untranslatable verses

The Swedish Bibel 2000 declared the 69 Old Testament verses referenced herein as “untranslatable.” Typically, other Bible translations translate those verses and mention in footnotes that the translation is uncertain or give alternate readings. Christer Åsberg, the Translation Secretary with the Swedish Bible Society at that time, explains why the Swedish Bible Society decided to not translate these verses at all (in The Bible Translator 2007, p. 1ff.):

“In the new Swedish translation (SB) of 2000, [some verses are] not translated at all; [they are] indicated with three hyphens inside square brackets [- - -] [with a] reference to the appendix, where in the article ‘Text’ one will find a paragraph with roughly the following content:

In some cases the text is unintelligible and the variant readings differing to such an extent, that it is quite impossible to attain a reasonable certainty of what is meant, although some isolated word may occur, whose meaning it is possible to understand.

“If Bible translators find the Hebrew text untranslatable, what kind of text is it that they have produced in the translation into their own language? When a footnote says ‘The Hebrew is not understandable,’ what then is the printed text a translation of? And if the translators prefer to do without footnotes, are they then really released from the responsibility of informing their readers that the text they read is just mere guesswork?

“To leave a blank space in a Bible text seems to be an offensive act for many. (. . . ) To admit that a piece of Holy Scripture makes no sense at all may have been unimaginable in times past. In our enlightened era, an overprotective concern for the readers’ trust in the word of God is apparently a decisive factor when a translator tries to translate against all odds. The verdict ‘untranslatable’ is much more frequent in scholarly commentaries on different Bible books written by and for experts than in the translations or footnotes of the same books designed for common readers.

“Another reason (. . .) is a professional, and very human, reluctance to admit a failure. Also, many Bible translators lack translational experience of other literary genres and other classical texts where this kind of capitulation is a part of the daily run of things. They may have an innate or subconscious feeling that the Bible has unique qualities not only as a religious document but also as a linguistic and literary artifact. Completeness is felt to be proof of perfection. Some translators, and not so few of their clients, are unfamiliar with a scholarly approach to philological and exegetical matters. In some cases their background have made them immune to a kind of interpretative approximation common in older translations, confessional commentaries, and sermons. Therefore, their tolerance towards lexical, grammatical, and syntactical anomalies tends to be comparatively great.

“It is very hard to discern and to define the boundary between something that is extremely difficult and something that is quite impossible. I am convinced that all Bible translators in their heart of hearts will admit that there actually are some definitely untranslatable passages in the Bible, but are there a dozen of them or a score? Are there fifty or a hundred? Not even a group of recognized experts would probably pick out the same ten most obvious cases. (. . .)

“Conclusions:

  1. There are untranslatable passages in the Bible.
  2. How many they are is impossible to say—except for the translation team that decides which passages are untranslatable.
  3. An untranslatable passage cannot and should therefore not be translated.
  4. The lacuna should be marked in a consistent way.
  5. The translating team should stipulate their criteria for untranslatability as early as possible.
  6. It is an ethical imperative that the readers be comprehensively informed.
  7. Untranslatability has been and can be displayed in many different ways.
  8. An explanatory note should not confuse linguistic untranslatability with other kinds of textual or translational difficulties.
  9. The information given should make it clear that the translators’ recognition of untranslatability is a token of respect for the Bible, not a proof of depreciation.
  10. You shall not fear the void, but the fear of the void.”

With thanks to Mikael Winninge, Director of Translation, Swedish Bible Society

king

Some languages do not have a concept of kingship and therefore no immediate equivalent for the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic that is translated as “king” in English. Here are some (back-) translations:

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  • Piro: “a great one”
  • Highland Totonac: “the big boss”
  • Huichol: “the one who commanded” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Ekari: “the one who holds the country” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Pass Valley Yali: “Big Man” (source: Daud Soesilo)
  • Una: weik sienyi: “big headman” (source: Kroneman 2004, p. 407)
  • Ghomála’: Fo (“The word Fo refers to the paramount ruler in the kingdoms of West Cameroon. He holds administrative, political, and religious power over his own people, who are divided into two categories: princes (descendants of royalty) and servants (everyone else).” (Source: Michel Kenmogne in Theologizing in Context: An Example from the Study of a Ghomala’ Christian Hymn)

Faye Edgerton retells how the term in Navajo was determined:

“[This term was] easily expressed in the language of Biblical culture, which had kings and noblemen with their brilliant trappings and their position of honor and praise. But leadership among the Navajos is not accompanied by any such titles or distinctions of dress. Those most respected, especially in earlier days, were their headmen, who were the leaders in raids, and the shaman, who was able to serve the people by appealing for them to the gods, or by exorcising evil spirits. Neither of these made any outward show. Neither held his position by political intrigue or heredity. If the headman failed consistently in raids, he was superceded by a better warrior. If the shaman failed many times in his healing ceremonies, it was considered that he was making mistakes in the chants, or had lost favor with the gods, and another was sought. The term Navajos use for headman is derived from a verb meaning ‘to move the head from side to side as in making an oration.’ The headman must be a good orator, able to move the people to go to war, or to follow him in any important decision. This word is naat’áanii which now means ‘one who rules or bosses.’ It is employed now for a foreman or boss of any kind of labor, as well as for the chairman of the tribal council. So in order to show that the king is not just a common boss but the highest ruler, the word ‘aláahgo, which expresses the superlative degree, was put before naat’áanii, and so ‘aláahgo naat’áanii ‘anyone-more-than-being around-he-moves-his-head-the-one-who’ means ‘the highest ruler.’ Naat’áanii was used for governor as the context usually shows that the person was a ruler of a country or associated with kings.”

(Source: Faye Edgerton in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 25ff.)