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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Turn your ear

I just visited Dave Warnock's blog. Dave uses an RSS feed to get "Scripture for Today." Today's scripture is:
My son, pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to one's whole body. Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. (Proverbs 4:20-25 TNIV)
I'm wondering: Would you normally say "Turn your ear to my words"? Or would you use other English words to express the same meaning?

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At Wed Jan 04, 09:35:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

This is a "body part" passage with lots of references to the body. It would be nice to retain ear if possible although the phrase "turn your ear" is undoubtedly awkward. Perhaps "hear" is enough since it is natural and even historically related to "ear".

NIV has "pay attention to what I say" so obviously the TNIV editors were trying for a poetic effect.

At Wed Jan 04, 12:44:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

In fact NIV has "listen closely" where TNIV has "turn your ear". I must say this is a rare place where in my opinion TNIV is less good than NIV. An English idiom with "ear" would be good, but "turn your ear" is an inappropriate literalism. "Give ear" is an alternative which might work, although it is not very natural modern English.

The Azerbaijani translation of this verse (which I worked on) has qulaq as, literally "hang ear", which is in fact the usual way of saying "listen". I suspect that the Hebrew idiom here, הַט־אָזְנֶךָ hat-ozneka, literally "incline your ear" and used about 25 times (with minor variations) in the Hebrew Bible, was also the usual way of saying "listen".

At Wed Jan 04, 12:53:00 PM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

Does the orginal text have poetic properties? If so, I'd keep the phrase.

At Wed Jan 04, 05:28:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Exactly how poetic Proverbs are is perhaps a matter of debate, but this verse, 4:20, and the following ones exhibit the classical poetic parallelism of the Hebrew Bible. But I am not sure that poetry is an excuse for literal translation of idioms. It would perhaps be if the original language expression was a live poetic metaphor. But I don't think this is true of the Hebrew here, for this phrase seems to have been used regularly as a fixed idiom, although admittedly most commonly in poetry. My point is that fixed idioms should be understood simply as compound lexical items and so translated as a unit, rather than as a literal sum of their parts. After all, just as "kick the bucket" in English really has nothing to do with kicking or buckets, probably "incline the ear" in Hebrew has nothing to do with inclining, although of course it has something to do with ears.

At Wed Jan 04, 06:54:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

Surely there's a general English idiomatic equivalent to "give ear to my words"?

I don't think "give ear to my words" is hard to understand myself (and never did), but I'd understand if one didn't want to use the exact phrasing.

However, just translating it as "listen" is not the way to go, in my opinion (except in some cases). There is a word in Hebrew for "listen", and the writer of Proverbs chose not to use it. Why should we have to?

Is it possible to translate phrases into another culture's language without breaking them down to their most elementary meaning? Can't we retain some poeticism or idiom from either language at least?

Don't take me wrong, I'm not saying that "elementary" is bad. It's especially good if one is translating for ESL or for children.....But most people who read aren't ESL or children. Most people who are literate don't need this much help.

I've read Bibles like this and oddly enough, I find them harder to pay attention to. Everything is cut down to short sentences with basic words. It's like reading one of those old Dick and Jane storybooks.

At Thu Jan 05, 03:33:00 AM, Blogger Dickie Mint said...

Peter said, "probably 'incline the ear' in Hebrew has nothing to do with inclining, although of course it has something to do with ears."

I wonder if, in fact, incline is something to do with it - what I have in mind is a person leaning forward (inclining, if you will), either their whole body or at least their head, in order to hear better.

On that basis, I'd suggest the following translation: "Come closer and hear" which has the added advantage of retaining 'ear' (albeit within the closing word! :-)


At Thu Jan 05, 04:21:00 AM, Blogger Paul W said...

I have to agree with Peter Kirk and say that the NIV's "pay attention to what I say" is a very good translation of this idiom. It would be especially effective in the public reading of Scripture.

At Thu Jan 05, 05:38:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Straylight wrote "There is a word in Hebrew for "listen"". No, Straylight, there isn't. The regular word שׁמע "hear" is sometimes translated "listen" where this fits the context better than "hear" (but only once in KJV). So it would seem that when Hebrews wanted to say "listen", they either used שׁמע "hear", allowing the context to specify further, or an idiom like (literally) "incline your ear".

