Translation commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:15

Almost certainly this verse is a proverb that Qoheleth quotes. We cannot at present discover its source. It is structured as two parallel statements, and the translator should strive to retain this form as far as possible. It can be indented or enclosed in quotes to show that it is a peculiar literary form.

What is crooked describes the state of an object: it twists and turns. Such an object cannot be made straight, says the quotation. Of course there are many things that are crooked and bent which can be straightened or smoothed out without any difficulty. But there are also many other things that cannot be straightened. It is only these latter that Qoheleth is thinking about, so translators should note that this saying is not meant to describe every possible situation; it is only a generalization. Also we should avoid giving the impression that something “crooked” is actually “faulty,” or “wrong.” (This is the difficulty with the Living Bible paraphrase “What is wrong cannot be righted.”) A crooked tree is simply a crooked tree, and it may be all the more attractive because it is crooked. In many languages “crooked” does refer figuratively to corrupt, immoral, or evil people and practices. This associated meaning may require us to choose a different adjective, or a phrase such as “twists and turns” or “has many curves in it.”

What is lacking (or Good News Translation “things that are not there”) describes a vacuum, or nonexistence. Naturally if something is not there it cannot be numbered. This states another very obvious fact: you cannot count something that does not exist.

What both halves of the saying demonstrate is that, in the natural world as well as in human life, certain facts cannot be altered; they simply have to be accepted. The problem to be avoided in translation is giving the impression that this situation is necessarily bad or negative. The quotation itself is neutral. It simply points to the conclusion that Qoheleth has come to about life, that sometimes we must accept certain things as they are. If the translator’s language has a proverbial saying expressing similar ideas, then that can be used. It may also be necessary to supply the subject of the clause. We may say “A person cannot straighten out something that twists and turns,” “You [singular or plural] cannot straighten something with many curves in it,” or “We cannot make straight what is crooked.” For the second clause we can say something similar: “A person [you, one] cannot count something when there is nothing there [to be counted].”

The point being made does not depend on the order of these two clauses, so if it proves more natural to express the second clause first, the clauses may be reversed.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Ecclesiates. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Ecclesiastes 3:3

A time to kill may refer to God’s actions in the world, but more than likely it refers to wars between peoples. Qoheleth indicates that we don’t always go about killing, whether it be people or animals; there are times when we may have to kill, but on the whole we only kill when it is appropriate to do so.

A time to heal is the opposite of the previous saying. It indicates that bringing healing to individuals or to situations also occurs at appropriate times.

Thus we may translate “there are times when we may kill, and there are times when we can bring healing.” Again the emphasis is on actions appropriate to their time. In those cultures where the objects of verbs such as “kill” or “heal” should be expressed or defined, then the object should be in its most general form, such as “people.”

A time to break down: the verb break down is generally used in the context of destroying some structure, and it may be necessary to supply some object to make that clear. We have the choice of “houses” or “cities.”

A time to build up is like the previous verb in that it also does not have an object. However, almost certainly it refers to houses or cities, and so if the language requires it we may use that kind of object to illustrate the action. To build up does not always mean “rebuild,” so we can ignore the Living Bible suggestion at this point.

Additional suggestions for translation are:

• There are times when we have to tear down something, and there are times when we must build.

• We tear down [houses] at certain times and we build [houses] at certain times.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Ecclesiates. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Ecclesiastes 4:13 - 4:14

Better is a poor and wise youth is the “priority” element in the “better” saying. Youth signifies a young male, possibly a teenager, though the term can be used of males up to the age of thirty years. The Hebrew root has a second noun form that is applied to people who serve as soldiers, often also being slaves. Thus youth may refer to a male of relatively low social class, though the emphasis here may be more on the fact that he is young. The conventional view in Israel was that old people are wise and young people are foolish. So Qoheleth may be using irony when he refers to a wise youth, to make the point that the young can also be wise.

Poor and wise can also be translated “poor but wise.” Bringing these two features together may not have been commonly accepted in Israelite society, but Qoheleth is trying to make an important point. Wisdom does not depend on a person’s social class and wealth. Poor translates a term used only three times in the Old Testament, all of them in Qoheleth (see also 9.15, 16). Moffatt renders poor as “lowly born,” indicating his interpretation along the lines of social class and not only financial poverty. Wisdom writers often made the point that wise people might be poor (see Pro 19.1; 28.6 for some examples).

