Translating the Bible: The Problem of Polysemous Words

Bible Translations

One problem translators face in translating the Bible is the problem of polysemy. Polysemy is a word that has multiple meanings. When a polysemous word occurs in the biblical text, the translator must decide what is the correct meaning of the word in the context in which the word is used.

Take, for instance, the English word “strike.” The word “strike” is a polysemous word that has different meanings. When used in a sentence, the context must decide the meaning of the word. The following statement presents the problem presented by polysemous words:

“Strike after strike, it was devastating.”

What is the meaning of the word “strike” in the sentence above? It all depends of the context in which the word is used.

One meaning: there was so many strikes by the workers that it was devastating for the company where they worked.

Another meaning: there were so many strikes of lighting that it was devastating for the trees in the forest.

Another meaning: there were so many strikes in one inning that it was devastating to the team; the Cubs never recovered.

Another meaning: there were so many strikes that the bowler had a perfect game; his opponent had a devastating experience.

The Hebrew Bible contains several polysemous words. Translators must decide the meaning of a polysemous word from its context. At times, however, the context is not clear. When this happens, translators generally look at how other ancient versions, primarily the Greek of the Septuagint, translated the word. In some situations, the Septuagint is consulted and used in order to translate a Hebrew word into English.

When people read the Bible, they may read one verse or one chapter and meditate on what was read and discover what the Bible says about God, about the human predicament, and how to discover comfort in the midst of suffering, and yet, without fully grasping the message the biblical writer was addressing to his audience.

One good example of people misunderstanding the message of the biblical writer because of a faulty translation is Isaiah 40:6. The Hebrew text says:

קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא כָּל־הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר וְכָל־חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה

The King James Version translates the words of Isaiah as follows: “The voice said, ‘Cry.’ And he said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6).

The Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “goodliness” is hesed. The word hesed is a polysemous word. The word hesed is difficult to translate into English because the word has more than one meaning and its meaning must be determined by the way the word is used in context.

Most people who read Isaiah 40:6 in the KJV believe that the word “goodliness” has something to do with the goodness of people. This is how the Holman Christian Standard Bible understands the verse: “A voice was saying, ‘Cry out!’ ‘What should I cry out?’ ‘All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field.’” However, in the context of Isaiah 40, the word hesed is not used in the sense of goodness, elegance, comeliness, or beauty.

One commentator understood the words of Isaiah to be an attempt to make a contrast between people (all flesh) and grass. He said that the prophet’s intent was to emphasize that all people are weak and feeble like the grass that is soon withered. To him, this comparison refers to all people, in all places, and at all times.

This passage in Isaiah is quoted in 1 Peter 1:24: “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.” Several modern translations are influenced by the text of 1 Peter and follow the example of the King James Version:

The New International Version (NIV 1984) translates “A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.’”

The English Standard Version (ESV) translates: “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.”

The New Jerusalem Bible translates: “A voice said, ‘Cry aloud!’ and I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All humanity is grass and all its beauty like the wild flowers.’”

All the translations above are influenced by the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that came into existence in the second century before the Christian era. The translation of the Septuagint is as follows: “The voice of one saying, Cry; and I said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.” The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word hesed as doxa. The translation of 1 Peter 1:24 follows the reading of the Septuagint. The word doxa means “glory.”

Explaining how the word of the prophet (here Barnes is not using the meaning of hesed; he is writing about doxa) is used in Isaiah 40:6, Albert Barnes wrote in his commentary: “Applied to grass, or to herbs, it denotes the flower, the beauty, the comeliness. Applied to man, it means that which makes him comely and vigorous–health, energy, beauty, talent, wisdom. His vigor is soon gone; his beauty fades; his wisdom ceases; and he falls, like the flower, to the dust. The idea is, that the plans of man must be temporary; that all that appears great in him must be like the flower of the field; but that Yahweh endures, and his plans reach from age to age, and will certainly be accomplished. This important truth was to be proclaimed, that the people might be induced not to trust in man, but put their confidence in the arm of God.”

Barnes’ interpretation fails completely in expressing what the author of Isaiah 40:6 was trying to communicate to his readers. The word that appears in the Hebrew text of Isaiah is hesed and not doxa. The word hesed is related to the covenant God established with Israel at Sinai. The word hesed refers to the commitment that binds two parties to a relationship.

Several translations miss the intent of Isaiah’s words. These are a few examples of translations that do not provide an accurate translation of the word hesed because, indirectly, they follow the Septuagint.

The Bible in Basic English (BBE): “all its strength like the flower of the field.”
(Isaiah 40:6).

The New American Standard Bible (NAS): “all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.”

The NET Bible: “and all their promises are like the flowers in the field.”

In his book, The Word Hesed in the Hebrew Bible, Gordon Clark says that hesed is an “action performed, in the context of a deep and enduring commitment between two persons or parties” (p. 267). Since faithfulness to a relationship is a character of God, God also expects his people to be as committed to the relationship as he is.

When the word hesed is applied to God, it refers to his faithfulness to the relationship. Thus, the word is best translated “faithfulness,” “unfailing love,” “loyalty.” When the word hesed is applied to human beings, it refers to the loyalty and commitment that people should bring to that relationship. In this case, a good translation of hesed should be “commitment,” “loyalty.” A strong relationship is built on commitment. Israel should be as loyal and committed to the covenant as God was.

The New Revised Standard Bible (NRSV) has a much better translation of this verse: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6)

The New International Version (NIV 2011) also reflects the intent of the writer: “A voice says: ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flower of the field.’”

God promised to be faithful to the relationship he had established with Israel and he was. The people of Israel promised to be faithful to the covenant, but they were not. Thus, what the prophet was trying to communicate to the people of Judah was that the their commitment was like the flower of the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow. This is the same idea expressed by the prophet Hosea: “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love (hesed) is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early” (Hosea 6:4).

Using the correct meaning of the word hesed in the context of Isaiah’s message to Israel, the text could be translated as follows: “A voice says, ‘Proclaim.’ And I said, ‘What shall I proclaim?’ All people are grass, their commitment is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of Yahweh blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God [his commitment to Israel] will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6–8).

In Isaiah 40:6 the prophet is saying that the commitment of Israel to the covenant was like the flower of the field: it did not last very long. He is also saying that God’s word, his promises and his commitment to Israel, endures forever because he is faithful to his commitment to the relationship.

We must reread Isaiah 40:6 from a different perspective and learn anew that God does not want “goodliness.” God is committed to his people. God wants his people to be committed to him as much as he is committed to them.

For other studies on translating the Bible, see my post, Studies on Translation Problems in the Old Testament.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Clark, Gordon R. The Word Hesed in the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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