Issues of Translation: Wind and Spirit

"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.

It is tempting to think that languages are merely different word for the same set of concepts, and that a one-to-one correlation exists between a word in one language and a word in another. Unfortunately this is not the case, and because language is the basis for so much of human cognition, these differences can lead to more then just differences in translation, they can have philosophical and theological consequences as well.

An easy illustration of this is the word Ruach in Hebrew. If you look it up in a Hebrew to English dictionary you will see three definitions: wind, breath, and spirit. The first two make sense together as both imply moving air the difference being where the air is moving, but our concept of spirit is not related in any way to the movement of atmospheric gas.

Breath and spirit don’t share the same phoneme (word), they are, to a speaker of ancient Hebrew, the same concept.

We might then be inclined to see Ruach as a homophone, like the English word “bat,” which means both a stick and a flying mammal. It is just an unhappy coincidence that baton got shortened into a word that already had another meaning.

But Ruach is not like that. It has only one meaning. Breath and spirit don’t share the same phoneme (word), they are, to a speaker of ancient Hebrew, the same concept. When a translator encounters this word, a choice must be made, “do I say breath or spirit?” Neither choice is completely accurate. Let’s look at a passage where this is an issue, Ezekiel 37 and the story of the dry bones:

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Ezekiel 37:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

I have highlighted all the instances of the word Ruach in the text. Most become “Breath” here. In English that would seem to imply that breathing was part of putting bones back together, but try reading this passage with the word “spirit” instead. In Hebrew there is no difference.

There are in fact lots of words like this and it is always a compromise in terms of which word to choose. The final Hebrew word in this passage is used 243 times in the bible and is translated as everything from “man of valour” to “army/host” to “strength” to “wealth.” Yet all imply basically the same concept to the original readers of the text.

When we say that there is meaning lost in translation this is what is meant. Words do not always align well across cultures and centuries. One of they ways to minimize this loss is to read more then one translation, realizing that none are more “correct” then another. Another is to learn something about how your favorite translation uses the language. Finally, if there is a particular passage that is intriguing you can use tools like those found at ‘’ which shows how words got translated in different places. Perhaps the best thing to do is to simply be aware that there are issues in translating that do not lend themselves to simple answers, and to be open to the possibilities that the text presents.