In 2 Sam. 1 a young Amalekite comes upon the wounded king Saul who is near death. Saul asks the young man to finish him off. The young man complies. Then he goes to David’s camp and tells David what happened. David orders one of his men to kill that Amalekite for having killed God’s anointed king. David then says to his corpse (I had added boldfacing):
Your blood be on your own head! Your own mouth has testified against you, saying ‘I have put the LORD’s anointed to death.’ (2 Sam. 1:16 NET)
In Acts 18:6 Paul tells people at Corinth who opposed the message he was preaching:
Your blood be on your own heads! I am guiltless! From now on I will go to the Gentiles! (NET)
The idiom, “Your blood be on your own head,” was commonly used and understood within the cultural contexts of these two episodes. Field testing can determine how many English speakers understand the figurative meaning of this idiom.
When translating the Bible there are two main solutions for communicating the figurative meaning of an idiom, as well as its literal meaning, to people who do not understand the idiom from their own cultural and language background:
- Translate the biblical idiom literally and footnote its figurative meaning.
- Translate the figurative meaning of the biblical idiom and footnote its literal meaning.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. English Bible versions illustrate both solutions. Translators must weigh a number of factors for each translation audience to come up with a solution which works well for them at a particular time in their knowledge of the Bible.
But I would like us to discuss possible wordings for both translation solutions.
As I was thinking upon this issue yesterday, I realized that Cheyenne, the language which my wife and I helped translate scripture for, already has a word which is a translation equivalent for the figurative meaning of the biblical idiom. It is: Netaomenêhešehahtseme! We used it many times in the Cheyenne Bible translation. It literally means ‘You (plural) did it to yourselves.’
If you were translating the Bible to English and chose solution #1, how might you word the footnote to explain the meaning of the biblical idiom?
If you were translating and chose solution #2, how might you word the figurative meaning of the biblical idiom in your English translation?
NOTE: In this post and comments on it, we ask that we limit our comments to address these two questions. This time let’s not open the floor to all possible comments, especially any attempt to say that either translation solution, in general, is better than the other. And we ask that no one denigrate any solution chosen by translators or those who comment here.