Straylight also wrote "Is it possible to translate phrases into another culture's language without breaking them down to their most elementary meaning?" Yes, it is, and it is precisely to avoid breaking phrases down into their elements that I prefer "listen" to "incline the ear", or "turn the ear" which is neither literal nor good English.

As for Dickie's suggestion of "Come closer and hear", this is an interesting one, but it would be necessary to check from the other 25 or so occurrences whether the idiom really has this sense of "come closer", or in fact has no closer semantic link to "incline" than "kick the bucket" has to "kick". After all, it would be wrong to infer from the phrase "kick the bucket" any implication that the cause of death is kicking.

And then on Paul's comment, I did not say that "NIV's "pay attention to what I say" is a very good translation of this idiom". In fact it is not NIV's translation of the idiom at all, but of the first line of the verse which has a different verb. There are two lines in the Hebrew of Proverbs 4:20, showing good poetic synonymous parallelism:

1. בְּנִי לִדְבָרַי הַקְשִׁיבָה beni lidvaray haqshiva, "My son, pay attention to what I say" (NIV, TNIV).

2. לַאֲמָרַי הַט־אָזְנֶךָ la'amaray hat-'ozneka, "listen closely to my words" (NIV), "turn your ear to my words" (TNIV).

This discussion is about translation of the second parallel line, which is of course intended to be more or less a synonym of the first line. Now I guess Dan Sindlinger would delete the second line as redundancy (but see also my comments on that posting), but in my opinion it needs a second and slightly different translation both for poetic effect and to properly reflect the teaching style of Proverbs.

At Thu Jan 05, 06:30:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

I think it's worth noting that "kick the bucket" has a very different impact on the reader than "die". There are differences in shades of meaning. I guess if Hebrew lacks "listen", "incline your ear" isn't really comparable to "kick the bucket". Like straylight, I don't care for translations that suck all the poetry and decorative prose out of Scripture. Perhaps this verse is not an example of that, but my main worry when reading translated idioms is that the translation carries most or all of the denotation, but little or none of connotation.

At Thu Jan 05, 07:42:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Eric said:

my main worry when reading translated idioms is that the translation carries most or all of the denotation, but little or none of connotation.

Eric, you have noted an important translation principle. Not only should translations be denotationally accurate but they should also retain the connotations of the original. Peter is a good translator and I know he would call for both also.

One difficulty, as we evaluate English translations, is that we can dig so deeply into every possible aspect of connotation that we might never agree on whether anytranslation of the original carries the same connotations. This happens to be one of the issues at the heart of the debate over connotations of male representative language. Poythress and Grudem recognize that masculine pronouns and nouns are intended to denote, but at the same time they want those pronouns and nouns to carry masculine connotations (they call them "nuances" which is the same).

I personally think that the kinds of connotation mismatches we can agree on to avoid are those like the huge difference between "die" and "kick the bucket." When we get to much finer distinctions, things become much more subjective. What might sound like a connotational difference to one person might be no difference to another.

For myself, "turn your ear to my words" and "listen" are connotationally the same, unless we can determine with a high degree of certainty that the Hebrew body-part idiom truly had a significant connotational difference from English "listen." As always, we want to be sure that we are translating the meanings, both denotational and connotation of the original text, not of our understanding of differences among English words. This is why it is so important that we have biblical language scholars, including those well trained in the lexicography of the biblical languages, on our translation teams. We want to translate what is actually in the biblical texts and not what we might imagine, as 21st analysts, could be in those texts.

It's a difficult job that requires great wisdom, balance, humility, and tolerance toward one another.

At Thu Jan 05, 08:11:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Funky, thank you for your comments, and Wayne for your reply. Perhaps "kick the bucket" was not the best idiom for my illustration as it does have special connotations. But it does make one side of my point well: its connotations are different from "die", but they are nothing to do with "kick" or "bucket".

The problem with Hebrew idioms is that we don't really know what connotations they had or did not have. It is easier to work in modern languages with mother tongue speakers. I mentioned before the Azerbaijani idiom qulaq asmaq (pronounce "q" as "g"), literally "to hang ear" and so rather similar to the Hebrew idiom in question. I have it on the good authority of mother tongue speakers of Azerbaijani (with whom I have worked for 12 years) that this idiom has no special connotations of "hang", nor is it especially poetic, but it is simply the normal way of saying "to listen" in Azerbaijani - as is borne out by dictionaries. In fact Azerbaijani has many compound verbs of this type. It would therefore be quite wrong to insist on translating "qulaq asmaq" as "to hang ear", or even by a possibly equivalent English idiom like "turn your ear" or "give ear". For the idiom simply means "to listen", and sometimes "to obey", and has no special connotations beyond this.

