The last word of the verse in Hebrew is of uncertain meaning. It refers to some color, but it is not clear what color. Some translators render it as “black” (the English version by James Moffatt, 1926/1935) or “cramoisis” – “crimson” (the French Traduction œcuménique de la Bible, 2010), but the majority think that paleness fits better with a description of fear. Translators should use word pictures or idioms which are natural in their languages for expressing reactions to fear; for example, “soul (guardian spirit) disappears and bile is stirred up” (Thai). (See also terrified / afraid and also Seat of the Mind for traditional views of “ways of knowing, thinking, and feeling.”)

Translation commentary on Habakkuk 1:10

Revised Standard Version, Good News Translation, and most English versions appear to ignore the fact that in this verse the Hebrew pronouns in they scoff and They laugh are emphatic. Jerusalem Bible comes closest to representing this, with “They are a people that scoff at kings.” Another way in English to show the emphasis is “These Babylonians are a people who….” This can be repeated at the beginning of the second half of the verse.

The first half of the verse says essentially the same thing twice, as is clear from Revised Standard Version, At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. Scoff means to mock or scorn, and make sport means make fun of. It has nothing to do with athletic sports. The idea of scoff (Good News Translation “treat … with contempt”) can be translated in a variety of ways; for example, “They treat kings as if they were nothing,” “They look down their noses at kings,” “They sneer at…,” or “They shake their fingers at….” Make sport (Good News Translation “laugh at”) is similar in meaning but is a more active form of contempt. Here the conquerors are trying to show the defeated rulers how weak and foolish they are. In some languages make sport can be translated as “cause to lose face.” For rulers, see the translation note on “princes” in Nahum 3.17.

The second half of the verse is also in two parts, but in this case the second is not parallel in meaning to the first, so they cannot be combined. The first part is similar to the statements in the first half of the verse (They laugh at every fortress in Revised Standard Version). However, it sounds a little odd in English to laugh at something which is not personal, so Good News Translation turns this statement around and expresses its meaning in plain language as “No fortress can stop them.” Fortress may be translated as “city with strong walls,” or in certain languages as “large group of houses with a strong high wall around it” (see comment on Nahum 3.12). “Stop them” may also be translated as “prevent them from entering,” or “defend itself against them,” or “is an obstacle to them.”

The words they heap up earth and take it refer to one ancient method of besieging a town or fortress. This involved heaping a ramp of earth against its wall until the top of the ramp was level with the top of the wall. Then the attackers could climb the ramp, cross the wall, and capture the town or fortress. See the illustration at the discussion of Nahum 2.1.

Another translation model for this verse is:

• The Babylonian soldiers make fun of kings and laugh at their high officials (or, the chief servants of the kings). No city with strong walls can keep them from entering. They pile up earth against the walls and capture the city.

Quoted with permission from Clark, David J. & Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on the Book of Habakkuk. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1989. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Habakkuk 3:5

Some scholars think that here pestilence and plague are personified and spoken of as if they were the LORD’s attendants whose work was to punish his enemies. Diseases were thought of as one of the accompaniments of war (compare 2 Kgs 19.35), and the LORD was often pictured as punishing his enemies with disease (Lev 26.25; Deut 32.24; 2 Sam 24.15-16) or saving his own people from it (Psa 91.3, 6). Such a picture is in keeping with the wider context of verses 3-15. God is still being thought of as directing his actions toward the prophet, and then more widely toward the rest of the world’s inhabitants as they watch him acting in the skies above. Possible translation models in languages which must show the direction of actions are the following: “He sends disease (coming) before him” or “He causes disease to come (down) before him.”

The word translated plague is originally a darting flame and can be used of lightning (Psa 78.48). Fever, the disease which makes people feel hot, was thought to be caused by such flames.

The terms translated pestilence and plague do not refer to any of the specific illnesses known to modern medicine. They are general terms and should be translated by generic words like “disease” or “illness” rather than by specific terms like “malaria” or “typhoid.” Good News Translation renders them as “disease” and “death.” “Death” indicates that the illness is fatal.

