I was planning to leave my comparisons with just Isaiah 63, as I believe that continued comparison charts will largely show the same thing. I’m still reading the translations side by side, and if something seems different I will bring it up.
But today in reading Isaiah 64 in several translations I came across Isaiah 64:6 (5 in Hebrew) in which the phrase “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (KJV) occurs. Now having just read this in Hebrew I was reminded that the literal translation of this is “menstrual cloths” or something similar. These cloths would be unclean, as was the woman in her menstrual period. One extended discussion of the issue of uncleanness can be found in Leviticus 15:19-33.
In the passage, there is clearly meaning in the fact that these are not merely dirty pieces of cloth. For example, had someone washed their hands and dried them on these cloths after digging ditches all day, by modern standards we might call them dirty. If I repair the car and then wipe the grease on a rag, we would escalate that to filthy rag. But the menstrual cloth implied ritual impurity, however odd that might seem to us today.
So having read the TNIV translation:
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away. — Isaiah 64:6 (TNIV)
Now this doesn’t disturb me much. In the course of the verse they have gotten in the words “unclean” and “filthy” and I would assume that the TNIV translators, along with all the modern versions I checked (quite a number), simply don’t think that “menstrual cloth” is going to be meaningful to modern translators.
But when I turn to a translation that prides itself on word for word renderings, that “seeks as far as possible to catpure the precise wording of the original text” (ESV Preface), I thought perhaps things would be different. But here the desire for literal translation escaped the ESV translators:
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. — Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)
Now I definitely think “polluted” is better than “filthy” in the context. But we have still replaced one metaphor in Hebrew with a completely different English expression. The Message carries this the furthest, using “grease-stained rags,” which does not reflect the basic idea all that well, but has the advantage of conjuring an immediate image in English.
Though I found only one modern version, the Complete Jewish Bible, that uses any word referring to menstrual cloths (menstrual rags), I did find that ancient translators used that. The LXX, Vulgate, and the Peshitta, all translate with something that includes the original literal meaning in its semantic range. Interestingly enough, the Isaiah Targum, according to the text I have available, uses an even better euphemism than any of the English versions, “cast off garment” or I might prefer the translation “garment thrown far away” (Stenning, The Targum of Isaiah, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).
So is there an element of meaning in the actual Biblical wording here or not? Is it possible to convey that meaning accurately in a literal translation? Such a literal translation does not appear common in modern translations.