When the English Bible Does Not Mean What It Says

The last line of my idiomatic rendering of Psalm 22, “for as long as I live” (KJV: “forever”), seems to have attracted the most comments (not only online, but even over the phone!). A number of people have told me that they had a εὕρηκα (heurēka) moment of sorts when it hit them that there’s no reference to eternity in the last couple of lines of this Psalm, which in fact speak of a lifetime devoted to God’s service. In this case, our English translations have long conveyed an incorrect meaning by adopting a free rendering that did not accurately represent in English the meaning of the idiom in the original.

Now our friend Jeff over at Scripture Zealot brings to our attention another instance in which our English translations have likely conveyed an incorrect meaning in English, but this time by slavish adherence to form: Psalm 119:92.

If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction. (ESV)

But as Jeff notes, the idiomatic use of “perish” here doesn’t seem to mean precisely “to die,” but rather to be crushed under, to fall into despair. And much to his surprise (and to mine as well), only one English Bible seems to pick up on this nuance: The Message. Well, I guess that proves that it is not entirely useless, as I had previously thought! Go read Jeff’s post to take a look at Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this verse, and to read some relevant quotes from some older (and therefore better) Biblical commentators. (And to learn why I dutifully check out the likes of Matthew Henry, John Gill, and Adam Clarke before the thought of opening a critical commentary even crosses my mind, see the first paragraph of this older post.)

“Form,” while able to communicate meaning clearly in some instances, can be a hindrance in others. I can say in Spanish “Mi mamá me dio aliento,” which can be formally rendered as “My mom gave me breath;” however, this idiom does not mean that my mother gave me life, but rather that she encouraged me. Thus the formal translation quite plainly communicates the wrong meaning in English and so slavish adherence to form leads us astray here. Let it be noted, however, that I believe it is greatly misguided to dispense with form as matter of principle. That seems to be rather en vogue these days, but I just find it to be a hopelessly obtuse endeavor. As I’ve noted before, there’s no reason to try to make a translation easier than its original! But more about that later.

6 responses to “When the English Bible Does Not Mean What It Says

  1. Jeff> Well, I often learn something from your thoughtful posts, so I’m glad to be able to give something back!

    Nick> Whatever. The Puritans (including Matthew Henry!) were far more learned and pious then the whole bunch of us put together! :-)

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  2. Okay I have been reading back in this blog for some bizarre reason, and I almost commented several times. But I didn’t. But how I must comment, due to my shock that the Message is not completely useless. Well, at least apparently not one line of the Old Testament, I trust that the NT The Message is still entirely useless.

    I once horrified a cradle Orthodox priest by giving him copied out bits of The Message’s version of the Lord’s Prayer and parts of the first chapter of John.

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