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Friday, November 30, 2007

idiomatic Bible translation

People all over the world find that the Bible speaks to them best when it is worded using the natural grammar and idioms of their own languages. Of course, we should never change the meaning of the biblical text when we use idiomatic language in a translation. Nor should we use idioms which introduce inappropriate connotations.

As I have been checking the TNIV recently, I have come across some idiomatic wordings which deserve kudos and I flag them for the TNIV team to let them know how nicely those wordings communicate the meanings of the biblical text. I thought it would be fun to share some of these wordings with you.

Esther 9:1 in the TNIV (and NIV) reads:
On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, the edict commanded by the king was to be carried out. On this day the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them.
There are two English idioms in this verse. Can you spot them?

The first is "the tables were turned." There is nothing in the original Hebrew text about tables, but using the English idiom conveys the original meaning accurately and impacts us better than if the idiom were not used. Other versions translate this section accurately, but lack the stylistic power of the English idiom (I have highlighted the equivalent wording):
  • on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to get the mastery over them, but which had been changed to a day ... (RSV)
  • on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred: ... (ESV; "the reverse occurred" is a stylistic improvement over the literal RSV wording)
  • It was on this day that the enemies of the Jews had supposed that they would gain power over them. But contrary to expectations, ... (NET; this is also an improvement over a literal translation)
  • the day when the enemies of the Jews were hoping to get them in their power. But instead, ... (GNB; also better than literal)
  • This was the very day that the enemies of the Jews had hoped to do away with them. But the Jews turned things around.... (CEV; this is nice, mildly idiomatic)
  • On that day, the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but quite the opposite happened. ... (NLT; another nice translation)
The second idiom in TNIV Esther 9:1 is "got the upper hand". Again, this idiom does not literally translate the original. There is nothing in the original Hebrew about a hand or an upper hand, but the English idiom accurately translates the meaning of the Hebrew. Other English versions translate the Hebrew accurately, but lack the stylistic impact of the TNIV idiom:
  • when the Jews should get the mastery over their foes (RSV)
  • the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them (ESV)
  • the Jews gained power over their enemies (NET)
  • the Jews triumphed over them (GNB)
  • It was the Jews who overpowered their enemies. (NLT)
Now, I am not suggesting that "got the upper hand" is a better translation here. I am only pointing out that using an English idiom increases stylistic impact. When a translation uses natural idioms of that target language, people who use that translation get the feeling that "God speaks our language". Idioms and other figurative language bring color to a language. They help us feel that something is written the way we actually use our language.

Here are some other English idioms I have found in the TNIV (I highlight the idioms):
  • When all the Israelites who had hidden in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines were on the run, they joined the battle in hot pursuit. (1 Sam. 14:22)
  • Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. (Psalm 106:43)
  • Eloquent lips are unsuited to a godless fool—how much worse lying lips to a ruler! (Prov. 17:7)
I am not suggesting that, overall, the TNIV is a better translation than others because I have spotted some English idioms in it. (There are many passages in the TNIV, as in other versions, which are not very idiomatic.) I am only citing examples from the TNIV in this post because that is the version I am currently checking.

What are some English idioms you have found in other English versions?


At Fri Nov 30, 05:26:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

What about "carried out"? Last time I checked, that was an English idiom.

At Fri Nov 30, 07:06:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

"carried out", yes, good one, Iyov.

At Sat Dec 01, 03:54:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

For idiomatic phrasal verbs (i.e., Iyov's examle, "carried out" and other 2- and 3-word verbs) and associated grammars, visit:

For other sorts of idioms:

At Sun Dec 02, 07:40:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

If your spouse asks you to carry out the trash, do you carry out her wish?

At Sun Dec 02, 08:03:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes. Good one, Iyov. You could take up punning as a Job!


At Tue Dec 04, 09:23:00 AM, Blogger Norm Patriquin said...

re:[[EST 9:1 There is nothing in the original Hebrew text about tables, but using the English idiom conveys the original meaning accurately]]

I don't think this is a good thing. Changing MASTERY to TURNED THE TABLES on them loses any other implication of the word MASTERY. Using such idioms dilutes the text and prevents us from getting the other layers of meaning of the text.

Note the related words in this verse used in the NASB - command, edict, executed, and mastery twice. There's more going on there than initially meets the eye :-)

God's word is much too rich, condensed and complex for us to be modifying it in any way. It's not for everyone but I prefer the most literal translation available.

Thanks for a great blog!


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