Saturday, September 15, 2007

Does this melt your heart?

In several passages in the Old Testament there is a Biblical Hebrew idiom which literally refers to the heart of someone melting. For example, notice this TNIV translation of Is. 13:7:
Because of this, all hands will go limp,
every man’s heart will melt.
Now read the next English sentence which I could easily have uttered on four occasions:
When I first saw my newborn granddaughter in the hospital my heart melted.
The wording "my heart melted" is an English idiom. But it has a very different meaning from the Hebrew which refers to a heart melting.

I haven't fieldtested literal translations of the Hebrew idiom, but I suspect that many current English readers will assume that a wording in an English Bible referring to a heart melting means what I meant when I referred to my heart melting in the hospital nursery, namely, I felt in awe, very joyful, deeply touched.

The TNIV is a good translation. It has far fewer wording issues like this one, compared to some other English Bible versions. But it can be made even better. Fortunately, the CBT is a good group of biblical scholars who not only want the TNIV to be accurate but to have good English. I doubt that they would want misleading English which is what we have with a literal translation of the Hebrew idiom in Is. 13:7 and similar passages (e.g. Josh. 2:11).

I am compiling a list of problem wordings in the TNIV for the CBT. The CBT requests revision suggestions by the first of each year so that they can organize them for their annual meeting which is in the middle of the year. I invite you to send me your suggestions for improving the TNIV, and I will forward them to the CBT. I am also trying to make available a website facility where we can click on Bible reference buttons and enter our suggestions that way for the CBT so that they are easier for the revision team to access the material. I will keep you posted if and when that facility becomes available.

In the meantime, keep reading your TNIVs. It's a good translation. And I trust that your own heart will be moved, if not melted, as you read it. And when you come across a wording that you think could be better, let us know so that the TNIV can become even better.

5 comments:

Bryan L said...

I actually like the way it says "every man's heart will melt". I think anyone reading it in context (which is the most important part to understanding how the idiom is used) will know what it's saying and have no problem understanding it.

I love the picture it gives you (right between the talk of the arms going limp and terror seizing them) and would hate to see it changed to something like "they will lose courage" or whatever it would translate to. You can really see it and picture their expressions and reactions to what is happening.

Anyway that's just my opinion.

BTW it's Is 13:7.

Blessings,
Bryan L

Wayne Leman said...

Yes, Bryan, I agree with you that each passage in the Bible must be read in context. My concern is for those Bible readers who do not understand that heart melting can mean anyone other than what it already means in English. I suspect that you have a fair amount of Bible background to know what the literal translation of the Hebrew idiom means. I suggest that even reading the literal translation in context will not be of much help to those who lack your Bible background. I believe that the wordings in English Bibles should give the right meaning in English to as many people as possible, including those who are newcomers to the Bible. Thanks for the correction on the reference. I'll fix the post.

Bryan L said...

After asking my sister and my wife about the phrase, I think you were right.
I guess I figure if someone who doesn't know the Bible well is actually reading through Isaiah, understanding "every man's heart will melt" is the least of their worries. :)

Blessings,
Bryan L

Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, note my (sometimes implied) criticisms of TNIV at these BBB posts:

Knowing God...

Hosea 6:6...

Admin said...

Frankly, I prefer a via media. E.g. In the Thessalonian correspondance the metaphor for death is sleep. The last I checked the TNIV translated this "sleep in death" to preserve the original language while explaining it.

This also occurs in Psalm 147:10 His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his delight in the power of human legs;

NLT just translates the metaphor "legs of a man" into "strength of a man". True, but non-specific. It also loses the larger comparison between calvary and infantry troops that we are tempted to delight in instead of resting in God's power.

The idiom is what gives the Bible such beauty. Explain it, don't excise it.