Troublesome Translations

How ancient translators handled word play in the Bible

Works by the children’s author Dr. Seuss are famous for their use of wordplay, rhyme, and alliteration. These techniques have made the works entertaining for millions of children, but they make translating Dr. Seuss’s stories into other languages a challenge.

Every language uses wordplay and idioms to convey meaning and add something to both texts and everyday speech. Alliteration is one of the most prevalent devices used in poetry, and famous lyricists such as Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Dr. Seuss all used it to add depth, meaning, and readability to their pieces. A famous—and easy—example is Dr. Seuss’s book Fox in Socks, where the ‘s’ sound is repeated in every phrase:

New socks.
Two socks.
Whose socks?
Sue’s socks.
Who sews whose socks?
Sue sews Sue’s socks.

Imagine the fun of reading this to a child! Imagine the horror a translator must feel in trying to adapt Fox in Socks to another language. How do you keep both the meaning and the alliteration, which adds so much to the text? And what if the words for “socks” and “sew” do not both start with ‘s’ in the target language of the translation? Do you then drop all alliteration in your translation? Decisions must be made.

The same can be true of idioms. Successfully translating idioms across cultures and languages is an art and a science. It requires skill, expertise, and a deep understanding of the languages and cultures of both the original and new language. Native speakers of American English are familiar with the phrase “to throw someone under the bus” meaning to blame or punish someone, especially in order to avoid the consequences of your own actions. It’s a very common phrase in America, but is significantly less common in England, and unknown to many speakers of British English.

English and German are both Germanic languages, both members of the Indo-European language family. Yet, between these two closely related languages are idioms that are challenging to fully translate. Some examples include “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof,” which translates into English directly as “I only understand the train station” but it actually means “I’m confused” or “I don’t understand what you are saying.” It’s very similar to the English phrase “It’s all Greek to me.” Another is “Im neuen jahr, sollst du ganz viel schwein haben,” which literally translates to “In the new year, you should have a lot of pig.” Why would someone wish you a large amount of pork? They would not…they are actually wishing you a lot of good luck in the new year (schwein haben, or “have pig,” is an idiom for good luck).

This papyrus fragment shows Psalm 88:4–8 from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). The translators of the Septuagint often had to struggle with issues of wordplay in the original Hebrew language. When possible, they tried to preserve the original wordplay, without losing the meaning.

If the translation challenges posed by two closely related languages like German and English seem complex, imagine the difficulties of going from English to a Slavic or Romance language. How difficult would it have been for translators in ancient times to translate a language from a completely different language family into another, such as Hebrew to Greek? The formation of the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) must have been an arduous task indeed! How did they deal with wordplay as they tried to keep the meanings and structure as close to the original—and highly sacred— text as possible?

In her article “Not Lost in Translation: Hebrew Wordplay in Greek,” Elizabeth H.P. Backfish discusses the various types of wordplay common in the Hebrew Bible, and the three ways translators of the Septuagint approached the challenge.

To understand how ancient translators dealt with wordplay and idioms in ancient texts, with notable examples from the Psalms, read “Not Lost in Translation: Hebrew Wordplay in Greek” by Elizabeth H.P. Backfish, published in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.