In Bible translation, one of the challenges that must be faced is how to handle idioms in the Biblical text.
What is an idiom? In short, an idiom is an expression that means something different from what the words used would normally mean. Let me illustrate. In English, we commonly say things like “raining cats and dogs” to describe a very hard downpour, or “off his rocker” to explain the abnormal behavior of an individual. When we are leaving a location, we may “be off” or “hit the road.” Each of these phrases are idioms. If you attempt to discover the meaning of an idiomatic phrase by analyzing each of the component words, you will arrive at a conclusion that is far from the intended meaning.
The Bible contains dozens of idioms which must be translated along with the rest of the text. The challenge comes because idioms rarely can be directly translated across languages. What makes perfect sense is Hebrew is complete nonsense in another language, or it may have meaning, but that meaning might be nowhere close to the intended meaning. Let’s look at a few Hebrew idioms and see how our English Bible translators handled them.
In Hebrew, the way to express that an individual does not blow his top easily is to say that he is “long-nosed.” The translators of the English Bible could have translated this expression word-for-word, but they chose not to, as the direct translation would make no sense to us. Instead, they chose to use phrases like “slow to anger,” “slow to become angry,” “longsuffering,” or something similar to express this concept. This term was often used in Yahweh’s description of himself, as in Exodus 34:6: “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering (long-nosed), and abundant in goodness and truth.” What do you think? Is “slow to anger/longsuffering” a faithful translation of this idiom?
Another Hebrew idiom that is obvious to anyone that reads the Old Testament is the phrase “gathered unto his people” (see Gen. 25:17 and 35:29). While this is not an idiom that we use in English, those of us who grew up reading the King James Version will easily recognize this as referring to an individual dying. The translators of the KJV chose to translate this idiom directly rather than re-phrasing it in a way that we would normally speak. This works because the meaning of this idiom can be discovered form context. But what do you think? Is this a faithful translation of this idiomatic phrase?
A third Hebrew idiom that is not well known is the expression “to bear/bring up on one’s knees” (see Gen. 30:3 and 50:23 for examples). This is a phrase that to this day has ambiguous meaning in English. Bible scholars are quite convinced that it is an idiom, but are not so sure what it means. A popular interpretation is that the phrase refers to the act of children being adopted or claimed by someone other than a biological parent. If we think that the idiom means “adopt”, does that mean the translators should have used this common English term instead of directly translating the idiom and leaving us wondering what it means?
These examples show that idioms can be difficult and a translator probably will not be able to handle all idioms the same way. Some idioms that make sense to the Hebrew reader will make no sense at all to a speaker of English or Swahili or Mixtec and must be changed accordingly. Other idioms can be translated directly, if its meaning in the target language is very similar to what it means in the source language.
The real burden of Bible translation is to communicate the Word of God to people that currently do not have access. If the idiom is not communicated in a way that the reader can understand its true meaning—the same thing it meant in the original text—the translator has failed in his task. Finding the best and most faithful way to translate idioms is difficult and must be based on careful study of the both the source and receptor languages as well as being guided by the Spirit of God.
—Leonard H, All-Nations member