Last night, we had an interesting discussion regarding translations, particularly of the bible.  My point of contention with reading the bible and trying to gain any literal meaning from it stems from the complexity of simple translations even from contemporary cultures.  You have to be culturally knowledgeable to make a translation, and nobody is culturally knowledgeable about the time periods during which old texts were written.

just look at these examples:
Geist in German means both mind and/or spirit, depending on the context.
ใจ in Thai means both heart and/or mind, depending on the context.

In english, mind generally means “the part of us that does the thinking”, which most of us agree is the brain.
For example, the phrase “blessed are the poor in spirit.”
So this could be mistranslated to read:
“blessed are the poor in heart”
“blessed are the poor in mind”
“blessed are the poor in brain”

And that is just one word.  I think, in this context, the correct translation for “poor” would have been humble.  Even 150 years ago that was a contemporary meaning for poor, however, it’s not anymore.

Of course, I’m not a bible scholar or anything of the sort, but biblical phrases are tossed around so liberally and literally and I can’t help but think they are generally mistranslated.

how do you translate an idiom that’s two or three thousand years old from a dead culture anyway?


The other day I was watching a youtube video on making samurai swords.  (rather, we were watching, that’s not a typical activity of mine alone. :)  They were describing properties of the different metals, using words like hard, tensile, brittle, ductile.  I had an interesting realization partway through the video:  I didn’t know the word ductile before, but now I knew what it meant.

It’s very rare for me to see an english word I don’t know, apart from nouns (particularly in a technical context.)  When I hear a new noun, my thought process is automatically “what does that mean” and I look it up or ask the question.

But hearing a new adjective was a different experience.  I didn’t think to ask ‘what does that mean’, instead, the answers were filled in by the context.  I still haven’t looked it up, but ductile, when used in the metal-smithing context by a British person, means flexible.  Or more flexible than other, harder metals.

This realization was fascinating because it’s a very small clarity about how language acquisition works.  I’m at the point with german that new adjectives now function the same way ‘ductile’ did for me in english-  the automatic filling in of meaning from context occurs. (only there are many many more of them :)  I had been worried about it in my German studies: I wondered why I thought I knew what these words meant in context, when I was pretty certain I wouldn’t even be sure whether they were adjectives or verbs outside of a sentence.

but just hearing that one new english adjective made me feel so much better. it’s just the same process for all languages.

Posted by:Brook DeLorme

2 replies on “idioms and context

  1. I think you’re absolutely right that we couldn’t translate the bible if we’d found it in a cave after 2000 years. But in the case of the bible, you have a book that’s been actively read and translated over and over during that entire period. And because we can observe the changes over 2000 years, in different contexts, and in light of different circumstances, we can make some guesses about why one version translates a word in one way, and another in another way. All translation over time is difficult, but with the bible we have a web of connections among translations over centuries that make the project not a futile one.

    Sometimes translations were politically motivated and it’s obvious (for example, the same word is alternately translated “deacon” or “servant” depending on whether the subject is male or female, but we can figure that stuff out. And the translations take on lives of their own in new linguistic/theological communities – the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) in Greek cultures, the Vulgate in Latin cultures, Luther’s German translation, and of course, the King James in English cultures.

    I actually have a problem with the plethora of new translations, all trying to do a better job than the next in getting at the original meaning, to the point where it’s meaningless to memorize bible verses anymore, as we’re all memorizing different versions. So what the bible gains in accuracy, it loses in functionality, if you look it as a book that constitutes a community.

    Marcia Falk, the Hebrew scholar, made a fascinating point in a book she wrote on the Song of Songs. She describes the effect hearing the book in Hebrew, before she even understood Hebrew had on her, and the insight it gave her that the duty of the translator is not necessarily to render accurate meaning, but also, to recreate poetic effect.

    The King James may not be the most “accurate” translation, but it succeeds as literature in English, which is not something that can be said for more modern translations.

    Sorry to ramble … it’s a subject I’ve thought about a bit.

    And speaking of new English words, do you know gallimaufry? I encountered it in Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and had to look it up. Can’t wait to use it now.

  2. hi Elizabeth :) I did not know gallimaufry- what a good word!

    your thoughts about bible translations make a lot of sense, I really appreciate it, and generally agree. Though- the political motivations behind translations or omissions from the bible, and of course the subsequent ‘covering up’ of said mis-translations/ omissions causes me to view any phrase, taken out of the complete context, as suspect.

    the part about the Song of Songs reminds me a little of things I’ve heard about sanskrit- the power actually resides in the vibration of the words, whether they are interpreted as poetry or just sounds- and the meaning, more subtle than our commonplace comprehension, is taken in regardless.
    thank you :)

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