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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.

Translating Psalm 40:7-8

Translating Psalm 40:7-8

Aside from numbering problems, Psalm 40:7-8 appears to be quite straightforward on first reading in Hebrew (where it is verse 8-9). The numbering problems include chapter numbering (39 in the LXX), and verse numbering (8-9 in Hebrew, 7-8 in English). Of course, we all know that verse numbering is not inspired; it is often positively uninspiring.

The reason I wanted to bring it up, however, is to show how our approaches to interpretation might change what we see as a translation problem. Few of the English versions I consulted see any obscurity in this passage at all. The NRSV translates it thus:

7Then I said, “Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”

There is a footnote that tells us, “Meaning of Heb uncertain” but does not provide any alternatives or any discussion. A number of English versions, including the”>REB and the”>NLT mention no difficulty at all. The”>NASB provides the note “Or, prescribed for,” with is actually quite helpful. Yet in general if you read this book from the various English versions done mostly by Christian translators, you won’t get a sense that there is any translation issue here. Even the LXX translates it pretty much the same way.

This is one reason I enjoy reading both the New JPS translation and the notes in The Jewish Study Bible. First, they provided a clearly marked footnote on this, and then the notes provide a good explanation of the issue.

7Then I said,
b- “See, I will bring a scroll recounting what befell me.” -b
8To do what pleases You, my God, is my desire;
Your teaching is in my inmost parts.

Note b reads: “Meaning of Heb. uncertain.” The notes however tell us that the NJPS translation is interpreting this as “the psalmist’s hymn or a record of his experience.” Alternatives include the Torah (which fits with verse 9 in Hebrew very well), or the book of life, in which case the psalmist is thankful that his name is written there.

I think the problem here is not major issues such as whether there is some sort of Messianic prophecy or not. Rather, we’re used to hearing this more frequently from the quotation in Hebrews 10:5-7, which has its own variations. The quote begins with verse 6, for one thing, in which we have the word “body” (as in the best mss of the LXX) rather than “ears” as we have in the Hebrew (and some mss of the LXX). Nonetheless, in general the text doesn’t have to be specifically Messianic to be used by Jesus. At the same time its common use in quotation may blind us (or might I say blinded me?) to the alternative understandings.

The use in Hebrews 10 suggests that the writing is about the person speaking. Thus Jesus is saying that it is written of him in the Tanakh. Yet we have seen three alternatives. It might be something written by the speaker about himself. It could be the instructions of the Torah itself, connected to his expressed desire to do God’s will (v. 8), or even yet the book of life. I do see this last as the least likely in connection with the theme of the Psalm.

It is such little things that make me really enjoy reading both the NJPS translation and the notes in The Jewish Study Bible.

Finding an Authoritative Translation

Finding an Authoritative Translation

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm things eventually boil down to “all the animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

I think I can apply this to Bible translations as well as to animals, especially when one is looking for an authoritative translation. The fact is that no translation perfectly reflects the source languages. Thus, there is no translation that is the final word on the interpretation of any particular passage. The final appeal must be to the texts in the source languages, and to the best research available there.

This situation is very disappointing to many Bible students who don’t know their Biblical languages, which is the vast majority of Bible students. How can they successfully get finality about a point of Biblical interpretation from a translation? Surely there is a translation that is right all the time, that can simply be trusted. But the answer is no. No translation is ever perfect.

But are some translations “more equal” on this point than others? I would say that there are, and that there are some techniques that English speaking and reading Bible students can use in order to avoid getting caught by a translation issue. These techniques are really fairly simple, and the necessary tools are widely available.

  1. Use multiple translations
    If you compare the translation of a text in more than one version, you will be alerted to translation differences. Start with the assumption that if there is a substantial difference in the way a verse is translated, i.e. that the two translations don’t simply express the same thought in different words, then there may be a significant translation issue underlying those different versions.
  2. Make your choice of versions wisely and purposefully
    Choosing multiple versions to compare when looking for translation issues is differnt than choosing a version for your own reading or study use according to your preferences. You want to find versions that are done by credible scholars, but that differ in their approach sufficiently so that they are likely to disagree on controversial issues. I’ll list some good selections for this purpose below. In particular, be aware of the translation philosophy involved. For example, comparing the rendering of the ESV with that of the CEV may give you the idea that there is a significant translation issue, when the problem is really that one is very literal while the other is dynamically expressive. With some extra attention, you will then often find that they are both trying to convey the same message, just in a different way.
  3. Check concordances with original language references
    Many people put a great deal of weight into these kinds of studies in terms of finding or even creating new definitions, but without facility in the language in question it is doubtful that your work will be all that accurate. Such study can alert you to just where the problems are in a translation. This may not give you the final answer, but at least it may keep you from being embarrassed by finding out that you based your interpretation on a faulty translation, or that you were dogmatic about something that is really very controversial.
  4. Use commentaries
    For this purpose you need an exegetical or critical commentary. You might want to look at some suggestions for materials in my reader’s guide to Bible study tools.

Now let’s expand just a bit on which translations are “more equal than others.” If you want to catch translation problems you need to be more careful than usual in your selection. Let me suggest that your select one or more from each of the following groups. Note that the groups do overlap.

You want to avoid hitching your star to older translations, such as the KJV, ERV, ASV, Young’s Literal and so forth. These translations can be good an helpful in reading and study, but they were made without much modern research and many recent discoveries in manuscripts and language, and thus are not nearly as helpful in identifying true translation issues.

Literal Translations

You can generally avoid the older RSV as most translation issues will be reflected in the newer versions. I don’t list the New King James Version simply because its focus was to reflect the text and language of the KJV, and thus it does not present as much new information as other versions.

Dynamic Translations

Catholic Translations

Protestant Translations

Mainstream/Liberal Translations

Evangelical Translations

Jewish Translations

In this category, the one item to consult is the JPS Tanakh: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. I do not have this rated yet on my list of Bible translations, but it should be consulted especially in cases of interfaith dialogue.

As I noted earlier, there is ultimately no way short of learning the source languages to really be able to handle all translation issues. You will find, however, that the majority of the Bible is not that controversial in its translation. Translation issues deal with a small number of texts, though often these are the most contentious. Using multiple translations wisely will help you avoid errors and embarassment.

See also my book, What’s in a Version? and my Bible Translation Selection Tool.