Better in this setting is not easily defined. In what way is the youth “better” than the king? Good News Translation suggests “he [the king] is not as well off,” but this phrase has various meanings in English. It can mean that the youth is actually wealthier than the king. This would make no sense, given the youth’s poverty. Good News Translation does not really help us clarify this question of the content of the word “better.” However, as we are dealing with a comparison of two kinds of people from different classes and backgrounds, better almost certainly means “more commendable” or “more important.” This is how the wise person viewed the matter; to follow wise teachings was the only commendable way to live. There is also the possibility that better applies to the larger context of the passage: “It is better to be ruled by a young man who is poor but wise than by an old king who is foolish….”

Who will no longer take advice: the more general adjective “foolish” is now expanded by this phrase, which describes in what way the king is foolish. Normally kings and other rulers depended on priests, prophets, and wise counselors to advise them on matters affecting the state. A king who will not take advice is one who does not consult these learned and experienced ones. There is, however, another possible translation for this text. The king may be one who “does not know how to take care of himself any longer.” New American Bible suggests “who no longer knows caution.” These are less likely meanings than the more traditional one, so we shall follow the first possibility: the king “no longer listens to the advice of others.”

Suggested translations of verse 13 are:

• A poor but wise youth is more commendable than an old but foolish king [or, ruler] who no longer accepts advice.

• A youth who is poor but wise is more commendable than a ruler who is old but foolish, no longer accepting advice.

• It is better to have a poor but wise young ruler than an old one who is foolish, who no longer listens to counsel.

Even though translates the Hebrew connective particle ki. It introduces the first of two conditional clauses that emphasize the point Qoheleth is arguing. Rather than presenting these as subordinate clauses, the translator may choose to express them in an independent form: “It makes no difference whether he came from prison to assume the throne or whether he had been born poor.”

He had gone from prison to the throne: this represents the first condition. Our most basic question is to determine who he points to, but we shall put it aside for the moment. Prison is a term with slight textual problems in Hebrew, but almost certainly it is from the root meaning “to bind.” New American Bible gives a metaphorical meaning, seeing it as a reference to his mother’s womb, but there is no valid basis for this view. From prison the person concerned went to the throne as the Revised Standard Version puts it, or “to rule” (New American Bible). The original text uses a form of the root that is related to the notion of kingship, but that is not its only meaning. In Neh 5.7 it describes the activity of a royal advisor or counselor. In 10.16, 17, 20 Qoheleth uses the root in a nonroyal sense. So the term may describe a tribal elder or head of a community. This means that the person described here may not necessarily have been transferred from prison and made king, but rather he became a royal counselor. In the Old Testament Joseph was known for his wisdom and his subsequent role as counselor to the Pharaoh (see Gen 45.8). He was released from prison to take this position. Thus it is possible that the person behind Qoheleth’s example here is Joseph. In this case our translation will be affected; we shall have to change to the throne to “to become a royal advisor,” or “he became the one who gave advice to the king [or, ruler].”

We return to the question of the identity of he. Does it refer to the youth or the king? If our above interpretation is correct, namely, that the Joseph story is behind the example given, then he can only refer to the youth. He is more commendable than an old king, even if he had once been in prison, and had then risen to high office, and even if he always remained subject to the king. We can make this reference clear by rendering he as “that youth.”

A translation to be considered is “… even though that youth may have been released from prison [or, may have once been in prison] to become [or, then became] that king’s advisor.”

Or in his own kingdom had been born poor: the keyword here is poor. The Hebrew term is used only six times outside the wisdom material of Proverbs and Qoheleth, and in three of those settings it describes David. In 1 Sam 18.23 David protests to Saul that he is too poor to be eligible to marry the king’s daughter. Thus there is reason to think that the David tradition lies behind the example cited. Our translation will not be greatly affected by this insight as the meaning of the text is quite clear. No matter how poor a youth may be, if he has wisdom he is superior in every way to an old foolish king, as David was with respect to Saul. This understanding differs from the Jerusalem Bible text “who was born a beggar.” Poverty does not always mean that a person must beg. In most languages there are several ways of expressing the notion “poor.” The translator should take care to use an expression that fits in with the tone of the passage; in English, for example, it is more appropriate to say “poor” or “from humble beginnings” than to say “broke.”