Good News Translation has also restructured the sentence to show that God is the agent who is in control of the diseases (“He sends … and commands”). In certain languages it will be helpful to expand this verse slightly and say “He sends disease to go in front of him, and commands death to follow close behind him.”

Quoted with permission from Clark, David J. & Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on the Book of Habakkuk. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1989. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Nahum 2:4

The majority of commentators take this verse as continuing to describe the attackers, though Good News Translation seems to treat it as referring to the defenders by linking it with the first part of verse 5. The majority view seems more probable. Since the assault on the city walls is not mentioned until verse 5, the streets and squares here must refer to areas in the suburbs of Nineveh that were outside the main fortifications. The squares were more open areas where the chariots would have more room to turn (compare New American Bible “wheel in the squares”).

The terms used for the movements of the chariots are very vivid. (See comments on verse 3 for other ways to translate chariots.) For rage Good News Translation uses the expression “dash wildly.” The actual type of movement involved is not so important as the picture the words create of a situation which is frantic and disorderly. Translators should try to create a similar impression by the terms they choose; for example, “run in a confused way,” “race madly,” or “run in an uncontrolled way.”

They gleam like torches, they dart like lightning: these words probably refer again to the way the sun was reflected from the polished metal of the chariots. A torch was a long pole with rags that were soaked in olive oil and then attached to one end of the pole. When the rags were set on fire, the torch gave out light. The comparison with torches stresses brightness, and the comparison with lightning stresses both brightness and speed. These two sentences can be rendered “They gleam like the light from flaming torches, and dart about like flashes of lightning.” The word dart refers to very fast movement, first in one direction and then in another. In languages which do not have a single term for the idea of dart, translators may have to use a phrase; for example, “they rush in one direction and then in another.”

Quoted with permission from Clark, David J. & Hatton, Howard A . A Handbook on the Book of Nahum. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1989. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Zephaniah 1:6

Again Revised Standard Version keeps the Hebrew sentence structure, continuing the sentence begun in verse 4. Good News Translation begins a new sentence and once more repeats the verb “I will destroy” from verse 4. (For comments on “destroy” see verse 3.)

The people condemned this time are those who, while they may not have taken up the worship of other gods, are no longer active in the worship of the LORD; they have turned back from following the LORD. In many languages one cannot speak of following a person in the sense of “serving.” In such a case translators may say “going with the LORD” or “serving the LORD.” The whole sentence may be restructured as “I will destroy those who have stopped serving me.” For the LORD’s reference to himself in the third person, see comments on verse 5.

In the second half of the verse, Revised Standard Version translates literally the rather technical terms of the Hebrew, seek the LORD and inquire of him. These are expressed in clearer language in Good News Translation‘s “come to me” and “ask me to guide them.” In certain languages it will be helpful to make these last two clauses into a separate sentence and say “These people do not come to me or ask me to guide them.”

Quoted with permission from Clark, David J. & Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on the Book of Zephaniah. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1989. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Zephaniah 3:7

This verse shows the intended purpose of the LORD’s actions in verse 6 and the actual result, which was quite different from what was desired.

Verse 7 opens with the words I said and then gives a quotation within the main quotation that runs from verse 6 to verse 13. Good News Translation interprets I said to mean “I said to myself” (compare Traduction œcuménique de la Bible, Bible en français courant) and translates as “I thought” (compare Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch). Then it continues by turning the words quoted into indirect speech. Translators may use direct or indirect speech according to the normal patterns of their own language.

In the first two clauses Revised Standard Version uses the third person pronoun she where Bible de Jérusalem, Jerusalem Bible, New American Bible, Traduction œcuménique de la Bible, and New International Version use the second person “you.” The Hebrew actually has second person feminine forms in these two clauses (addressing the city, which is feminine in Hebrew) but third person forms in the third and fourth clauses. Such a change of person is somewhat awkward in English. It is not clear whether the Revised Standard Version translators changed the Hebrew text, or whether they made the alteration to third person on translational grounds. Translators should use whichever form best fits the overall paragraph structure in their own language. Note that by using indirect speech Good News Translation avoids this problem.

