fri Nov 18, 12:30:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

"One who urinates against the wall."

It seems to me that such a statement carries more meaning than just maleness. Those who would urinate against a wall, rather than a more appropraite place, show a certain lack of class or proper upbringing.


You are, indeed, right, Eric, and therein lies the problem with the literal translation of the Hebrew idiom. The original idiom only meant that that person referred to was a male. The English literal translation communicates something different, which, of course, means it's not accurate. Most idioms cannot be both literally and accurately translated. We have to choose accuracy or literalness.

 
At Fri Nov 18, 01:52:00 PM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

That's all it meant? Wow. I have a different appreciation for idioms now. I bet English idioms sound pretty bizarre to non-native speakers.

What say you to the second half of that comment, Wayne?

 
At Fri Nov 18, 03:24:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

What say you to the second half of that comment, Wayne?

Do you mean the claim about "son of ___" being an idiom which is understood by English speakers? Since you are biblically literate, you do. But I personally have my doubts that very many other English speakers get the Hebraic meaning for this idiom, but I'd sure be happy to be proven wrong through adequate field testing among a wide range of English speakers. Would you like to conduct the poll?

 
At Fri Nov 18, 04:39:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Eric, you invited Wayne to respond to the second half of your comment. I hope his reply was helpful, but I would have replied differently. You wrote: "Worse yet, it's part of his nature rather than a choice. It's a congenital defect." Yes, that is how an English speaker would understand "son of wickedness", if they understood it at all. But is that congenital aspect a part of the meaning of the original Hebrew idiom? Or does it mean simply "wicked person", without any implication that this is natural or congenital? To be honest, I am not sure; most interpreters don't mention any congenital aspect but that may be simply because they don't understand the idiom fully. But these are the questions which you must ask, of the original text (and in addition to Wayne's suggested testing among English speakers), before you can safely translate any idiom literally.

 
At Sat Nov 19, 09:01:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

"Would you like to conduct the poll?"

Since you already have polling set up on this site, perhaps you could do so.

BTW, I thought of another English idiom that fits this style: "son of a bitch". The comparison is more useful, though, when one remembers "bitch" meant "female dog" long before it took on its current slang meaning.

 
At Sat Nov 19, 09:29:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

"Would you like to conduct the poll?"

Since you already have polling set up on this site, perhaps you could do so.


Unfortunately, Eric, the profile of the typical visitor to this blog does not allow us to get as scientific responses as we would like. Such polls need to be conducted among a wide range of speakers, of all ages, levels of educations, and degrees of biblical literacy.

I wish Gallup didn't have to charge so much to conduct their polls!

 
At Sat Nov 19, 10:24:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, "son of a bitch" does not fit the Hebrew pattern, because it is commonly used of males, who share the characteristics of a (male) dog rather than a bitch. The meaning is rather something much more literal: either the addressee is being likened to a dog, i.e. the literal offspring of a bitch; or else this is intended as a slur on the character of the addressee's mother, cf. the archaic abuse "Whoreson". By contrast the Hebrew idioms have no reference to the referent's parents.

 

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