Born comes from the same root as “young man” in the previous verse. Here is another case of a passive that may have to be rendered differently in some languages; for example, “Even though the ones who gave birth to him were poor” or “even though his family doesn’t have money” are possibilities.

The Hebrew construction in his own kingdom raises a small problem for the interpreter. Some versions take the first word in to be a preposition indicating location, while others take it to be a preposition indicating purpose, namely, “[in order] to rule.” The first seems the more likely. In his own kingdom may create problems for translators if there is no concept of kingship and kingdom, or of a ruler who holds absolute authority over a given territory. In those circumstances it may be necessary to use the more general term “in his own land.” Since there is a time lapse between when the young man is born and the time when he will rule, this clause may need to be expanded: “even though he was born poor in the land where he would [eventually] rule.” Revised English Bible has “… in his future kingdom.”

Verses 13 and 14 may need to be reordered, as they are in Good News Translation. In languages that prefer conditions to be presented before conclusions, verses 13 and 14 can be combined and restructured. Something like the following can be acceptable (see also Good News Translation):

• Even if a young man goes from prison to be a ruler, or is born poor in the kingdom where he will eventually rule, it is better to have a young ruler who is poor but wise, than one who is old and foolish, and who no longer listens to advice.

In other languages it may even be necessary to give the “better” clause first, then state the conditions, and then repeat the “better” statement:

• It is better to have a poor but wise young ruler than one who is old and foolish, who no longer listens to advice. Even if the young ruler comes from prison to become king, or even if he is born poor in the kingdom he will eventually rule, it is better for him to rule than an old, foolish king.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Ecclesiates. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Ecclesiastes 6:11

What seems to be an independent clause is actually linked directly with verse 10 by the introductory particle ki, meaning “for,” “because.” Thus it provides the justification for the statement in verse 10. This relationship is an important one, for it demonstrates that the “dispute” in that verse is essentially a verbal one, as we have indicated. Here in verse 11 Qoheleth is referring to things people say.

The more words: the verse needs to be provided with an introduction such as “For,” or “The reason is that….” The Hebrew noun phrase The more words is literally “there are many words.” This sense can be well rendered by a verb phrase such as “the more we talk” or “the more we have to say.” In the context of verse 10, this general saying takes on a narrower meaning, namely, “the more you argue with someone.” This is the basis for Good News Translation “The longer you argue.”

The more vanity repeats in verb form the root rab “much” or “many.” As the number of words increases so does the amount of vanity. Since we understand this word to mean something that cannot be explained, our translation will be something like “the more we talk [or, argue], the further we are from a solution” or “the more we debate an issue, the more complex it seems to get.” In this way Qoheleth makes the point that no matter how much we debate and discuss the question of “lasting benefit,” it is like trying to win an argument with someone far more skilled than we are. The result is that we still have no final answer.

Some languages find it difficult to express the construction “the more … the more….” Therefore it may help to restructure the sentence using a time or a conditional construction: “When people use a lot of words, there is a lot of confusion” or “If you talk too much, you just get further from the solution.” Another possible restructuring is “You can talk and talk, but you will never solve the problem.”

And what is man the better?: this is actually Qoheleth’s key question reappearing again. It is the briefest form in which the question occurs. See comments on 1.3; 2.22; 3.9; 6.8 for its meaning and significance. We can render it as “What benefit does a person derive from it?” or “Does that bring us any closer to ‘lasting benefit’?” or “What good does it do a person?” or “What does it gain you?” Good News Translation “you are no better off” adopts a statement form rather than using a question. The rhetorical question can be treated in this manner. In some cases it may be necessary to refer to the context: “What does all this discussion gain you?” or “What lasting benefit does a person derive from all this talk?” The noun man is collective, referring to all people.

If the transition between verses 10 and 11 is a problem, it may be necessary to state the rhetorical question at the beginning of verse 11 rather than at its close:

• (10) … you can never win an argument against someone who is more powerful than you are. (11) What good comes out of it? The more words, the more confusion.

