Issues of Translation: The Long Nose of God

"Issues of Translation" was originally a series of articles I wrote for The Crown, the newsletter for All Saints, Sacramento published between May 2010 and March 2011. It was spured originally by an article about the King James bible which lead several members of the congregation to ask why there are so many different translations, and what makes one better then another. Rather then try to answer that question directly, I undertook to write a few articles showing why it is not obvious how to translate scripture.

Rather then allow these articles to languish on my hard drive, I have decided to repost them here. I plan to put one out each Friday. In the articles I occasionally refer to traditions common to The Episcopal Church or our parish. You should know then that for most scripture readings we use the New Revised Standard Version of the bible. Some of our liturgical sources (i.e. Rite I) still use language from the Authorized Version (now known as the King James Version or KJV). Choral Evensong services also have reading from the KJV. "Our hymnal" referers to The Hymnal 1982 of The Episcopal Church, and "our prayer book" refers to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Did you know that God has a long nose? At least that is what God says of himself to Moses in Exodus 36:6. However, if you look up this verse in any bible I know, you will find no references to noses. “Long of nose” is a Hebrew idiom. One of a great many found throughout the bible.

Idioms are short phrases that have a meaning other then what the words literally say. We use them in English all the time. Phrases like “kick the bucket,” “Baloney Sausage,” or “hang out” are all idioms that would not work well if they were translated out of English in a word-for-word fashion. There are lots of reasons that cultures mess up there language like this. Some times it is to make a serious subject less so. Think of all the idioms we have to avoid directly saying someone died. Other idioms provide socially acceptable ways to discuss otherwise unsavory subjects. (Think sex and defecation, but not for too long because both are not discussed directly in polite company within our culture.) Finally, they are a way to talk about concepts for which suitable words simply do not exist in our language. These are rare in modern English. Our culture prefers instead to borrow words form other language (particularly French, German and Latin) instead.

Hebrew is a very physical Language, and lacks words for almost all of the psychological and emotional states we are accustom to using in English.

In biblical Hebrew, on the other hand, this last kind is very common. The language is a very physical one, and lacks words for almost all of the psychological and emotional states we are accustom to using. Instead a raft of common idioms are used. Most are built by describing the form or posture of a part of the body. As I mentioned above the nose, (more literally in Hebrew “both nostril”) represent anger or temper. A long nose means an even temper – or to use an idiom from English having a cool head. On the other hand, flared nostrils are found on an upset person, and someone in a fit of rage is said to have their nose aflame.

The hand is by far the most common part of the body to find use in an idiom. The hand symbolizes a persons ability to act, and its gestures are a sign of character. Describing a king as having a strong hand denotes power, while a high hand denotes the use or abuse of power. To put a thing into the hand is to give control over it. For example “given into the hand of the sward” is to die in battle. The prophet who accuses the nation of living with clenched fists is accusing the people of being greedy.

Other parts include the heart which represents thought or intellect (and not emotion in the way it does in English), the eye which describes intent towards or relationship to another[1], the face which represent pride or honor, the feet which represent personal space, private things or modesty, the stomach and genitals which represent lust and passion, the kidneys that represent emotion, and the forehead and neck which are both used to describe a persistent or stubborn person.

The problem is how to translate all of these into English. There are no hard and fast rules here. Some idioms, such as “long-nosed” will always be rendered with their meaning. So “long-nosed” always turns into “slow to anger” or “long suffering.” Others including nearly without exception any idiom involving hand or heart will be translated word for word. In fact, history is probably the most solid indicator of which path will be taken. Many, of the bibles idioms have entered into secular speech with their meanings (almost) intact, and so are rendered literally while obscure or counter-intuitive idioms will be replaced a phrase with similar meaning. Hence, there is the lack of a lengthy divine nose that might be construed with a similar English idiom meaning meddlesome or rudely inquisitive.

In other cases, scholars are either in disagreement about whether the phrase is idiomatic or literal, or disagree over its meaning. These again are commonly rendered as literal (and sometime nonsensical) phrases with each reader left to their own interpretation. In these cases a good commentary is very helpful. In any case as you read the bible remember that there is a translator who has had struggled with meanings verses words and who is counting on you to do the same.

1. When speaking of actual vision ‘eyes’ is plural when used idiomatically ‘the eye’ is singular. A good eye or a light in the eye is to be empathetic, a bad or dim (unlit) eye is showing hostility or indifference. Read Matthew 6:22-23 with this in mind.