Your blood be on your own head

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:

  1. Translate the biblical idiom literally and footnote its figurative meaning.
  2. 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.

7 Comments

  1. Eric Rowe
    Posted May 15, 2007 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    This is a good case to see how saints who read the Bible in a language other than the original can benefit from literal translations of idioms that don’t exist in their own language. In this case, the idiom is the Hebrew דמ על־ראש and variations thereof found in various Jewish Scriptures (2 Sam 1:16; 1 Ki 2:32, 37; Eze 33:4); and the translations are the Greek versions of various books that use that idiom.

    The various translators who had to render that Hebrew idiom in Greek chose to do so literally, rather than with an equivalent Greek expression. The meaning of the idiom is clear enough from the context–the guilty parties have nobody to blame but themselves for the impending punishment that will come upon them. Paul was apparently so absorbed by those Scriptures that he allowed his own idiomatic Greek to conform to their Hebraisms. The Corinthian Jews, who were probably less well-versed in Hebrew than this trained Pharisee, were nevertheless fully capable of understanding his meaning, also from the context. (It is, of course, possible that what we have in Acts is actually Luke’s own Greek narration of what was originally spoken in Hebrew, but this possibility only shifts the issue of Greek reception of the Hebraism onto Luke and his readers, not impacting my basic point.)

    Translations of Scripture have a way of leaving their own impression on languages, which is something we lose when we labor to conform translations to the ephemeral reigning idioms of modern tongues.

    Wayne, I would beg to differ with you about “you blood be on your own head” not being an English idiom. It’s a common enough idiom in English. It came to us from our literal English versions of the Bible, especially the KJV. I would bet that most of the time when people use it they don’t even know that. There are numerous other expressions we have in English that came into our language this way. I see that as a sign of the KJV’s greatness. The translations that we’ve been inundated with over the past 30 years with their 10-year half-lives have no chance of playing such leading roles in our culture because they are utterly market-driven, and thus reactive rather than proactive.

    What Bible translators for all languages should see as their job is not only to learn how a language is used and conform a Bible into it, but rather to learn how a language is used and find the perfect balance between conforming to it and prescribing new rules and idioms for readers in a way that will draw them into the Bible with the conscious knowledge that it is an ancient book from a very different world.

  2. Doug Chaplin
    Posted May 15, 2007 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    I’ve tracked back (trackbacked??) to this (www.metacatholic.co.uk) because what I have to say is too long for a comment.I will, however, summarise here. The essential point I want to make is that sometimes an acquaintance with the idiom affects how we read and understand other texts that use the same idiom in more complex ways. I draw attention to Matt 26:28 in this case: “His blood be on us and on our children.” There is more at stake than linguistic clarity.

  3. Wayne Leman
    Posted May 15, 2007 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Eric, because I recognize that different ones who post and comment on this blog have different opinions on the translatability of idioms, I put in the note about not dealing with that issue this time. I understand your comments, but I’m going to request that further comments follow the directions in the blog post itself.

    Thanks for your substantive comment. As always, your thoughts are welcome here. This time, though, as often does Scot McKnight on the Jesus Creed blog, we’re asking that we limit the discussion to address the questions in the blog post.

  4. Eric Rowe
    Posted May 15, 2007 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    My apologies, I unintentionally skipped the note when I read the initial comment.

    If you would like to erase my comment, please feel free.

  5. Wayne Leman
    Posted May 15, 2007 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Doug ended:

    There is more at stake than linguistic clarity.

    Yes, Doug, there always is. There are many more factors involved in Bible translation decisions than just (exegetical) accuracy and clarity. One of my hopes for this blog is that over the course of time a number of people will appreciate how many and how important are the various factors, including those of intertextuality which you address in your blog post, genre, reading level, register, ecclesiastical acceptance, liturgical quality, biblical literacy levels of target audiences, availability of extra-biblical tools (and/or teachers) to aid Bible users, sufficient attention to the linguistic rules of both the biblical source languages as well as each target language, etc. etc.

    For this post, however, I’m requesting that we do not spread out the comments as widely as often happens on this blog. That can put a damper on those who may be interested in participating in the exercises I outlined in the two specific questions in the post.

    There will be plenty of other posts where people can share their insights on other factors in translation decisions besides those which I tried to outline as narrowly as possible for this particular exercise.

    I have revised my post slightly to try to make my requests for comment contents clearer.

    I have enjoyed reading your blog post on the topic of this post. I always enjoy reading your blog posts on Bible translation issues.

  6. Wayne Leman
    Posted May 15, 2007 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Eric responded:

    My apologies, I unintentionally skipped the note when I read the initial comment.

    If you would like to erase my comment, please feel free.

    Eric, after your comment I realized that having my request as part of the regular text of the post did not allow readers to see the request as easily. I have often missed parts of posted messages myself. So I moved my request for comment content to the end of the post, revised it some and put it in italics.

    There is no need for your comment to be removed. It’s an important comment. And I hope we can return to discuss the principles behind it in future posts, as we have done in some previous posts.

  7. exegete77
    Posted May 16, 2007 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    Howdy, Wayne. I would choose the first option and word the footnote this way:

    The expression “Your blood be on your own head” is a literal translation of a Hebrew idiom showing that the speaker is putting guilt on the listeners themselves. One approximate English idiom might be “You brought this on yourselves”.


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