The fact that we are dealing with the key question about “lasting benefit” places the debate or discussion in this section into a particular context. Qoheleth is debating whether yithron is available, and if so, where it may be found. Thus the content of The more words refers to the debate about “lasting benefit.” When Qoheleth admits that this is hevel, he is saying that there is no rational or practical way he can demonstrate that yithron “benefit” is available. We can never solve the question of yithron by debate and argument. It is this fact that allows us to understand what the two questions in verse 12 refer to.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Ecclesiates. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Ecclesiastes 8:4

Qoheleth offers another reason for doing as the king says. It is in the form of a noun clause introduced by For in Revised Standard Version. But the introductory baʾasher is ambiguous. It could be introducing a clause that explains why the king can do whatever he pleases (verse 3), or it could be introducing the reason for doing what the king says (verse 2). If the use of a conjunction like For is a problem, “And” or “Also” can be substituted.

The word of the king is similar in meaning to the phrase “mouth of the king” in verse 2, indicating how closely this verse is related to the command to obey in that verse. Obeying the word of the king, or “what the king commands,” describes how the wise person will react.

Supreme is how the Revised Standard Version translates the noun shilton. Qoheleth has used the root shlt in 2.19; 5.18; and 6.2 in the sense of having power over someone or something. He uses it twice in verse 8 (“power,” “authority”) and again in verse 9 (“lords it over”). Here the noun functions as an adjective describing the power of the royal command. Supreme obviously means that no word is more powerful than the king’s, so we can also say “all-powerful” or “paramount” (Jerusalem Bible). Other languages may express it as “above all,” “heaviest in the land,” “the head of all.” New English Bible “carries authority” does not necessarily mean that it is the highest authority. Although in Hebrew a word itself can be said to have power, it may not always be appropriate to express the meaning in that way. The authority of the speaker is what carries weight; what he says should be obeyed because it is spoken by someone who holds power. We may have to say something like “the king’s word carries his royal authority” or “because it is the king who speaks, everyone must obey.” We could also make the meaning even more specific: “The king is the highest authority in the land, and what he says must be obeyed.”

And who may say to him…? is another of the several “who” questions in this section. Here it is a rhetorical question expecting the answer “No one.” We can render its meaning by copying the question form or by transferring to a statement form. Who may say…? in this context is better rendered as “Who would [dare to] say…?” or “Nobody would [dare to] say….” In English the word may often suggests permission, whereas Qoheleth is actually illustrating the fact that the king’s word is absolute; only the fool would dare to question what the king orders. In this context the verb say has the sense of questioning someone while expressing disagreement, so “to question” or “to challenge” are appropriate also. To him refers to the king and this can be stated unless it is redundant.

What are you doing?: this gives the content of the question. If we use a statement form or indirect speech, this becomes “what the king does” or “what the king would do.” In some languages this question-within-a-question can be maintained, but translators should be careful to punctuate properly so no misunderstanding results. If we decide to follow the good suggestion offered by Good News Translation, then “to challenge the king” or “to challenge him” will be quite fitting.

Translators can consider the following examples:

• Also the king’s word is all-powerful. Who would dare challenge him [or, question what he does]?

• Furthermore, the king’s word carries his authority. Nobody would dare question what he [the king] does.

• [Remember,] the king’s word is supreme. Who would dare ask him, “What are you doing?”

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Ecclesiates. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:1

The Hebrew text of verse 1 is problematic. First of all a plural subject, “flies,” is linked with singular verbs. This is not too troublesome, however. It may be that Qoheleth considers “flies” to be a collective noun, much as “rice” or “sand” are in English, taking singular agreement. Alternatively this may be a feature peculiar to Qoheleth’s writing. In many other passages he has not used the expected singular—plural agreement (1.16; 2.7). Or this may reflect common usage in late Hebrew. Whatever the reason behind the forms, there should be no problem for translation. We advise translators to follow the rules for agreement in their own languages.

Dead flies, literally “flies of death,” may mean flies that are dying, flies that bring death, or dead flies. We presume that it is the last sense that is intended.

