Any translation is difficult. Translating a book written for one culture into a very different culture; doubly so, and translating an ancient book; quadruply difficult. So translating the Bible is not an easy task. Sometimes people ask, “What is the most accurate translation?” There is no answer to that question because there are different kinds of accuracy.
That thought came home to me a few weeks ago when I read a passage in the book of Numbers. Here it is in the English Standard Version:
6 And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes 7 and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. 9 Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” (Numbers 14:6-9 ESV, emphasis mine)
The phrase that jumped out at me was: “for they are bread for us”. Let’s remember the events transpiring when Joshua and Kaleb said, “they will be food for us”. The Israelites had left Egypt and trekked to the land god had promised them. Just outside that land, they sent in spies. The spies came back with a discouraging report – while the land was good, the cities were well defended and the inhabitants were “giants”. The spies recommended against invading – all except Joshua and Kaleb. They do not deny the facts, but argue that God will help them overcome the difficulties. In effect, they make a motivation speech; trying to change the prevailing opinion. They start by tearing their clothes - a sign of great distress.
The phrase “they will be food for us” stuck me because I had just read a news article about the book by Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, Scorpions for Breakfast. The title comes from a Chuck Norris blog about Brewer where he said that she “is so tough she eats scorpions for breakfast and flosses with barbed wire”.
The translation “they are bread for us” is accurate in terms of meaning. That is exactly what the original text says. But, is it accurate in terms of its purpose and impact? In the passage, Joshua and Caleb are giving a motivational speech. They use all their rhetorical powers to turn the tide. But no modern English-speaking politician or motivational speaker would say “they will be bread for us” in the hopes of getting the audience to do something scary and difficult. Is a translation accurate when a phrase that was obviously intended to be motivational comes out flat in the translation?
On the other hand, “We’ll eat them for breakfast” or “We’ll have them for lunch” are exactly the kind of phrase that would be said in such circumstances. Interestingly, Eugene Peterson translates the phrase ” Why, we’ll have them for lunch!”. If Joshua and Caleb had written a book, maybe they would have entitled it “Giants for Breakfast”.
Pray for Bible translators. They need to digest exotic languages for breakfast.
If you liked this, you might also like No Hard Knocks or Translating Obsolete Measures.