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

anoint

The Greek and Hebrew that is translated in English as “anoint” is translated in Lakota with azilyA: “to smudge.”

Steve Berneking (in Beerle-Moor / Voinov, p. 121) tells the story of that translation:

“During one visit with the Lakota team, we were reading texts and discussing key biblical terms and how they are best rendered into Lakota. Reference was made to the ritual we label ‘anointing.’ When the Lakota word that had been glossed as ‘anoint’ was read aloud, I heard giggling among the reviewers. Knowing that this reaction called for some explanation, I asked.

“The people there told me that the Lakota verb that was used to translate ‘anoint’ was funny in that context. It is not that the verb is an uncommon one; quite the contrary. Lakota uses that verb frequently, but almost exclusively as a verb of food preparation; the verb belongs to the culinary domain. In other words, the Lakota verb used for ‘anoint’ actually referred to rubbing oil on something that was to be cooked or grilled, in this case, the apostles. The Lakota verb ipáṫaŋṫtaŋ ‘to apply oil on something’ was used quite innocently by the missionaries. The linguistic transfer was understandable: the missionaries needed a verb to translate ‘putting oil on something’; Lakota has a verb; they used that verb. The result was comical. So, during that conversation with the Lakota community, I encouraged the translators to come up with a Lakota verb that is used not simply in ‘the application of oil,’ but more pointedly in the consecration of something or somebody for a special task, or in the appointment of someone for a special purpose. Their response was almost immediate: azilyA or wazílyA ‘to smudge.’ That is how, they told me, warriors and messengers and tribal leaders have always been consecrated (or blessed) before being sent out on a special mission. Sage grass was burned, and the smoke was waved over the person or object. The trans-cultural process of using the traditional Lakota verb azilyA for the biblical notion of ‘anoint’ became, at that moment, part of the Lakota Bible.”

Click or tap here to see a short video clip showing how anointing was done in biblical times (source: Bible Lands 2012)

righteous, righteousness

(To view the different translations of this term in a simplified graphical form on a new page, click or tap here.)

The Greek and Hebrew terms that are translated mostly as “righteous” as an adjective or personified noun or “righteousness” are most commonly expressed with concept of “straightness,” though this may be expressed in a number of ways. (Click or tap here to see the details)

Following is a list of (back-) translations of various languages:

  • Bambara, Southern Bobo Madaré, Chokwe (ululi), Amganad Ifugao, Chol, Eastern Maninkakan, Toraja-Sa’dan, Pamona, Batak Toba, Bilua, Tiv: “to be straight”
  • Laka: “to follow the straight way” or “to straight-straight” (a reduplicated form for emphasis)
  • Highland Puebla Nahuatl, Kekchí, Muna: “to have a straight heart”
  • Kipsigis: “to do the truth”
  • Mezquital Otomi: “to do according to the truth”
  • Huautla Mazatec: “to have truth”
  • Yine: “to fulfill what one should do”
  • Indonesian: “people who are true”
  • Navajo: “to do just so”
  • Anuak: “to do as it should be”
  • Mossi: “to have a white stomach” (See also Seat of the Mind for traditional views of “ways of knowing, thinking, and feeling.”)
  • Nuer: “way of right” (“there is a complex concept of “right” vs. ‘left’ in Nuer where ‘right’ indicates that which is masculine, strong, good, and moral, and ‘left’ denotes what is feminine, weak, and sinful (a strictly masculine viewpoint!) The ‘way of right’ is therefore righteousness, but of course women may also attain this way, for the opposition is more classificatory than descriptive.”) (This and all above from Bratcher / Nida except for Bilua: Carl Gross; Tiv: Rob Koops; Muna: René van den Berg)
  • Eastern Huasteca Nahuatl: “the result of heart-straightening” (source: Nida 1947, p. 224)
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “entirely good” (when referred to God), “do good” or “not be a debtor as God sees one” (when referred to people)
  • Carib: “level”
  • Tzotzil: “straight-hearted”
  • Ojitlán Chinantec: “right and straight”
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “walk straight” (source for this and four previous: John Beekman in Notes on Translation November 1964, p. 1-22)
  • Aari: The Pauline word for “righteous” is generally rendered by “makes them without sin” in the Aari, sometimes “before God” is added for clarity. (Source: Loren Bliese)
  • North Alaskan Inupiatun: “having sin taken away” (Source: Nida 1952, p. 144)
  • Venda: “nothing wrong, OK” (Source: J.A. van Roy in The Bible Translator 1972, p. 418ff.)
  • Guhu-Samane: pobi or “right” (also: “right (side),” “(legal) right,” “straightness,” “correction,” “south,” “possession,” “pertinence,” “kingdom,” “fame,” “information,” or “speech” — “According to [Guhu-Samane] thinking there is a common core of meaning among all these glosses. Even from an English point of view the first five can be seen to be closely related, simply because of their similarity in English. However, from that point the nuances of meaning are not so apparent. They relate in some such a fashion as this: As one faces the morning sun, south lies to the right hand (as north lies to the left); then at one’s right hand are his possessions and whatever pertains to him; thus, a rich man’s many possessions and scope of power and influence is his kingdom; so, the rich and other important people encounter fame; and all of this spreads as information and forms most of the framework of the people’s speech.”) (Source: Ernest Richert in Notes on Translation 1964, p. 11ff.)

See also respectable, righteous and righteous (person)