The perfumer’s ointment refers to “oil” that belongs to “one who blends perfumes.” The Revised Standard Version rendering ointment has a more restricted sense, being principally for medical use, and so this is not the best model for translation. “Oil” has a much broader meaning and is the more correct translation. Good News Translation translates the whole phrase “perfumer’s oil” simply as “perfume.” “Sweet-smelling oil” may be an appropriate translation if perfumes are not known in the translator’s community. Otherwise translators can look for a local substitute, using a term referring to some valuable substance which flies are attracted to. If possible, however, the translator should find some substance that is also common in the Biblical context. Here the point is not to emphasize “perfume” as such, but to represent an expensive item that can easily be spoiled.

Make … give off an evil odor is the Revised Standard Version rendering of two similar Hebrew verbs (yabʾish and yabbiaʿ). The first verb is familiar from the Exodus story, where it describes the stench of the rotting manna (Exo 16.20). The second verb is not easily identified, but it probably comes from the root that describes something bubbling up. Thus it refers to the scum on the surface of a liquid. There is some manuscript evidence to suggest that the second term is a noun meaning “vessel, container,” so Jerusalem Bible says “spoils a bowl of perfumed oil.” However, our recommendation here is that we render the two verbs so that they describe how a bad smell is caused when something becomes rotten. Obviously the fermentation or rotting process is caused by the flies that fall into the precious substance. This may be stated explicitly if required.

The use of two verbs that sound alike was probably intentional. They may have also had the same associations that words like “scum” or “stink” have in English. Though the translator must be careful to maintain an appropriate level of language for the context, expressive words or ideophones may be effectively used here.

Suggestions for translation are:

• Dead flies can spoil perfume and make it stink [or, smell bad].

• When flies fall into perfume and die, the perfume smells terrible.

• Dead flies can make sweet-smelling oil turn bad and reek.

So a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor: from the natural world an example is drawn and then applied to the field of wisdom. For this reason Revised Standard Version adds the particle so. Other translations mark the relationship between each part of the verse with a semicolon. The translator will have to decide how to best bring across the comparison. The idea of comparison may have to be drawn out in some languages: “As dead flies make perfume reek, so a little folly….”

The comparison relating folly to wisdom uses an Aramaic term for something heavy. We can render it as “heavier” or “weightier,” recognizing that the term also carries the sense of value. Good News Translation “can cancel out” may be too strong, though it does express the idea of something being spoiled. Outweighs is good and is preferable to Jerusalem Bible “stronger.” “Ruin” or “spoil” are possibilities, but like the Good News Translation translation, they may say more than they should. Translators must avoid translating literally in languages where “heavier” means “more important,” or “more respectable.”

Wisdom: refer to comments on 1.13.

Honor: the text literally says “a little folly is heavier than wisdom, than honor.” Honor denotes status and respect in the community. Its association with wisdom may seem out of place in Qoheleth’s thinking. Thus Crenshaw suggests that it functions as an adjective describing the abundance of wisdom. Good News Translation agrees and translates “the greatest wisdom.” The translator can follow this model or translate as Revised Standard Version, which inserts the conjunction “and” between the two noun phrases. Similarly also is New Jerusalem Bible, “wisdom and glory.”

A little folly describes a small amount of folly, which is to say any minor act that is thoughtless and typical of the fool—an indiscretion. The phrase relates to the statement of 9.18.

It may be difficult to speak of such abstract values as folly and wisdom with the verb “outweighing.” If this is the case, the translator may have to spell out the sense a bit more: “A foolish act can undo what much wisdom has been able to accomplish.”

For translation we suggest:

• [similarly] a minor foolish act can outweigh great wisdom.

• an indiscretion can have more effect than great wisdom.

Though this verse does not have a true chiastic structure, we note that it begins with the spoiling agent Dead flies and ends with a little folly. The translator may wish to highlight the similar roles of Dead flies and a little folly in some way. It may be that simply putting them in parallel will produce this effect. In some languages a similar verb such as “spoil” may be used in both contexts. For example:

• As dead flies spoil sweet-smelling oil,
So a little folly can spoil much wisdom.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Ecclesiates. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Ecclesiastes 12:3

In this verse and the next we have a description of a house, with special emphasis on those living or working there. But the activities around the house are decreasing or have stopped, and the doors are closed. We are not told why this is the case. As noted earlier some commentators take this as a picture of the weakness of old age in general and the lessening of activity during this time of life. Others interpret the individual descriptions as references to parts of the body, which show the effects of old age. Still others see the figures as references to death or funerals.

