Mission Impossible Translating

Eli T. Evans

“If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar, but if he adds to it, he is a blasphemer.” 1 These harsh words from the Talmud describe the catch-22 that translators find themselves in: Hew too close to the original, and you mangle the translation; stray too far, and you misrepresent the original. Yet, translation is necessary because people rarely learn a new language to read a new book. German philosopher Thomas Mann sums it up: “Who would wish to discourage the peoples of the world from translating merely because it is fundamentally impossible?”

Translating poetry is especially “impossible.” Not only must translators convey the meaning of the original, they must give some sense of the feeling the poem evokes. Composer Claude Debussy said that music is the space between the notes. Perhaps poetry is the space between the words.

The spaces between the words of Psalm 137 are filled with sorrow, bitterness, remembering and forgetting, and a profound sense of loss.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion. 2 We hanged our harps
Upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
And they that wasted us required of us mirth,
Saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song
In a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee,
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
If I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;
Who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee
As thou has served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh
And dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

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The Talmud contains Jewish laws, stories and wisdom from several centuries. According to Jewish tradition, the Talmud was the oral law given to Moses when he received the written law at Mount Sinai.

This translation from the 1873 Cambridge Paragraph edition of the King James Bible is poetic, but at 165 words, it is twice as long as the Hebrew original. For example, “to the roof of my mouth” is only one word in Hebrew (לחכי, lekhiki; verse 6). The Hebrew refers to the inner part of the mouth, not the visible part. Should the translator use English mouth, which can mean both? Or palate, as the New Jerusalem Bible does? (Most English translations follow the KJV.) The italicized words in “Let my hand forget her cunning” (verse 5) were added for clarity; the Hebrew simply says, “let my right hand forget.” As with everything in translation, these are tradeoffs: Extra words provide accuracy, but at the cost of communicating the original’s pithiness. But it isn’t fair to count words, of course: Hebrew is not English, and poems tend to contain dense idiomatic expressions.

“We hanged our harps” (verse 2) employs alliteration: the repetition of consonant sounds to create a rhythmic musical effect. The equivalent Hebrew phrase talinu kinnorotenu (תלינו כנרותינו) has repeated t and n sounds. Here, the KJV trades accuracy for poetic effect. Though more accurate, the ESV’s “We hung up our lyres” just doesn’t have the same ring, nor does the NLT’s “We put away our harps.”

Verse 7 has the Edomites (Hebrew, “sons of Edom”) cheering on the Babylonians. The Hebrew line is guttural and harsh: ‘aru ‘aru ‘ad hayesod bah (ערו ערו עד הימוד בה). There is something scandalous, even offensive, in their chant. The repeated word means “to uncover,” often with reference to nakedness (e.g., Lev 20:18). The KJV rendering, “Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof,” has an admirable rhythm, even though raze (or rase: ASV, RSV) has passed from common usage. The NRSV’s “Tear it down!” is literal, but neglects the scandalous connotation. The ESV’s “Lay it bare,” is accurate and accessible, but loses some of the roughness. Again, it’s all about tradeoffs.

There is a lot of truth in the saying, “It loses something in translation”—especially for poetry. What can the biblical student do? It would be best to read the Scriptures in their native tongue, but not many of us will do that. In the meantime, we should read as many translations as possible and keep an original language dictionary or Bible software handy. But please, don’t be too harsh on the translators. Theirs is an impossible task.

Pick up Figures of Speech Used in the Bible at Logos.com/Speech

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 2


1. All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).