October 24, 2003

There Are No Idioms

Category: Bible :: Permalink

I was thinking, in connection with my last post, about why translators sometimes mistranslate certain phrases in the Bible. Part of what promotes mistranslation, it seems to me, is the push for readability.

Virtually every translation has, as one of its goals, to produce a readable version of the Bible. In translations such as the NASB and NKJV, that goal is balanced by the goal of trying to come as close as possible to a word-for-word translation. In other translations, such as the NIV, the goal of readability is much more dominant. Sometimes, translators even claim that they are translating the ideas, and not so much the words. After all, they might say, the words are but the vehicles for the idea, and the goal is to get the ideas of Scripture across to people. And what’s more, we do want people to be able to read the Bible, don’t we?

But readability cannot be our chief goal in translation. For one thing, we don’t simply want to get the ideas across. We want people to hear what God actually says, and that involves trying as much as possible to reproduce the words He uses in the way He uses them. Ideally, if a passage is chiastic in structure, we should want our translation to be chiastic, too.

Besides, if our goal were to produce a completely readable Bible, we’d certainly trim down a lot of the repetition in the Bible. We’d probably eliminate most of Numbers 7 (“one silver plate, the weight of which was one hundred and thirty shekels…”).

“Does all that repetition really matter?” I can imagine someone asking. After all, the ancient world may have loved lists (just look at all the lists in medieval literature), but we don’t, so why not translate the Bible into our own style, the style readers today are accustomed to? Lists aren’t part of that style, so lists must go. We can say the same thing — get the same idea across — in fewer words.

Now most translators don’t go to that extent. But in the push for readability, certain other sacrifices are made.

Take the matter of idioms. When you’re translating from another language, you often run into idioms which aren’t found in English. Sometimes a metaphor might make sense even when it’s translated literally, but often the translator struggles to find an equivalent English idiom to get the same point across.

Once when I was translating something from the Dutch, I discovered that instead of saying “Putting the cart before the horse,” the Dutch writer had “Putting the horse behind the cart.” It’s the same idiom from a different perspective. When I translated that passage, it was easy to switch the Dutch idiom for our version of it.

But can we do that to a phrase in the Bible without losing something? Here’s a thesis for consideration: There are no idioms in the Bible.  Put another way, the Bible’s idioms are normative.

The Bible does not simply adopt pithy idiomatic sayings from its surrounding culture, and its short, often metaphorical, sayings cannot be switched for other sayings in English that “make the same point.” Rather, the Bible says what it wants to say in the way that it wants to say it. The Holy Spirit chooses his words carefully. If we switch phrases in the Bible for what we think their English equivalents would be, we lose something of what the Spirit is saying. In particular, it seems to me, we lose a sense of the Bible’s symbolism.

And so to refer back to my last post, “uncover his father’s corner” or “his father’s wing” is not simply an idiomatic way of saying “commit adultery with his father’s wife.” The Spirit could have said “commit adultery with his father’s wife” if He had wanted to. He didn’t. He chose to refer to the wing of the garment for a reason, even though “commit adultery with his father’s wife” would seem to be much clearer — much more readable — for modern readers, and even though modern readers might find the reference to the father’s wing baffling. That puzzling reference to a wing is normative: it is part of what the Spirit is telling us about man, about clothing, about marriage, about holiness, and so forth. It isn’t a Hebrew idiom which can be traded for something clearer for English readers. There are no such idioms in Scripture.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:56 am | Discuss (0)

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