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).

See also wisdom (Proverbs).

Translation commentary on Ecclesiastes 8:16

The opening phrase repeats ideas from 1.13, 17 and elsewhere. On the phrase I applied my mind, see comments above in verse 9, as well as on 1.13, 17. It conveys Qoheleth’s thirst for knowledge.

To know wisdom: as in 1.17 and 7.25, a distinction is possible between “knowledge” and “wisdom.” The verb “know” expresses relationship or an understanding based on experience. The infinitive to know gives the purpose of his search. Wisdom is a more technical word and includes the accumulated teachings of the wise men, and their method of enquiry. Thus Qoheleth confesses that he longed for a deeper understanding of what it was to be a truly wise person.

And to see the business that is done on earth: once more Qoheleth refers to “seeing” things that happen, which means he observed carefully and reflected on the significance of what he saw. The object of the observation was business; see comments on this word in 1.13. As in 1.13 the meaning is possibly parallel to “knowing wisdom.” Alternatively it describes the broad range of human endeavors, both good and evil. The passive form is done may be rendered as an active verb, in which case a subject must be provided. If it is correct to interpret “business” as what the sage does, then “what the wise person does” is an acceptable rendering. Otherwise we can say “what people do.” Note also Good News Translation‘s idiomatic “what goes on.” On earth refers to the activities taking place here “in this world.”

How neither day nor night one’s eyes see sleep: there are some difficulties with this part of the verse. The first problem is that the verse begins with a first person reference (“I applied my mind”), but in this clause we have a third person singular “he” (rendered by Revised Standard Version as one’s). Is Qoheleth speaking about himself, or is he speaking of people in general? We assume the former, since Qoheleth has already described his attempt to see the business … done on earth.

The next challenge is to interpret the difficult Hebrew clause, “for also in the day and in the night sleep in [or, with] his eyes he did not see.” There are basically two possibilities. One is to say that he has “sleep in his eyes” and consequently “did not see [anything].” Taken figuratively this would mean that Qoheleth was “blinded”; he did not find the answers he was looking for. This interpretation ties in well with the theme of the whole passage, emphasizing that no one can understand fully what God does in this world. However, another interpretation is also possible and is preferred. We can interpret the text as “he did not see sleep [with his eyes],” meaning he worked unceasingly; he didn’t sleep, day or night! Indeed in many African languages a similar idiom “to not see sleep” exists with this meaning. It is possible that we have an echo of this tiring search in the editorial note in 12.12. As it stands, most versions (Revised Standard Version, Good News Translation, New Jerusalem Bible, New International Version, New American Bible, and New Jerusalem Bible) take this latter view. Following this interpretation, after his long search—with no time for rest—Qoheleth finally concludes that he will never find the answer anyway (verse 17). We are forced to conclude that the two interpretations fit both the structure of the verse and the general theme of the passage. The translator will have the difficult task of deciding which model to choose.

For translation two alternative renderings are possible:
• When I dedicated myself to finding out about wisdom and to observing all the activities people do on this earth, night and day I found no rest [or, … I didn’t sleep, day or night!].
• As I committed myself to becoming wise and to observing everything that people do on this earth, day and night I could not sleep.

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 .