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Is that Idiom Right?

Is that Idiom Right?

We all use idioms, mostly unconsciously. There are a number that bother me that are in common usage, such as “I could care less” which developed from the more logical “I couldn’t care less.” But idioms often aren’t about logic. They’re about what people actually say, and what other people understand by what they say.

There’s a great article on this from a few weeks ago on Lingua Franca. Enjoy!

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

Isaiah 49:2 – Mouths and Sharp Swords

One basis I use for comparing Bible translations is the way in which idioms are handled. It’s difficult to measure this precisely, because you have to consider several things:

  • Is the idiom as used comprehensible to modern readers?
  • Does it mean the same thing to modern as to ancient readers?
  • Is there a reasonable English (or other target language) equivalent?
  • How good is the equivalent that was selected by the translation?

Simply noting that an idiom in one language is translated by an idiom in another is not sufficient. Figures of speech work in essentially the same way and require that one ask the same questions.

In Isaiah 49:2 we have a fairly simple figure of speech. In Hebrew, this very literally reads:

He set my mouth like a sharp sword.

Now I don’t know how natural that sounds in English to others, and I’m already running another poll, but to me “sharp” and “words” do go together in a figure of speech, and using mouth for the words spoken is also pretty standard. For example, I don’t think anyone has trouble understanding “potty mouth.” I have only rarely heard that combination with “sharp,” however. There I think we more commonly use “tongue” with “sharp” than “mouth.”

So I classify the translations of the figure of speech in three categories. First would be those that translate the figure of speech or idiom completely literally. (I’d ignore the idiom if the figure of speech is common also in the target language.) The second group adjusts it somewhat to make it more comprehensible. The third translates the figure into natural, but not necessarily idiomatic language. The fourth group (of which I have no examples in this case) would provide an alternate idiom. The following list is not exhaustive:

Translating the words and not the figure

“He made my mouth like a sharpened blade;” (NJPS)

“He made my mouth like a sharp sword,” (NRSV)

Adjusted slightly

In this case, the adjustment is generally “mouth” replaced with “tongue.”

“He made my tongue a sharp sword” (REB)

Translated into clear language (drop figure of speech)

“He made my words as sharp as a sword.” (TEV) [Note here that one figure (mouth for words) is replaced, while the second (sharp) is retained.]

“He made my words of judgment as sharp as a sword.” (NLT)

“He made my words pierce like a sharp sword” (CEV) [In a sense another figure of speech is added, or perhaps “sharp” is merely enhanced, by the addition of the word “pierce.”]

“He made my words like a sharp sword;” (HCSB) [The HCSB regularly surprises me, sometimes with incredibly obscure translations, and sometimes with exceptionally clear ones.]

This comparison also raises a question with the NLT text. Should the words “of judgment” be added here? Is it perfectly clear that it is words of judgment alone that pierce like a sharp sword? On first reading, I am not happy with the NLT addition there. It makes plain something that is not plain in the text, and may even be incorrect. My mind could be changed, however.

Better Bibles on Translating Idioms

Better Bibles on Translating Idioms

A couple of days ago I blogged about the idiom “brokenhearted” and closely related phrases, particularly in Isaiah 61:1. I’ve been collecting additional information via e-mail, and I may blog further on that one, though I am still pretty much looking at something like “give courage to those in despair.”

Today, Wayne Leman blogged about another idiom from Hebrew scripture, “in the eyes of.” He has provided a range of translation options for this into English and I think it’s worthwhile checking those out.

What is the best approach to translating an idiom such as this one? How important is it to you to transfer the source language idiom, if it is important at all?

One thing I have found is that the more I study idioms, the more important it seems to me that we get a clear and natural rendering in the target language. We are frequently unaware of the idioms in our own language, and for best effect, an idiom should be just that subtle, not something that makes you stop and wonder about its meaning.