Surely (Good News Translation “then”) refers back to the words of the LORD in verse 6. Many translators will need to say, for example, “Because of this I thought that my people….” The LORD’s intention was that his own people, on seeing the punishment of gentile nations, would fear me and accept correction. The words “have reverence for” (Good News Translation) give the meaning in this context of the word translated fear in Revised Standard Version and most other modern English versions. The main component of meaning of fear in ordinary usage is “to be afraid of,” whereas the sense intended here is rather that of “respect.” The expression accept correction is the same expression which occurred in verse 2, and its recurrence here helps to tie these paragraphs together.

In the next part of the verse, most modern versions follow the Septuagint in rendering not lose sight or something of similar meaning such as “remember” (compare Bible de Jérusalem, New American Bible, Jerusalem Bible, New English Bible, Good News Translation, New Jerusalem Bible, Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch). This understanding depends on reading the Hebrew word meʿonah “her dwellings” with different vowels as meʿeneha “from her eyes.” The Hebrew is retained by Traduction œcuménique de la Bible and New International Version as it stands (compare Hebrew Old Testament Text Project), but the Septuagint understanding as found in the majority of modern versions fits the context better, and translators are recommended to follow it.

All that I have enjoined upon her: the Hebrew verb translated enjoined is a word of wide meaning. The basic sense is “to visit” (compare New American Bible), either with the intention of punishing (compare Jerusalem Bible, New International Version, New Jerusalem Bible) or of giving responsibility or instruction (compare Moffatt, New English Bible). Revised Standard Version enjoined has the idea of responsibility. Good News Translation has the idea of instruction and expresses it in simple terms as “the lesson I taught them.”

But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt: the final sentence shows the reaction of the people to the lessons the LORD had tried to teach them. Literally it says “but they rose early and corrupted all their doings” (Revised Version). The combination of the verb translated “rise early” with another verb is a favorite expression of Jeremiah (for example, Jer 7.13, 25; 11.7; 25.3, 4). It usually means “to do something persistently or eagerly,” and this is the sense here. The words eager or “eagerly” are used in Revised Standard Version, New American Bible, New International Version, and New Jerusalem Bible, but Good News Translation seems to miss this element of meaning. It apparently takes the idea of rising early to refer to time and translates “But soon they were behaving as badly as ever.” An alternative translation model can be “But they were just as eager as before to do all sorts of wicked things.”

Quoted with permission from Clark, David J. & Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on the Book of Zephaniah. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1989. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Habakkuk 2:4

Here at last the content of “the vision” referred to in verse 2 is given. It is introduced by a Hebrew word translated Behold in Revised Standard Version. The function of this word is shown more clearly in Good News Translation with “And this is the message.” One may also say “Here is the message” or “This is what I want you to write.”

The message itself consists of two statements, but unfortunately the first one is somewhat uncertain in meaning. Since the second statement is about the righteous, it is reasonable in a context like this to expect that the first statement will be in contrast to it, speaking about the wicked. Most translations fit this expectation, but the details of the statement remain uncertain.

The traditional Hebrew text is translated literally in Revised Version as “his soul is puffed up, it is not upright in him.” There is no noun for the pronouns “his” and “him” to refer to, but the general setting suggests that they refer to “the wicked” of 1.13, that is, the Babylonians. The expression “puffed up” in English usually means “full of pride” (as in Traduction œcuménique de la Bible), and some versions have something similar to this (New American Bible “rash,” New English Bible “reckless”). George Adam Smith translates “swollen, not level is his soul within him,” and compares this with the everyday English expressions “swollen headed” (that is, proud of one’s achievements) and “level headed” (that is, having a fair assessment of oneself and one’s situation).

