To Translate is to Lie

There is an old saying: to translate is to lie.  For your average church-goer, this may be a bit unsettling.  Suddenly very bothersome questions start to arise.  Are my English translations wrong? Can they be trusted? Do I have to know Hebrew and Greek to truly understand what the Bible says?  The answer to all of these questions is: no…sort of.  Join me as I give a few examples.

For certain, what you read in your English Bibles is generally what the original language says.  However, it is not always possible to get the exact meaning across to today’s reader.  This is because the phrase could be an idiom, cultural reference/practice, or it just doesn’t make good English.  Let’s look at a few examples.

Shema

Perhaps the most fundamental passage in all of the Hebrew Bible is the Shema (Deut 6:4-5).  The NIV translates it as:

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

–Deut 6:4-5

Sounds familiar, right?  However, the last phrase “all your strength” is in the hebrew:

This is pronounced (from right to left): oo-ve-KOL meh-oh-DEH-ka.  Translated literally this means “all of your very”.  All of my what?  How do I give all of my very?  It just doesn’t make good English.  The idea behind this, which I think is quite empowering, is God has already said he wants your heart, your soul, and now to make sure that He gets the point across, God finishes by saying He wants your very! The word can also be translated as exceedingly or every.  He wants to make sure you understand, He wants it all. But notice here, in order to properly translate the text, they had to make a choice and use the word “strength” which is not in the text at all.

Put Your Hand Where?

An even better example of this comes from Genesis 24.  Abraham wants a wife for his son Isaac to marry, but he doesn’t want her to be a Canaanite.  So he asks his servant to seek out a wife for him but it is here that we come to a very peculiar part of scripture.

1 Abraham was now very old, and the LORD had blessed him in every way. 2 He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. 3 I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, 4 but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

–Gen 24:1-4 (NIV, 2010)

Abraham asks his servant to put his hand under his thigh?  What does that mean?  It sounds strange to us today, and one immediately wonders if there was some sort of cultural practice regarding swearing oaths and hands under thighs.  Here, your Bible translators have taken the “high road” in translation and tried to make it as culturally acceptable as possible for the modern reader.  The word translated in the NIV as “thigh” is:

This is pronounced (from right to left): yeh-RAY-key.  Transliterated, it might be written: yerekhi, or without the pronominal suffix (changing it from “thigh” to “my thigh”) it would just be yerekh.  This time the word does indeed mean thigh, but it also means the male genital region.  The renowned Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna puts it this way:

Holding the circumcised membrum, called the “sign of the covenant” in 17:11, may invoke the presence and power of God as the guarantor of the oath.1

The medieval commentator Rashi also followed this line of logic, that the servant was called to hold Abraham’s circumcised penis when he made this oath, just like one today would put a hand on a Bible, a physical sign of the covenant with God.2 But more than that, this gesture is aimed at the seed that comes from this covenant, the sign of which was the circumcision. Abraham had his servant swear to him on God’s promise of children but also on God’s promise of the messiah!3

Naturally, you can see why our translators decided to go with “thigh” rather than “circumcised penis”.  Not only is it more family friendly, but it’s not necessarily important to understand the true meaning of the text here.  What’s of the utmost importance is that the servant swore an oath and fulfilled it by bringing back Rebekah.  However, I do think that for the advanced (mature) reader, understanding the significance of such an oath is very powerful (if not a bit awkward).  The servant was so committed to the family, the covenant (which he participated in since he was circumcised), and to God, that he held in his hands the very sign of the covenant and swore to play a part in fulfilling it (because the line would have died with Isaac if he never married).

When was the last time you did something radical in order to play a part in God’s story of salvation?

Peace to you,

James

====================

Bibliography

1. Sarna, Nahum, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 162.

2. Rashi on Gen 24:2.

3. Mark, Elizabeth Wyner, The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Brandeis University Press, 2003). “Wounds, Vows, Emanations,” p. 8-9.  (Note: This source interestingly deals with circumcision from a female perspective which is highly fascinating)

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13 thoughts on “To Translate is to Lie

  1. Reminds me of the “hagah” piece you did awhile ago…

    Sometimes “meditate” (the translated version) just doesn’t get the original intent across.

    I never knew that about the Sh’ma, interesting.

  2. Really great insight, James! I hadn’t carefully looked at this in the Hebrew of the shema before so this is extremely helpful. I will definitely be using this in future teaching on how God wants our “very!” Thanks for sharing!

  3. Excellent insight. Do you have something on the name of God. Is the tetragrammon YHWH actually His name or just a substitute for His name and therefore the Jews began calling Him by YHWH? Did God in fact give Moses His name or just told him just to be refered to as “I am (that I am)?”

    • The Biblical evidence is that it’s really God’s name, carefully preserved with much reverence. It’s strange that God tells Moses that the patriarchs did not know Him by that name, because it’s all over the Biblical text in Genesis. It’s also clear that God’s name is a play on words on Hebrew, something that resembles the verb “to be,” indicating that He is the “being one.” That is actually quite an interesting thing to think about, because humans can never “be,” rather we always “becoming.”
      Peace,
      James

  4. So did Joseph did the same thing to his father Jacob? In Genesis chapter 47 verse 29 Jacob asks him to put his hand under his thigh and to swear that he will not bury him in Egypt

  5. Pingback: Days 12-15: You want me to put my hand where? | Reading Between the Hines

  6. Pingback: To Translate is To Lie (by James Prather) | Manna and Coffee

  7. Pingback: February 7, 2014 | Year of Hours

  8. Hi James, very interesting articles here. I wonder if you have any comments on how Jehovah’s Witnesses translate Exodus 3:14. The most common translation being I AM, but they translate it I Will Become, or I Will prove to be. Your opinion would be most helpful.

    • Hi there. Thanks for the feedback. The Hebrew of the passage is ambiguous, and many scholars think it is written that way on purpose. It could be translated as “I am”/”I am being” or “I will be”/”I will become”. I personally think that going for either one doesn’t quite capture the nuance of the playful Hebrew expression. I’d translate it: “I am the existing one.” In contrast to humans which change constantly, God is the one who simply “is.” Hope that helps!
      Peace,
      James

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