The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek that is translated as “wisdom” in English is rendered in Amganad Ifugao and Tabasco Chontal as “(big) mind,” in Bulu and Yamba as “heart-thinking,” in Tae’ as “cleverness of heart” (source for this and all above: Reiling / Swellengrebel), in Palauan as “bright spirit (innermost)” (source: Bratcher / Hatton), in Ixcatlán Mazatec as “with your best/biggest thinking” (source: Robert Bascom), and in Dobel, it is translated with the idiom “their ear holes are long-lasting” (in Acts 6:3) (source: Jock Hughes).
In Swahili, Bible translations try to avoid local words for alcoholic drinks, because “drinking of any alcohol at all was one of the sins most denounced by early missionaries. Hence translators are uncomfortable by the occurrences of wine in the Bible. Some of the established churches which use wine prefer to see church wine as holy, and would not refer to it by the local names used for alcoholic drinks. Instead church wine is often referred to by terms borrowed from other languages, divai (from German, der Wein) or vini/mvinyo (from ltalian/Latin vino/vinum). Several translations done by Protestants have adapted the Swahili divai for ‘wine,’ while those done by Catholics use vini or mvinyo.” (Source: Rachel Konyoro in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 221ff. )
The Swahili divai was in turn borrowed by Sabaot and was turned into tifaayiik and is used as such in the Bible. Kupsabiny, on the other hand, borrowed mvinyo from Swahili and turned it into Finyonik. (Source: Iver Larsen)
In Nyamwezi, two terms are used. Malwa ga muzabibu is a kind of alcohol that people specifically use to get drunk (such as in Genesis 9:21) and ki’neneko is used for a wine made from grapes (source: Pioneer Bible Translators, project-specific translation notes in Paratext).
In some Hindi translations (such as the Common Language version, publ. 2015 ), one term (dākharasa दाखरस — grape juice) is used when that particular drink is in the focus (such as in John 2) and another term (madirā मदिरा — “alcohol” or “liquor”) when drunkenness is in the focus (such as in Eph. 5:18).
Click or tap here to see a short video clip about wine in biblical times (source: Bible Lands 2012)
The idea that we can test for what will make us happy is one we have seen in verse 1. Verse 3 explains more fully what is meant by that.
I searched with my mind: these opening words remind the reader that Qoheleth was making an intellectual investigation. The initial verb tells of spying out or exploring something. We find it used in Ezek 20.6 to describe the way God spied out and selected the Land of Canaan for Israel to live in. So Qoheleth is using his mind (or in Hebrew, his “heart”) for this study. He is anxious to avoid giving the impression that he drank wine only for the pleasure of drinking.
How to cheer my body with wine: the opening infinitive is given as “to cheer” in Revised Standard Version and “to cheer myself up with” in Good News Translation. Actually the root meaning is “attract” or “draw,” though most scholars seem to agree with an earlier view that it probably means “to stimulate” or “refresh.” This is the view the Jewish Talmud adopts.
Wine: this refers to the fermented wine made from grapes. Though this drink was common and played an important part in Jewish culture, drunkenness was condemned (see, for example, Pro 20.1; 23.20, 21, 29-35).
To assure the reader again that drinking wine was a legitimate and scientific experiment, Qoheleth adds my mind still guiding me with wisdom. True to his reputation as a wise man, he is led by wisdom. Here wisdom refers to the principles and teachings of the wisdom tradition rather than to “wisdom” in general (see further the note on “wisdom” in 1.13). Sages of all ages and nationalities followed basically the same methods. They observed life, then considered deeply the things they saw, and from this developed advice or a set of instructions to help people live for everyone’s best interest. This is how he conducted this test, Qoheleth says. The use of the participle guiding indicates that he used wisdom’s principles throughout the test. When we translate we can add the word “throughout” to make that more obvious: “throughout I followed the principles of wisdom.”
And how to lay hold on folly demonstrates how far Qoheleth went in his testing for the pleasure wine could bring. He got drunk. The conjunction and does not add new action but shows how far Qoheleth went in doing what he did. In translating this we can say “even to the point of….” “Grasping hold of folly” may seem a peculiar way to express what Qoheleth did, but it indicates that he fully experienced what folly was. Good News Translation suggests “have a good time,” but this is much too vague and does not tell us whether he thought this was a good or bad thing. If it is felt that “I got very drunk” or “I got as drunk as a fool” is too idiomatic, then we can add a footnote to indicate the literal text, or we can keep a literal translation in the text and explain its meaning in a footnote.
Till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do: again we have the verb see used with the sense of testing or experimenting, showing that Qoheleth truly wanted to know what was best for people. Good News Translation “I thought that this might be the best way…” gives the impression that he thinks he already knows what is best, and so it weakens the sense of the verb. In Hebrew this clause is presented as direct speech, “can this be good for…?” Good is here a noun form meaning “good things.” Sons of men is a collective expression that includes every human being. Thus Qoheleth is wondering “whether this was a good thing for people,” or “whether it would benefit anyone.” “It” in such a translation refers to experimenting with wine as a solution to a person’s problems. That may need to be made clear.
Under heaven during the few days of their life: the expression under heaven was explained in comments at 1.13. During the few days of their life is literally “the number of the days of their life,” so we need to ask whether Qoheleth means by this that life is short. There are occasions when the term “number” indicates an amount that can be counted. If it can be counted then it cannot be such a vast amount, and therefore it has a limit, hence “limited number.” On the other hand “number” can also express the notion of a determined or fixed number, without any restriction as to how few or many it may be. This latter meaning is similar to the sense of Exo 23.26 and the fixed number of days Israel was to remain in Egypt. This second sense would give a different translation; for example, “throughout their lives” or “throughout their allotted life span.” There is no clear evidence that Qoheleth believed that human life was short, so our translation should not leave that impression. A simple solution is to render this phrase as “throughout their lives.”
Two models for translation are:
• I tried drinking wine to the point of foolishness, all the while keeping the principles of wisdom in view. I wanted to see if this is a good thing for people to do during their time on this earth.
• I gave myself over to wine-drinking, going to the limit, yet at the same time trying to remain wise. I was trying to figure out if this activity is worthwhile for people during their lives.
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 .