Some scholars prefer to change the order of two letters in one Hebrew word. This gives a translation like that of Revised Standard Version, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail (compare Moffatt, Jerusalem Bible). He whose soul simply means “he.” The soul stands for the whole person, as it often does in the Bible. Good News Translation also accepts this change but expresses it in a clearer way as “Those who are evil will not survive.” Good News Translation uses the plural to express the general statement, and replaces the negative not upright with the single term “evil.” This gives a balanced contrast with the second half of the verse, and translators are recommended to follow it. Shall fail (“will not survive”) may be expressed more simply as “will die.”

The second statement, in its King James Version form “the just shall live by his faith,” is the best known text in the book of Habakkuk. Revised Standard Version replaces “just” with righteous, which is less ambiguous (compare New English Bible, Good News Translation, New International Version, New Jerusalem Bible). Jerusalem Bible uses the more modern term “upright.” In Habakkuk’s time, to be “righteous” or “upright” meant to obey God’s law and to treat other people fairly. So Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch translates “whoever keeps faith with me and does what is right.” A good summary of the conduct intended is given in Psalm 15. The righteous here are the people of Judah, or at least those of them who share Habakkuk’s concerns. Righteous may be rendered as “good people,” “straight people,” “upright people,” “people who obey (or, are loyal to) God,” or even figuratively as “people with straight livers.”

The word translated faith in Revised Standard Version is more accurately “faithfulness” (Revised Standard Version footnote, Jerusalem Bible; compare “faithful” in Moffatt, New English Bible, Good News Translation). This means being loyal to God and obedient to his law, even when outward circumstances make it difficult, as they did in Habakkuk’s day. In modern speech we may perhaps use the word “integrity,” though this does not have the religious overtones that “faithfulness” has.

Good News Translation again uses the plural to express a general statement: “those who are righteous.” Good News Translation also makes the religious aspect explicit by saying “because they are faithful to God.”

An alternative translation model for this verse is:

• This is what I want you to write: ‘Those people who are evil will die, but the good people will live because they obey God (or, follow God faithfully).’ ”

This verse is quoted three times in the New Testament (Rom 1.17; Gal 3.11; Heb 10.38) from its Septuagint translation. Paul makes it the basis for his doctrine of justification by faith, but in doing so he alters its meaning in two ways. First, the Greek word for “faith” does not have exactly the same components of meaning as the Hebrew word for “faithfulness.” The Greek word has a stronger element of intellectual and emotional commitment and less ethical emphasis. This change of focus was caused by the very fact of translation rather than by Paul’s deliberate choice. Secondly, Paul does deliberately link the words of Habakkuk together in a way different from that which Habakkuk intended. In linguistic terms, Paul uses a different immediate constituent analysis, that is, he sees a different set of semantic relationships between the words as they occur in the sentence. Whereas Habakkuk linked “by his faithfulness” with “shall live,” Paul linked “by faith” with “the righteous.” The contrast may be shown as “The righteous//shall live by faithfulness” (Habakkuk) as against “The righteous by faith//shall live” (Paul). In both the Hebrew and the Greek, the terms for “by faithfulness” or “by faith” come between “the righteous” and “shall live,” and so the change in the analysis can be made more easily than appears from the English. (Compare Revised Standard Version Rom 1.17, “He who through faith is righteous shall live,” with Good News Translation‘s restructuring, “The person who is put right with God through faith shall live.”)

The translator of Habakkuk does not need to worry too much about Paul’s theology. However, he does need to see what Paul has done, so that he can understand the difference between the meaning Habakkuk intended and the meaning Paul later drew from these words. Among Christians, Paul’s teaching is much more familiar than Habakkuk’s, and translators must therefore be careful not to translate in such a way that they make Habakkuk sound like Paul! Habakkuk’s own meaning in its original context must be respected, and not changed to conform to the New Testament application of his words.

Quoted with permission from Clark, David J. & Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on the Book of Habakkuk. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1989. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Habakkuk 3:17

Quoted with permission from Clark, David J. & Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on the Book of Habakkuk. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1989. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .