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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Do you have heavy ears?

Biblical Hebrew had an idiom of "heavy ears," as found in Isaiah 6:10. When Hebrew speakers referred to someone having heavy ears, as in Is. 6;10, they were not referring literally to the weight of someone's ears. Rather, the figurative meaning was that a person with "heavy ears" had stopped listening. Hebrew scholars agree that this is the meaning of this Hebrew idiom.

Now, how might we translate the meaning of the Hebrew of Is. 6:10 to English so that readers of a translation will understand the metaphorical meaning just from reading the translation? That, after all, is the purpose of a translation, to allow speakers of one language to understand what was said in another language.

Following are some English versions which accurately translate the meaning of the Hebrew idiom to English:
Make these people ... plug their ears. (GW)
make their ears deaf (TEV, NET)
Shut their ears. (NCV)
Make them stop up their ears (CEV)
Close their ears (NLT)
deafen their ears (HCSB)
The following might make sense in English to some people:
stop their ears (NRSV)
but it would make more sense to me if it were worded as "stop up their ears."

In English it is possible to be "dull of hearing" or to have "dull hearing," but I don't think we can communicate the meaning of not hearing by saying that someone's ears themselves are "dull" as in these versions:
make their ears dull (NIV, TNIV)
Render ... their ears dull (NASB)
Finally, I am quite certain that the following wording is inaccurate. That is, I don't think it communicates any meaning in English other than a literal meaning that someone's ears weigh a lot:
Make ... their ears heavy (KJV, RSV, ESV)
I would be glad for fieldtesting to prove my claim of inaccuracy wrong.

If a translation wording does not communicate the meaning of the original biblical text to its users, it is not an accurate wording. It would be great if we could literally retain this Hebrew idiom in an English translation, but doing so alters the original meaning and that is a form of inaccuracy. Translating the figurative meaning of the Hebrew into English which has the same meaning is accurate translation. It is not so-called "interpretive translation" as the term is used pejoratively these days. There is no personal interpretation of the Hebrew idiom involved in translating its meaning to English. English Bible translators agree on the meaning of the idiom.

Literal or essentially literal translations are fine whenever they accurately communicate the meaning of the biblical text to translation users. They are inaccurate when they do not. Similarly, more idiomatic translations are inaccurate whenever they do not accurately communicate the meaning of the biblical text.

7 Comments:

At Wed May 10, 11:59:00 PM, Blogger Eddie said...

Hi Wayne, from my part of England, 'cloth ears' would be a good idiom to use in this situation, though I can't see any translation adopting it.

 
At Thu May 11, 09:02:00 AM, Blogger codepoke said...

I'm with you on this one. :-)

 
At Thu May 11, 09:52:00 AM, Blogger Gary said...

I enjoy reading the idioms of the ancient Hebrew and Greek, to learn to understand them and where they came from. I like a more literal translation with translators notes for my own personal study.

I think this points out the need for more than one type of translation. You want the simple, clear English version for the new believer, but IMHO when one is hungry for the Word and desires to immerse himself in it, then that person will want a Bible version that gives him the idiom, so as to better understand the times and places where it was written. I'd hate to lose that.

 
At Thu May 11, 10:16:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Gary said:

I enjoy reading the idioms of the ancient Hebrew and Greek, to learn to understand them and where they came from. I like a more literal translation with translators notes for my own personal study.

Gary, have you ever considered using an interlinear translation to accomplish the same thing. Then translations could be reserved for the purpose for which translations have always been used, to enable speakers of one language to understand what is said in another language.

I think this points out the need for more than one type of translation.

I agree that there is value in this.

You want the simple, clear English version for the new believer,

No, you are reading too much into what I have said. I have been a believer for more than 50 years. I have studied the Bible all my life. I am a Bible translator. My desire is not for simple, clear English in a translator, but, rather, for accurate English which follows the rules of the English language. Accurate translations convey the meaning of the Bible better to everyone, whether they are not believers, new believers, or old believers.

but IMHO when one is hungry for the Word and desires to immerse himself in it, then that person will want a Bible version that gives him the idiom, so as to better understand the times and places where it was written. I'd hate to lose that.

But would you agree that my post demonstrates that translating many idioms literally does not accurately convey their meaning to you or anyone else?

 
At Thu May 11, 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Gary said...

Wayne,

But would you agree that my post demonstrates that translating many idioms literally does not accurately convey their meaning to you or anyone else?

Oh yes, absolutely! I would have had no idea what "heavy ears" meant!

It appears I also did not communicate very clearly when I said, "You want the simple, clear English version for the new believer,". I was using a generic "you". I didn't mean you, Wayne. I meant that it would be desirable to have a simple, clear English version for the new believer.

But in thinking over your response, I think I have to agree that it would be best to have a translation that clearly communicates the Word of God to any and all English-speaking readers. But of course the problem comes in actually making that translation.

(Is that any clearer? ;-) )

Gary

 
At Thu May 11, 10:48:00 AM, Blogger Gary said...

Oh BTW, Wayne, thanks for the suggestion of an interlinear. I am considering it very strongly; I just have to justify the cost.

Gary

 
At Thu May 11, 11:43:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Gary asked:

Is that any clearer?

Yes, it sure is, Gary. Thanks for being gracious in your exchange. I don't have all the answers for the different kinds of audiences which use the Bible. But I do believe that some translation wordings just don't cut it. And that's why we have this blog, to try to come up with ideas for better Bibles.

Please keep visiting here and commenting.

 

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