In the day when appears to be equivalent in meaning to the “before” phrases used elsewhere in this section. This can be shown if need be by adding “before the day when…” or “before the time when….” Day will carry the same general sense as in verse 1 above; that is to say, “a period of time.” Although day, like “year,” has a special literary function in the Hebrew text of this passage, we may translate the entire phrase by the adverb “when.” Following this time phrase four verb phrases refer to certain actions which have decreased or stopped altogether.

The keepers of the house tremble: from the Hebrew verb for “keep” we get the term keepers. It is the same verb used in 5.1 to describe the action of guarding. Many cultures will have a term for people who guard a house against robbers, though this term may also refer to servants or caretakers. If an appropriate term does not exist, we can simply say “those who guard the house,” which is similar to what New Revised Standard Version has. Tremble, like the following verbs, uses the Hebrew imperfect verb form. It can signify what will happen when the future moment arrives, or it can express what always happens when a person reaches those “days.”

When Good News Translation says “your arms [that have protected you],” it shows that it understands keepers and house to refer to the human body. This is, of course, one possible meaning, but we recommend against following this in our translation. This interpretation can be included in a footnote (see below for an example). The reason for advising against Good News Translation is that the figurative interpretation of this passage cannot be consistently applied throughout; therefore there must be some question about its validity. We suggest a translation like “When those who guard the house [will] tremble.”

And the strong men are bent: “men of strength” may be a literal reference to strong men, or alternatively a reference to a person’s legs, as Good News Translation suggests. Are bent is from the verb “be twisted, bent over.” It is easy to see how the view that it describes an old person bent over with age came about. However, the verb here and in the previous clause both have other possible interpretations, so we should translate fairly literally. Good News Translation‘s version, “legs, now strong, will grow weak” may not be sufficiently accurate.

The comments above about what to put in the translated text and what should go into a footnote apply here also. The Good News Translation interpretation should be reserved for a footnote. We recommend a translation like “people who are strong [will] become bent over” or “those who were strong now grow bent.”

And the grinders cease: the verb “grind” is normally used to refer to the action of grinding grain or crushing olives. It can also have the meaning of oppression as in Isa 3.15. The verb appears here as a feminine participle, so a more literal rendering is “the women who grind…,” as in New Revised Standard Version. The verb cease speaks not only of declining power but of activity that has come to an end. Thus New Revised Standard Version reads “cease working.” The verbs in these four examples are the keywords, and so the theme can be traced to them. In this case they speak mostly of actions that have ended.

Good News Translation and many other versions understand this clause to refer to “teeth.” However, in the context of the description of a house, a rendering like “the women who grind” makes good sense. Again we recommend translating this form literally and putting the possible meaning of the figure in a footnote.

Because they are few explains why the grinding ceases. Those who grind have declined in numbers. If a figurative approach is taken, we can understand that, because there are so few teeth, chewing is no longer possible. If we take the text more literally, we may wonder why fewer grinders means the work must stop. Interestingly enough, Jerusalem Bible omits this phrase from its translation. However, we recommend that the text be rendered fairly literally.

Those that look through the windows: the “lookers” (Revised Standard Version those that look) is another feminine participle; it may describe women looking out through the window. The Hebrew noun for windows refers to gaps or openings (see, for example, Gen 7.11 “the windows of heaven”; Isa 60.8). If the intention was to refer to someone whose eyesight was failing (see Good News Translation), then windows refers to the eye, whereas “those who look through the window” seems to mean something else. Another possibility is that windows refers to “eyelids,” and “those looking through” are the “eyes” themselves. These problems indicate that it is better to give a literal rendering of this difficult text and to suggest possibilities of interpretation in footnotes. The demonstrative those in English does not show gender, so if a more literal translation is desired, we can express this as “the women who….”

Are dimmed is literally “grow dark,” the same root used in verse 2. We refer to Psa 69.23, where the idiom is also used, and discover that the phrase means “to lose one’s sight.” This leads to a translation “they who look through the windows grow blind,” or possibly “… can no longer see.” New American Bible suggests this also, and it is the translation we recommend. Note that this is a stronger statement than Good News Translation “[grow] dim.” However, we need to recognize that there is a wide variety of understanding about this idiom in the various translations, with some seeing a direct reference to dim eyesight or blindness due to old age, and others taking this mention of darkness to mean death. Jerusalem Bible “day is darkening all the windows” is quite far from the text and should not be used as a model.

