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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Beautiful feet

A popular scripture song is "Our God Reigns," by Lenny Smith. Some of you have probably sung it, as have my wife and I:
How lovely on the mountain are the feet of him
Who brings good news, good news;
Announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness.
Our God reigns. Our God reigns.


Our God reigns! Our God reigns!
Our God reigns! Our God reigns!
Our God reigns! Our God reigns!
The words of this song are from Isaiah 52:7. Smith's lyrics appear to be based on the NASB wording:
How lovely on the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who announces peace
And brings good news of happiness,
Who announces salvation,
And says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
I wonder how many people who sing this song understand what it is talking about when it refers to "lovely ... feet". How many English speakers who read Isaiah 52:7 for the first time understand what is lovely about the feet of a person who brings good news?

The Hebrew of Is. 52:7 uses a figure of speech where part of something represents refers its whole. In this case, feet represent the entire person who is bringing good news. This figure of speech, part for the whole, is called a synecdoche.

The same Hebraic synecdoche of feet representing the entire person is also used in Acts 5:9:
Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” (NRSV)
Literally, it wasn't just the feet of those people that were at the door. And we all know that feet cannot literally carry anyone. It was people at the door who were about to carry out Sapphira, dead, just as they had carried out her dead husband, Ananias.

How should synecdoche be translated to another language? How should any figure of speech be translated to another language, for that matter? The answer to these questions depends on what we understand the purpose of translation to be. If the purpose of translation is to enable a speaker of one language to understand something in another language then the answer seems clear to me: We need to translate anything said or written in one language, including figures of speech, in a way that the original meaning will be understood by those who use that translation.

English speakers do not refer to feet as synecdoche for the entire person to whom those feet belong. Field testing will demonstrate that most English speakers do not understand a literal translation of Is. 52:7. If we want most English speakers to understand the meaning of the figure of speech in Is. 52:7, we need to translate the figurative meaning of that figure of speech. I find that only the TEV (GNT) and CEV do so:
How wonderful it is to see
a messenger coming across the mountains,
bringing good news, the news of peace!
He announces victory and says to Zion,
“Your God is king!” (TEV)

What a beautiful sight!
On the mountains a messenger
announces to Jerusalem,
“Good news! You're saved.
There will be peace.
Your God is now King.” (CEV)
The NET Bible tries to do so and might succeed, although I suspect that many readers of the NET would wonder why it is delightful to see feet of a messenger approaching:
How delightful it is to see approaching over the mountains the feet of a messenger who announces peace, a messenger who brings good news, who announces deliverance, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (NET)
Most English versions do not translate the figurative meaning of the synecdoche in Is. 52:7. I believe that better Bibles translate the meanings of the biblical texts so that most people--in a translation's intended audience--will understand those meanings in their own language.

Can we teach people the figurative meanings of literal translations which they do not understand? Of course we can, just as we can teach people the meanings of biblical language words such as shalom, hesed, logos, and sarks. But if we have to teach the meanings of thousands of words in a translation, we have defeated the purpose of translation which is to enable someone to understand something in another language. A better solution is to translate what a source language text means, and then, if we wish, we can footnote literal translations of figures of speech.


At Thu Oct 12, 11:28:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

This post certainly shows the need for multiple Bible translations in the Christian arsenal. One would certainly do as a primary, but when studying "deep", it surely makes sense to "unlimit" yourself.

Contrary to the opinion of some, I actually find that functional translations are marvelous for "in depth" study, just as formal translations are. Only in somewhat different ways!

At Thu Oct 12, 01:27:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

This post certainly shows the need for multiple Bible translations in the Christian arsenal.

I agree, Matthew. And it reinforces the notion that not every kind of Bible is for every audience.

At Thu Oct 12, 04:57:00 PM, Blogger Jay Davis said...

THE MESSAGE and the NLT both use "feet" hmmm...

Also I have heard people say "I hear his feet coming now." meaning "he's coming" but it might be more literal because they do hear the "feet"

At Thu Oct 12, 11:28:00 PM, Blogger Ruud Vermeij said...

"Hoe welkom is de vreugdebode
die over de bergen komt aangesneld"
(Dutch NBV)

aangesneld = quickly coming

Maybe the translators tried to associate the "feet" with (quick) movement?

At Fri Oct 13, 09:48:00 AM, Blogger codepoke said...


At Sat Oct 14, 12:35:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

It seems to me that we would lose some of the meaning if "feet" were dropped completely, as in TEV. Maybe it is not actually the feet which are beautiful, but it is more than just the messenger, it is the fact that he or she is coming and bringing the good news. I suppose TEV and CEV make this clear. But this shows that this is not a simple synecdoche, feet standing for the person, but a more complex metonymy or metaphor.

At Sat Oct 14, 05:48:00 PM, Blogger Wordsworth1000Pictures said...

Thank you for this post, Mr. Leman. I am finding this entire site so thought-provoking and I really, REALLY like that. I guess I like being provoked!


At Mon Oct 16, 03:43:00 PM, Blogger Wild said...

In English, we use "head" to represent a person in the same complex way when we use the phrase "We should take a head count" to tally the number of people in a group.

The head represents a whole person and implies that there is a 1-1 correspondence between the number of heads and the number of people.

In the case of feet, there is a correspondence between the function of the feet (bringing) and the value of the person carrying the good news.


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