Now it seems likely to me that the Hebrew idiom in Proverbs 4:20 etc is similar to this Azerbaijani idiom in having no special connotations - although I can't prove it. If this is true, then it should not be translated by a phrase with special connotations, but simply as "listen". So, Funky, before you complain that "the translation carries most or all of the denotation, but little or none of connotation", demonstrate for us what connotation actually is in the original (and not just in literal translations or traditional interpretations of it), and then we can judge whether the translation carries it accurately or needs to be improved.

At Thu Jan 05, 09:20:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

"So, Funky, before you complain..."

Do my comments come across as harsh or carping? If so, it's quite unintentional. I'm just trying to participate in BBB's spirit of critical analysis. I do tend to be a bit blunt at times and text without speak doesn't help matters. Anyhow, I'm trying to become a more diplomatic fellow, so please let me know if I appear a pompous arrogant ass. ;)

At Thu Jan 05, 09:46:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

That is "text without speech". Need more coffee...

At Thu Jan 05, 10:19:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Peter, your 'hang ear' example reminded me of the idioms our kids use all the time. They say "We're going to hang", which is short for 'hang out', but has nothing to do with 'hanging' at all! Or 'chill out' - which has nothing to do with being cold! Or 'wicked!' (well, that one's on the way out, i think!) which had nothing to do with immoral acts!

Cheers! (a greeting which has nothing to do with the bar of that name...)

Tim C.

At Thu Jan 05, 02:24:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Funky, sorry if I seemed a bit harsh. I should have used "worry", your word, rather than "complain". Here in the UK we are quite blunt, at least compared with many Americans, and we complain a lot - but don't make a big deal about complaints. I need to be more careful of my words for an international audience.

Tim, you have reminded me that many aspects of English have become very international. The same idioms are used back here in Essex. But don't you all chill all winter in Edmonton?

At Thu Jan 05, 06:49:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

"Peter Kirk said...

Straylight wrote "There is a word in Hebrew for "listen"". No, Straylight, there isn't. The regular word שׁמע "hear" is sometimes translated "listen" where this fits the context better than "hear" (but only once in KJV). So it would seem that when Hebrews wanted to say "listen", they either used שׁמע "hear", allowing the context to specify further, or an idiom like (literally) "incline your ear"."

Sorry if I was mistaken. I thought that sh'ma could signify "listen" and didn't just mean "hear" (I'm not sure what the difference is, but I'll acknowledge it anyways).

At Thu Jan 05, 08:05:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

Poetry is what gets lost in translation. ~Robert Frost

I heard this somewhere and found it again at this link:

It is in the poetry of the Bible that inspiration most insistently attempts to topple translation's holy pyramid of accuracy, clarity and naturalness.

At Thu Jan 05, 11:47:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...


I've never been as cold in a (dry) Edmonton winter as I was in the damp ones in Southminster as a teenager!!!

Cheers, and chill out!


At Fri Jan 06, 03:54:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Cheers, Tim! Yes, Essex winters are also chilly, if only just around freezing at the moment, and damp as well. And when you and I were young we hardly heated houses at all. I could say that the younger generation don't know what it really means to chill out, but I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, always complaining about the weather and other people's comments. So let's just enjoy the warmth of our homes as best we can, and wish we were with Paul enjoying the New Zealand holiday season!

As for Lingamish's point about poetry: I have heard it said, and attributed to God's sovereign preparation for the Bible, that Hebrew poetry is the only kind of poetry which can be translated well, because its poetry is not just in formal and so untranslatable characteristics, but in its parallelism which is translatable. Nevertheless, we are bound to lose quite a lot of the poetry in translation. What do we do? Give up and expect everyone to learn Hebrew? Or do the best we can? Of course we can replace some of the functions of Hebrew poetry by our own compositions, e.g. worship songs and poems which reflect our own experiences in our own poetic language. But these will never be a substitute for Scripture. So we have to translate the poetry as best we can. But that is never an easy task, as there is always a need to balance attempts to preserve some kind of poetic form against the imperative of accuracy - and the requirements of naturalness and clarity, even if perhaps these can be applied a little less stringently in poetry than in prose.


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