For translation of the whole verse, we recommend a rather straightforward rendering, with a footnote:

• Before the time when the guards of the house tremble, and those who were strong now grow bent; before the time when the women grinding stop work because they are too few, and those looking through the windows can see no more.*

A possible footnote is:
*In this and the next verse, the imagery is often understood to be referring to the human body (“the house”). The “keepers” would be the hands, and “those who are strong” would be the legs; “the grinders” are the teeth, “those that look” are the eyes. Others consider these figures to represent death.

As noted earlier, the clauses in 12.1b-7 all add detail to the imperative “Remember your Creator” in 12.1a. In many languages the use of a series of “before” clauses will be unnatural. Indeed, time clauses may normally come before rather than after the main clause. In such cases the translator may have to modify the Hebrew original and repeat the main clause, either before or after the time clauses. If this kind of repetition is necessary, it will be good to place it at major breaks—at the beginning of verses 3 and 5, for example. Verse 3 can then say:

• Yes, remember your Creator, before the time the guards…, and the women stop grinding, before the time when those looking out of the windows can no longer see.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Ecclesiates. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Ecclesiastes 2:8

I also gathered for myself silver and gold: the verb gathered suggests amassing large amounts of these precious metals of silver and gold. In this case the two precious metals are meant, and if possible they should be translated as such. However, in those cultural groups that do not have a term for one or the other, the two terms can be combined into one term, “wealth.” This can give a translation such as “I became extremely wealthy” or “I amassed silver and gold.” In this context some languages may find it unnecessary to translate for myself.

Foreign monarchs and empires paid tribute to Qoheleth. This is the meaning of the phrase the treasure of kings and provinces. It suggests that Qoheleth ruled a vast and powerful empire—perhaps another reference to the “Solomon” model. Provinces is a loan word to Hebrew, an Aramaic word found in some of the later Old Testament books, especially Esther and Daniel. It describes political districts within the Babylonian and Persian empires, obviously much later than the time of Solomon. Qoheleth claims that he received wealth from foreign nations who recognized his rule. So from inside his empire and from outsiders, Qoheleth amassed a vast fortune. We can translate his meaning as “kings and foreign powers handed over their treasures” or “foreign kings and states paid tribute to me.”

I got singers, both men and women: in 2 Sam 19.35 the word singers describes those who provided entertainment for the wealthy classes. Qoheleth says that he “made” singers, meaning that he acquired or organized them for this purpose. He uses the verb “made” since it is one of the keywords for this section, as was pointed out in comments on verse 4. We may translate it as “organized.” Translators should note Living Bible‘s addition, “In the cultural arts…,” and be warned to avoid this kind of expansion of the text.

The concluding phrase and many concubines, man’s delight raises many problems. The Hebrew text is literally “exquisite delights of the sons of man,” followed by a phrase that is difficult to understand (siddah we siddoth). Revised Standard Version places the last phrase first, rendering it many concubines (New International Version “harem”). As the root sdh does not occur anywhere else, it is difficult to fix its meaning absolutely, but the context almost demands that sexual pleasure is its sense here. This is quite appropriate when we recognize that Solomon is the model for much of this book (see 1 Kgs 11.3). The Hebrew phrase consists of a singular plus a plural form of the noun siddah; such a construction probably indicates a large number, hence the rendering many. If “concubine” is a term that is not known or used in the translator’s language, then “women” can be used.

Man’s delight: though the Hebrew phrase is unusual, its general sense is clear, namely, “what delights any man.”

Two possible models for translation are:

• I amassed silver and gold; kings and foreign powers gave me their treasures. I organized groups of male and female singers, and as for women,* I enjoyed as many of them as any man could want.

• I became extremely wealthy. I was entertained by men and women singers, and enjoyed many concubines,* the delight of any man.

Possible footnote:
*The Hebrew is obscure. Some versions translate “concubines,” while some refer to wealth. Most see a reference to sexual pleasures.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Ecclesiates. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .