Are your days numbered?

In English there is an idiom, “Your days are numbered.” Most who read this post probably understand the meaning of the idiom, namely, that whoever says it is telling someone that they are about to die or in some other way experience something precipitous, like getting fired from a job.

Traditional English translations of Psalm 90:12 ask God to “teach us to number our days …” Note that this wording does not have the idiomatic meaning that “Your days are numbered” does. I do not know what it means in any standard dialect of English to “number” my days.  (Biblish is not a standard dialect of English since it is spoken by only a portion of those who know standard dialects of English. It is a limited jargon, not a dialect.)

The traditional wording of Ps. 90:12 sounds like it has something to do with counting days on a calendar. We need to field test the traditional wording to find out if any native speakers of standard dialects of English get the Hebraic meaning from “teach us to number our days.”

The meaning of the original Hebrew is a request that God help us realize how short our lives are. The implication is that when we realize how little time we have left to live, we should live it wisely.

I suggest that the traditional English translations do not communicate to most readers this meaning of the original Hebrew. And to the degree that original meaning is not communicated, to that degree a translation is not accurate. This is true regardless of how much the translators intended to communicate the Hebrew meaning accurately to English.

English Bible versions which do communicate the meaning of the Hebrew idiom accurately include the following:

  • So make us know how few are our days, that our minds may learn wisdom. (REB)
  • Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise. (TEV/GNT)
  • Teach us to use wisely all the time we have. (CEV)
  • Teach us how short our lives really are so that we may be wise. (NCV)
  • So teach us to consider our mortality, so that we might live wisely. (NET)
  • Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. (NLT)

If you know of any other English versions which accurately communicate the meaning of the Hebrew of Psalm 90:12, please note them in comments to this post. If you field test the traditional translation wording with native speakers of standard dialects of English, please let us know the results.

22 Comments

  1. David Baird
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    New International Readers Version:

    Teach us to realize how short our lives are. / Then our hearts will become wise.

  2. Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    I do not know what it means in any standard dialect of English to “number” my days. (Biblish is not a standard dialect of English since it is spoken by only a portion of those who know standard dialects of English. It is a limited jargon, not a dialect.)

    Wayne, Isn’t this a case in which the English is not biblish per se but just outdated English?

    Here’s from The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, page 123, written in 1632 by Captain John Smith:

    “the King purpofely fent him, as they fay, to number the people here, and to informe him well what wee were and our ftare.”

    Here’s from A Way to Get Wealth: Containing Six Principall Vocations, or Callings, in Which Every Good Husband or Houfe-wife May Lawfully Employ Themfelves, page 128, written in 1668 by Gervase Markham and William Lawson:

    “There be other observations in the warping of cloth; as to number your Portuffes, and how many goes to a yard.”

    Here’s from Geodaesia: or, The art of Surveying and Meafuring Land Made Easie: Shewing by Plain and Practical Rules, How to Survey…, page 137, written in 1688 by John Love:

    “This done, fee in what Square, and part of the fame Square, any remarkable accident falls, and accordingly put it down in your leffer Squares; it is a good way to number your Squares. I cannot make it plainer, than by giving you the following Example, where the Plot A li CD, made by a Scale of…”

    Robert Alter translates the verb manah (מנה) with updated English as “to count”:

    “To count our days rightly, instruct,
    that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”

  3. Posted August 27, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    From Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 90 [1]:

    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/watts/psalmshymns.Ps.190.html

    Death, like an overflowing stream,
    Sweeps us away; our life’s a dream,
    An empty tale, a morning flower,
    Cut down and withered in an hour.

    Our age to seventy years is set;
    How short the time! how frail the state!
    And if to eighty we arrive,
    We rather sigh and groan than live.

    Teach us, O Lord, how frail is man;
    And kindly lengthen out our span,
    Till a wise care of piety
    Fit us to die, and dwell with thee.

  4. Posted August 27, 2009 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Kurk asked:

    Wayne, Isn’t this a case in which the English is not biblish per se but just outdated English?

    I don’t know the answer, Kurk, and I was unable to find it from the quotes that you gave.

    It is fairly natural contemporary English to use the word “number” as a transitive verb. We can number all kinds of things. We both know what it means, to find out the quantity of things by counting.

    But as I mention in the post, that is not the meaning of the Hebrew text of Ps. 90:12. If it were, there would be no implication for personal behavior in the psalmist’s request. The traditional wording misses the most important part of the request, namely, the implicit meaning that when we find out how many days we have left, we will change our behavior so that it will be more righteous.

    Much of the Bible, well, a very high percentage of all human communication via language, for that matter, has implicatures of various kinds. Literally translating words from one language to another do not bring across those implications if the two languages do not share the same implications for their corresponding words.

    And that is why Relevance Theory has become such an important part of some translation theory in recent years. Translation must take into account the implications of the meanings of words spoken in source texts, if we are to accurate communicate the meaning of those texts. The implications don’t have to be stated explicitly if the source and target languages share the same implications for the words in a particular context. But if the implications are not shared, then something must be done about it before a translation can be considered accurate. What that something is is a matter for debate and creative minds.

  5. Posted August 28, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    In your post above, Wayne, you write: “The meaning of the original Hebrew is a request that God help us realize our short our lives are. The implication is that…”

    Of course the focus of so-called “Relevance” theory (which you identify as your m/o in your comment) is to get at the “meaning” and its “implication.” It’s a kind of neo-dynamic equivalence theory with a focus more on equivalence of the communication dynamic in L1 and L2. The problem is this: the translator must assume (and too often presumes) to know the L1 meaning “accurately” and fully. (And pointing out how other translations are now inadequate – as L2 evolves – seems somehow to give the translator a leg up on knowing the L1 meaning.)

    But does “translation” of “implications” without translation also of the idiomatic phrases, then the rhetoric is lost. If I say to my kids as they leave for school, “Count your money,” then one of them might literally number what’s in his wallet while another might surmise that her parent is giving her a reminder to have enough to buy lunch that day. Translating this something like “Por favor, cuente su dinero” is not bad even if you, the translator, understand the intention and implication might be simply: “Por favor, tenga suficiente dinero para comprar su almuerzo.” (Getting a little more technical, the “premise” in the “enthymeme” might be supplied by the listener, but for a Relevance Theorist to reduce the conversation to its simple implications is to rob both the L1 and the L1 listeners).

  6. Posted August 28, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Kurk, read some of the major works by Relevance Theory linguists. I think you will have your concerns addressed. If you want to read about RT applied to translation, check out author Ernst-August Gutt. He definitely does *not* believe in explicating all the implicatures in translation, just as you do not and I do not. In fact, he believes the opposite, much to the chagrin of standard practice among many missionary Bible translators; he’s a minimalist in this regard. He wants Bible translators who have made a fair amount of implicit info explicit to reduce what they are doing and leave it for the mind to work out the implicatures, just as you are saying.

    RT helps us recognize the crucial role that implicatures play in normal human communication. We miss much of the meanings in the biblical texts because we do not take enough time to compute the behavioral change meaning intended in the words actually written.

    BTW, I’m not a Relevance Theoretician. I was never trained in it. It’s a relatively new development as a linguistic discipline. I struggle to understand it. And I struggle with its implications (!) for translation. But its basic contributions to understanding how much more we are saying than just by the words we say is commonsense stuff that people who have studied communication have discussed for decades, perhaps millennia.

  7. Posted August 28, 2009 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    The one thing I do not understand about the Bible is all the different interpretations of what the Bible says. What you interpret could be 180 from what I interpret. So who is correct?

  8. Posted August 28, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Wayne. (Gutt wasn’t around when I visited SIL campus a bit back, but not too long ago I did spend an hour with Ralph Hill, who did a very good job giving me an overview RT. Before and after, I’d read some Gutt, some Paul Grice, and some Dan Sperber / Deirdre Wilson. I think the so called “principle of relevance” misses much of what Pike’s emics / etics and other rhetorical theories gain. Sure, there’s a bit in RT’s “implicit inferences” that rhetoricians find in the notion of an “enthymeme” – but in RT there’s nothing of the “psychological reality” of the speaker and the listener, as there is in tagmemics, and for the matter in RT, there’s nothing of the “psychological reality” of the translator. Pike used to ask some of us, his students, whether we thought IPA was a kind of emics. What a clever, rhetorical, question! As I am understanding RT, it’s as deeply platonic as Noam Chomsky’s GT Grammar; but even the young Chomsky used aristotelian features to represent aspects of “performance.” With RT, things get as conveniently spooky as they do in B. F. Skinner’s black box. Wayne, I’m using parentheses here because in my paragraph here I’m using jargon from theories of linguistics, pragmatics, psychology, and rhetoric. With respect to linguistics and rhetorical theories, SIL / Wycliffe’s move away from the Pikes and from Bob Longacre is a big loss, I think. Tagmemics is robust enough to get at issues in language, for translation, that RT fails to acknowledge. Good tagmemicists can allow that “inference” and “intention” are not everything or the only things, because of the varied perspectives of each person, whether in communication together or not. Do feel free to delete my comment if it’s not relevant to the post. You were the one, in this discussion, who brought up Revelance Theory.)

  9. Greg Parsons
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    Here are a few that accurately communicate the Hebrew of Psalm 90:12
    +So give us knowledge of the number of our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom [BBE]
    +Teach us to understand how many days we have. Then we will have a heart of wisdom to give You. [New Life Bible]
    + Teach us to realize how short our lives are. Then our hearts will become wise. [NIrV]
    +Teach us to number our days and recognize how few they are; help us to spend them as we should.[The Living Bible]
    + Teach us to count up the days that are ours, and we shall come to the heart of wisdom. [NJB]
    Here is one that is accurate but too ambiguous
    + Oh! Teach us to live well! Teach us to live wisely and well! [The Message]

  10. Dru
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    No Greg, sorry, the Message does not accurately communicate the Hebrew. All the others have some sort of rendering of ‘count our days’ or ‘teach us our life is short’. The message skips that bit altogether. If it was going to be idiomatic, perhaps Peters should have said,
    ‘Make sure we know our days are numbered, so that we realise that and it makes us wiser”.

  11. Posted August 29, 2009 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    It is not obviously clear to me that Relevance Theory especially applies to the present case. RT presumes, I think, a one shot act of verbal behavior from a speaker to a listener as the normative case, in which decreasing effort (cognitive load, time to speak, etc) on the speaker and hearer is a constraint on that verbal behavior.

    But to whom is the psalmist attempting to decrease cognitive load by minimizing communicative content? Clearly not to God, who has no limits on cognition one assumes–groanings that cannot be uttered, etc. And not to the psalmist, who might, in fact, go out of his or her way to increase cognitive load–acrostic psalms, etc–as a gift of worship. Nor, I suspect, not particularly to participants in psalm worship, who have the luxury of repeated use, instruction and practice, lecto divina, etc., on their side.

    Somewhat related to this–I’ve just got around to reading “God’s Secretaries” about the King James translators. One claim by the author is something like this: the translators assumed that the text would command the reader; the translators didn’t have to make it ‘easy’ for the reader; the effort on the part of the reader was more or less irrelevant; since the reader was subject to the text, as they were to their king.

    I wonder if current Bible translators (and here I’m thinking of English translations, but also what little I know about other translation efforts) place too great an emphasis on making translations relevant (in the RT sense), perhaps especially when translating psalms and other works for public and private worship. As an example on the other hand, David Ker’s addition of an ideophone in the Nyungwe telling of John 18:3-18 [1] seems exactly like the thing RT would suggest not to do, but seems (from my armchair) to be exactly right.

    [1] http://lingamish.com/2009/08/nyungwe-bible-translation-pacinai-thursday/

  12. Posted August 30, 2009 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    Will asked:

    I wonder if current Bible translators (and here I’m thinking of English translations, but also what little I know about other translation efforts) place too great an emphasis on making translations relevant (in the RT sense), perhaps especially when translating psalms and other works for public and private worship.

    Some probably do, Will, and that is why it is important to allow the normal implicatures that RT studies to be at work within a translated text. If users of that translation can get the original implicatures without additional explicatures, then we should not add them. As always, field testing is required to discover what implicatures translation users get and which ones they don’t. Gutt does not believe that all needed explicatures necessarily should be in the translation itself, unlike what many of his missionary Bible translation colleagues have believed for several decades. There are footnotes, commentaries, Bible teachers, and other aids which can provide the explicatures people need to understand biblical texts. And biblical texts are rife with logical “gaps” that must be filled in by careful study, esp. study of Jewish logic. I am thinking particularly of how very rabbinic many of Jesus’ statements are. They are not only very Jewish in flavor, but in typical rabbinical fashion leave out logical steps (implicatures) which people unfamiliar with the Jewish worldview of Jesus and his times do not get. Rabbinical hermeneutics is a most fascinating area of study and one needed for understanding so much of what Jesus said.

  13. Posted August 31, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Will makes a good point, saying “RT presumes, I think, a one shot act of verbal behavior from a speaker to a listener as the normative case, in which decreasing effort (cognitive load, time to speak, etc) on the speaker and hearer is a constraint on that verbal behavior.”

    The Hebrew of Psalm 90:12, in contrast, does so much more. Will brings in the later readers and listeners (after God, the Psalmist, and the original hearers).

    But there’s also the discourse meanings of the entirety of Psalm 90. The repetition of the Hebrew word יום (yowm) meaning something like “days”, in 90:4, 90:9, 90:10, 90:12, 90:14, and 90:15, makes its deletion very peculiar in English translations of 90:12.

    It’s not just the parallelism of Hebrew poetry that’s disrupted by “So teach us to consider our mortality.” But it’s also a wrecking of the wordplay in the name of so-called “accuracy.” The supposedly RT translations lose much on many levels.

    For original and us later readers, in contrast, the Hebrew text is robust with meanings at various levels to be appreciated. The Hebrew idiom you note in Ps 90:12 is part and parcel of a larger set of meanings, residual meanings that later Hebrew readers can and do catch. Later meanings also that English translators can get and get across as well. Here’s what Robert Alter (with Frank Kermode) emphasize in this regard (as they discuss, not the Psalms, but history like Genesis):

    “But an even more powerful structural instrument than poetry, and indeed the most powerful in biblical prose, is repetition. Repetition is used at practically every level of the hierarchy which the text constitutes, from sounds, words, and clauses to stories and groups of stories. It is rarely applied mechanically or inartistically, and usually it features ingenious variations. Thus a dialectic game of identity and difference is created which challenges us to compare parallelisms at various levels and to ask questions….” (page 46, The Literary Guide to the Bible).

  14. Posted August 31, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    English Bible versions which do communicate the meaning of the Hebrew idiom accurately include the following:

    So make us know how few are our days, that our minds may learn wisdom. (REB)
    Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise. (TEV/GNT)
    Teach us to use wisely all the time we have. (CEV)
    Teach us how short our lives really are so that we may be wise. (NCV)
    So teach us to consider our mortality, so that we might live wisely. (NET)
    Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. (NLT)

    This is a great example of the challenge of translation, because, unfortunately, most of the examples of correctly communicating the meaning also destroy the poetry. In this case, the imagery of the calendar fills the Psalm: days (vss. 4, 9, 10), night (vs. 4), morning (vss. 5, 6), and years (vss. 4, 9, 10). Furthermore, the Psalm builds on wordplays: shanah, “year” and sheina “sleep”; and originally perhaps yameinu, “our days” and some form of yamin “right [hand]” (if we are to trust the LXX dexios).

    -Joel

  15. Posted August 31, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    The supposedly RT translations lose much on many levels.

    No RT English Bible translations have ever been produced. They are definitely not idiomatic translations which fill in implicit information which readers can infer for themselves. That would contadict what RT is all about, language which depends on unstated implications for much of human communication, in other words, the way we normally communicate by not stating the obvious.

    RT presumes, I think, a one shot act of verbal behavior from a speaker to a listener as the normative case, in which decreasing effort (cognitive load, time to speak, etc) on the speaker and hearer is a constraint on that verbal behavior.

    I am still trying to understand RT, but I have never heard anything like this about it from my RT textbooks, Ernst August-Gutt, Ralph Hill, or anyone else. Normal human communication does not depend on one shot acts of verbal behavior. RT only studies implications as humans normally communicate. We often use more than one piece of verbal behavior to communicate what we are trying to say. I think we should be careful that we are not creating straw men in this discussion.

    RT is a new model as it is applied to translation. Only about three English versions (TEV, CEV, GW) have been informed by linguistic theory of any kind and each of those versions were produced before RT was applied to translation.

  16. Posted August 31, 2009 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Joel wrote:

    This is a great example of the challenge of translation, because, unfortunately, most of the examples of correctly communicating the meaning also destroy the poetry.

    And that is very unfortunate, Joel. The ideal is to have both accurate communication of the original meaning as well as retention of genre (including poetic) beauty. I happen to believe that in many cases it is possible to have both, but it is going to take much more work to get there. We cannot syntactically transliterate and call it translation, since translation, by definition, is supposed to enable the speaker to one language to *understand* what was said in another. On the other hand, an important part of language is missed if genre and other stylistic differences are flattened out in translation.

    We’d sure welcome your suggestions for meeting both accuracy and literary goals for translation of specific Bible passages.

    Oh, and a warm welcome to BBB. I have looked at your C.V. and find it fascinating. I have a son-in-law who just got his M.Phil. (he’ll keep going) in Biblical Languages as HUC, Cincinnati, and he is also interested in issues of accuracy and form during translation.

  17. Posted August 31, 2009 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Just to be clear, I’ve not claimed that any translation has been done with Relevance Theory in mind. Nor have I stated that Relevance Theory is not applicable to translation in general.

    My statement about one-shot acts of verbal behavior comes from the discussions on Sperber’s website, and some articles by Gutt. For example:

    > According to the inferential model [of which RT is one], a communicator provides evidence of her intention to convey a certain meaning, which is inferred by the audience on the basis of the evidence provided. [1]

    basically, a one-shot verbal game (which it shares w/ many linguistically-oriented paradigms). This, of course, is an idealized situation. Sperber elsewhere (sorry don’t have the citation right here) discusses decreased cognitive load.

    [1]: http://sperber.club.fr/relevance_theory.htm Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber, Handbook of Pragmatics

  18. Posted August 31, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    This is a great example of the challenge of translation, because, unfortunately, most of the examples of correctly communicating the meaning also destroy the poetry.

    And that is very unfortunate, Joel. The ideal is to have both accurate communication of the original meaning as well as retention of genre (including poetic) beauty. I happen to believe that in many cases it is possible to have both, but it is going to take much more work to get there. We cannot syntactically transliterate and call it translation, since translation, by definition, is supposed to enable the speaker to one language to *understand* what was said in another. On the other hand, an important part of language is missed if genre and other stylistic differences are flattened out in translation.

    We’d sure welcome your suggestions for meeting both accuracy and literary goals for translation of specific Bible passages.

    I didn’t mean to criticize. As a translator myself, I know how easy it is to find fault and how hard it is to do the actual work.

    I agree that in many cases, even most, it’s possible to capture the style and sense of the original text, and here you’ve asked the exact right question: does “number our days” in English mean what we need it to? If not, my approach would be to keep the image of days and use another verb. What about “treasure our days”? Or “value”? Or “appreciate”?

    Oh, and a warm welcome to BBB. I have looked at your C.V. and find it fascinating. I have a son-in-law who just got his M.Phil. (hell keep going) in Biblical Languages as HUC, Cincinnati, and he is also interested in issues of accuracy and form during translation.

    Thanks. I’m glad I found this forum.

    -Joel

  19. Posted August 31, 2009 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Wayne, You say that “Only about three English versions (TEV, CEV, GW) [of the bible] have been informed by linguistic theory of any kind.” Now that’s relevant.

    (Seems that Relevance Theory isn’t so relevant to this discussion. I’ve had to go back to your first mention of it here to figure out why you must’ve brought it up in the first place. Inferences, implications, understatements. Reminds me of I.A. Richard’s proposals for a New Rhetoric: as a “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies.”)

    For the TEV and CEV translations, to be sure, it’s Eugene Nida’s “Dynamic Equivalence” principles that guide the linguistics. For the CEV, Barclay M. Newman was faithful to Nida’s principles and worked with him on it, no?

    As you posted above, TEV and CEV for Ps 90:12 do gain some English readability but nonetheless lose the Hebrew wordplay through the Psalm:

    “Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.” (TEV/GNT)
    “Teach us to use wisely all the time we have.” (CEV)

    In some contrast, there’s GW, which resists Dynamic Equivalence (and Functional Equivalence) for what linguist Eugene W. Bunkowske calls Closest Natural Equivalence. That produces this:

    “Teach us to number each of our days so that we may grow in wisdom.”

    GW does seem to capture much of the wordplay. There are two footnotes on Ps 90:10 and 90:11 respectively that note the “Hebrew meaning” as “uncertain.”

    Joel,
    What a wonderful idea to look at LXX to help restore the uncertain meanings. And what a great idea to suggest the Greek points to lost Hebrew poetic wordplay: “and originally perhaps yameinu, ‘our days’ and some form of yamin ‘right [hand]‘ (if we are to trust the LXX dexios).”

    I don’t see Robert Alter resolving that with LXX (although in much of his translation of the Hebrew he admits he turns to the Greek). Alter’s translates:

    “To count our days rightly, instruct,
    / that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

    His important footnote gets at not only the wordplay but also the rhetorical build to v 12 in this Psalm:

    “In effect, this is precisely what the poem as a whole–with its powerful images for representing human existence over against God’s eternal being–has achieved for its audience.”

    In the language is developed contrasts: contrasts of time and timelessness, and contrasts of the possibility of tangible right-hand measures of time vs God’s sleep in which humans are the fleeting ephemera of his dreams.

  20. Posted September 2, 2009 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I’ve not claimed that any translation has been done with Relevance Theory in mind.

    Will, that is in fact the problem, that no translation has been done with Relevance Theory in mind. The strident proponents of this theory have criticised everyone else’s translations, but when they have been challenged to give any positive models of how even a short passage of Scripture should be translated, there has been no response.

  21. Hannah C.
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I googled “your days are numbered” and got 74,400 hits. One of the hits was this LOLCat: http://icanhascheezburger.com/2007/04/13/i-have-evolved-thumbs/ The text on the picture says “I have evolved thumbs. Your days are numbered.”

    If LOLCats doesn’t represent English which is easily understandable to those who speak “standard dialects” of it, I don’t know what does.

    I don’t find the “teach us to number our days” phrase hard to understand at all. I understand the meaning intended – that our lives are short and transient – and I appreciate the poetry. I would much rather read something which is less clear but preserves the poetry than read something which takes away the literary device but shows the meaning.

  22. Posted September 2, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful idea to look at LXX to help restore the uncertain meanings. And what a great idea to suggest the Greek points to lost Hebrew poetic wordplay: “and originally perhaps yameinu, ‘our days’ and some form of yamin ‘right [hand]‘ (if we are to trust the LXX dexios).”

    Normally I would assume that the LXX misrepresented the Hebrew, but here two issues seem relevant: (1) the word plays elsewhere in the Psalm; and (2) the prominence of “days” in the Psalm that would make it the natural first choice for a translator.

    Something else might be going on with Psalm 90, too. If I remember correctly, it doesn’t appear in the DSS Psalter.


Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *

*
*

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 195 other followers

%d bloggers like this: