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Doug Chaplin

I can't resist this:

the phraseology is beautiful, understandable, 12th grade English, just like the original.

So why was it translated into Hebrew at all?
More seriously, I agree with your point, as you well know.


That is funny, Doug. That's what happens when one writes posts at 1 in the morning, or between a dozen phone calls. I'll retain the goofy formulation - others are sure to chuckle also.


Help me out here, Bono...

I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

Wayne Leman

I am going the way of all the earth” is a colorful biblical idiom which not by accident occurs as such in only one another passage

John, I agree: it is a colorful biblical (Hebraic) idiom. But what does it mean? I don't know what it means, so how can it be beautiful? I guess art lovers split on this. I find beauty in realistic and impressionistic art. I do not find beauty in modern art, because I do not understand it.

I totally agree with you that we should not flatten out the literary style of the Bible. But we must never forget that a translation is supposed to communicate the meaning of the biblical texts to native speakers of another language. If we translate so that only people who have specialized knowledge of biblical metaphors and idioms can understand them, then how can we call such a translation beautiful. I would far prefer to call the original biblical texts themselves beautiful. The beauty of their figures of speech is found within their original languages. Figures of speech, for the most part, are language-specific. We can learn to appreciate their beauty by education, footnotes, other Bible resources that explain the meaning of the figures. But the purpose of translation is to enable a speaker of another language to understand the meaning of the biblical text, not to educate someone to the figures of speech uses in those texts. Literal translation of figures of speech and understanding their meaning almost never are compatible. We are trying to ask too much of general audiences if we think they can be served by essentially literal translations. Professional translators are not allowed to obscure meaning by translating figures of speech literally from one language to another. Why should we not hold Bible translators to the same standard of accuracy and excellence in translation?

There is very much a place for idioms and figures of speech in a translation, and it is to use the idioms and figures of speech of the target language, when appropriate, to communicate the meaning of the biblical texts.

Vivid, idiomatic, expressive literary language is beautiful and is recognized as such by literary awards such as the Pulitzer, Nobel Prize for literature.

I agree with Tim and with you that the idioms of the Bible are beautiful. I agree that there is little literary beauty in the CEV. I'm starting to use the NLT more and I'm actually finding more literary beauty in it than I expected. But I will always caution us not to take the advertising claims for translations such as the ESV too seriously when they are called "beautiful" based on having literal translations of figures of speech, if those translations do not accurately communicate their figurative meanings to the audiences for whom a translation is said to be appropriate. (The ESV is published in inexpensive evangelism editions. Sigh!)



Are CEV and NLT written in beautiful English?



My master writes, "it is a colorful biblical (Hebraic) idiom. But what does it mean? I don't know what it means, so how can it be beautiful?"

Angelic choirs reply, "Aaaaaaaaaaaameeeeeeen."


A phrase like "the way of all the earth" will be opaque to many people if it is torn from its context. But in the context of a farewell speech, it seems to me that someone with moderate to excellent decoding skills will figure out its meaning on the first or second try. Is this a controversial statement? If it isn't, I think it should be retained in translation.

Some Hebraisms work well in English - this one is a good example. It has been used as the title of a collection of poems, of books of other genres, and of a film. It gave rise to another idiom, "the way of all flesh." Once again, it's possible to say, "I don't know what that means," but it seems to me the proper reply is, "if you graduated from high school, you should know what it means."

Wayne Leman

Once again, it's possible to say, "I don't know what that means," but it seems to me the proper reply is, "if you graduated from high school, you should know what it means."

John, I've not only graduated from high school, but I have a B.A. and M.A. in linguistics and have done my coursework for a Ph.D. I taught an English course at a university. I know English quite well. But I do not know what it means for someone to go "the way of all earth". I realize that you believe that anyone who has graduated from high school should be able to figure this out. But I disagree. It is a literal translation of a Hebrew idiom. Idioms seldom translate accurately from one language to another as you well know if you and your wife compare idioms in each of your first languages.

Why place a burden upon a translation audience that was not there for the audience of the original biblical language text? Translated texts should be just as easily (or as "difficultly") understood as the original text was to its audience.

I say again, idioms and other figures of speech are language-specific. Some can be understood if translated literally. But literal translations, even if understood, seldom communicate the figurative meaning of source texts as they deserve to be understood.

Why not do the actual field testing with enough test subjects to reach some kind of statistical significance for the results, rather than saying that people with a certain amount of education should be able to understand a literalism in translation?

In truth (a literalism!), it is a matter of education, but not in the way you have presented it. It requires education to teach users of translations what literalisms mean. But that defeats the very purpose of translation, which is to enable a native speaker of a language to understand what was written in another language.


֡In truth and amen, I swear by the skin of my teeth, it surprises me that you don't know what "the way of all the earth" and "the way of all flesh" mean.

But I think field-testing is very important, though most of us do not have the means to do it except in an informal manner, and those who do have the means are usually not interested in exploring the kind of question I might have.

For example, I'm not interested in knowing how many people get a phrase like "the way of all the earth" if they are given it without proper contextualization. I'm interested in knowing how many people, while reading through the story of David in the Bible, get to this phrase and can't figure it out. Or how many people, when they read great literature in which the phrase is used (examples are legion), stumble over it in context. Or how many people stumble over it in context when they the valedictory speech of Joshua or David read to them and commented upon in worship. With or without field testing to prove it, it appears that the TNIV and HCSB translation teams, to take two recent examples, assume that it is not overly difficult, and therefore retain it. NLV also retains it, as does the Message. I'm with them.

Wayne Leman

For example, I'm not interested in knowing how many people get a phrase like "the way of all the earth" if they are given it without proper contextualization.

Adequate field testing needs to include adequate context.

And informal field testing is far better than no field testing at all. My point, obviously, is to encourage those of us who are biblicized to be alert to how those who are not might understand what we understand so easily.

Wayne Leman

it appears that the TNIV and HCSB translation teams, to take two recent examples, assume that it is not overly difficult

If those teams thought about it at all. There are many literalisms in both translations.

Wayne Leman

FIW, John, I am going "the way of all the earth" would be more understandable to me if it referred to people rather than earth. I don't know what the "way of the earth" is. The earth erodes. It experiences wind, floods, new life in the spring, planting, harvest, etc.

I don't know how people are like the earth and whatever the way of the earth is.

So, I would understand the Hebraism more easily if it were translated as something like:

"the way of all mankind" or "the way of all humanity"

I don't believe we should get necessarily rid of the beautiful idioms of the biblical languages in translation. I only believe that we need to think about them enough during translation and "adjust" (all translation is adjustment) sufficiently in translation so that their meaning can be understood more accurately by non-specialists. And I'm not referring at all to translating at a 4th grade reading level. Translations like that leave me flat, just like their style.


I think you're right that the "way of all the earth" is more idiomatic in English if changed a bit, as in fact it was, to "the way of all flesh" - as such it even appears in the Dictionary of American Idioms. "The way of all flesh" is a colorful way of saying "the way of all mankind."

"The way of all humanity" doesn't sound right though. Don't ask me why.


I understand what it means... and i didn't finish high school

Kevin P. Edgecomb

Context isn't merely intratextual, but intertextual, and in this case also intracultural. The Bible, taken as a whole, is not meant to stand on its own, but as a text existing within a tradition, which will involve numerous other texts belonging to that tradition. For those who advocate a simplifying of the text to make it effective independent of that traditional context, I'd simply have to ask, "What's the point?" The very reason that folks wish to make such transparently legible translations is patently not for the litterateurs, but for the benefit of the (presumably new) faithful. It's the responsibility of the community of the tradition of the text (that is, the tradents quite literally, those who present the text to those who've not had it before) to remain engaged in meaningful exegesis and indeed a certain amount of education, to explain such things as "way of all the earth", "gathered to his fathers", and "pearls before swine." To attempt to simplify the text in order to make it able to stand on its own without a community is something of a dereliction of duty, it seems to me. Likewise, too simple a translation will cause problems for those who later approach a more literal text.

This brings to mind a woeful experiment my brother suffered under in the early 1970s. It was decided (in the great wisdom of a committee, no doubt) that the best way to instill literacy in kindergarten and first grade children (this was in Ohio, at the time, Mad River School District, I think it was called) was to read and write in a bizarre pseudo-phonetic orthography, supposedly so that they would know how the words sounded at a glance, without the bother of learning all those complicated spelling rules, etc. The poor kids took several more years to make the switch to normal reading and writing, with poorer grades than those who'd learned properly from the beginning. The whole project was dropped, of course, but by then the damage was done. Coming to a normal text, they were much more at a disadvantage than they would otherwise have been, due solely to this coddling attempt to simplify. That's the same kind of danger I see in oversimplifying translations of highly literary texts, which most if not all the OT is, and much of the NT certainly is.

Of course, like John (as I've said before, and I'm sure several are tired of hearing!) I would prefer that translators utilize an equivalent literary style in the translations as is present in the source text. Very high for poetry like Isaiah and Job, simpler for the narratives. It'd take work, and this also assumes not only a framework of a certain amount of education on the part of the reader, but committment to continual education on all parties involved in presenting the text.

ElShaddai Edwards

I've posted some thoughts and questions to Kevin's response here.

ElShaddai Edwards

I would prefer that translators utilize an equivalent literary style in the translations as is present in the source text. Very high for poetry like Isaiah and Job, simpler for the narratives.

I couldn't have said it better myself.


I'm surprised by how childish their comments about you were over on that post (the "Read the Bible in the Nude" one); accusing you of intellectualism. Pfft.

I find it hilarious that all these translators complain about "Biblish" and that "JohnFH is being a snob_ while Craig Blomberg (one of the NLT's translators) said the NLT was for kids or poor readers. [laugh]

John Hobbins


Ever since Mark Noll wrote "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind," I've taken the charge of being an intellectual as a badge of honor.

The anti-intellectualism of much of the evangelical world is not exactly one of its most endearing traits.


Wayne wrote: "I say again, idioms and other figures of speech are language-specific. Some can be understood if translated literally. But literal translations, even if understood, seldom communicate the figurative meaning of source texts as they deserve to be understood."

Exactly. Semantically idiosyncratic, non-decompositional substantive idioms simply cannot be understood by a non-native speaker (eg "kick the bucket", "pull a fast one"). Semantically idiosyncratic decompositional substantive idioms likewise cannot be understood by non-native speakers ("tickle the ivories").

JohnFH's idea that metaphorical and idiomatic expressions in the source language must be matched with metaphorical and idiomatic expressions in the target is perhaps a good idea in theory, but may not always be possible in practice. This may be easier to do in a language which has a literary heritage. For others, it may be more difficult. Even such "basic" language features such as color terms, numbers, perfect tense, and words like "all", "every" "each", "most", and "few" do not have translational equivalents in Pirahã, an Amazonian language. One SIL translator even lost their faith when working on this language.

For the record, like Wayne I do not know what "go the way of all of the earth" means in English, and would have to look at a commentary to check on my "educated" guess. If wanting to translate idiom with idiom why not "go the way of all the earth" = "kick the bucket"? But I guess that sounds a bit too "unformal" for a Bible translation. "go the way of all of the earth" = "about to die like everyone else" is fine with me and not "unnatural" like what "go the way of all of the earth" is to me.

John Hobbins


I could be wrong, but I don't think you would need to look at a commentary to figure out what "go the way of the all of the earth" means in context. It is part, after all, of a farewell address. On that basis and on the basis of general semantic compatibility, collocation within the address, and especially, the introduction to it, "when David's time to die drew near," I figure you would infer the idiom's meaning without much difficulty.

It is often the case that an informal translation like "kick the bucket" and a metaphor-free translation like "about to die like everyone else" combined provide a helpful though still very partial summary of the semantic bundle the original idiom represents. Emphasis on "very partial."

Someone who knows Hebrew hears so many things in the background of an idiom like the one discussed here. Things like "the way of a man with a woman" (referring to sexual intercourse). "I will sweep away everything (all) from the face of the earth, man and beast." "The earth weeps and withers."

All of this is lost if the language of the figure is discarded. The curious thing is that a variant of it is good literary American English, "the way of all flesh," but perhaps this turn is not well-known anymore.


I confess that "the way of all flesh" is just as meaningless as "go the way of the all of the earth".

Further, it seems to me to be "hearing" or reading to much into it call to mind echo's of "the way of a man with a woman" etc. As an idiom, the expression is tied to a specific meaning, viz. "die like everything living must in the end do" or something along those lines. I'm positive that when David uttered the expression he was by no means hoping that an addressee might reflect on his expression and marvel at its resemblence to "the way of a man with a woman" etc. No, he simple meant that death was unavoidable for him just as every other man and beast.

But like I indicated, translation is a very tricky business, some languages especially so. Pirahã is probably a unique case, where it is impossible to translate color terms, numbers, and other quantify expressions, which we take as "basic".

John Hobbins

Pirahã does sound unusual.

I only meant to suggest that phrases like those I listed which came to me in Hebrew by association form part of the deep background of the expression under review. I don't hear them together with the cited expression. But I can conjure them up, and I am even naive enough to believe that if enough people competent in ancient Hebrew were queried, a common denominator short list of affine expressions would emerge, as sort of continuous Venn diagram. Deep background is just that, but not for that reason unimportant.

Perhaps it is easier to relate to examples from English, and imagine how would one translate them into a second language:

(1) The kiss of death
(2) He went to meet his Maker
(3) Grass widow
(4) Knock'em dead
(5) Death warmed up (actually, this side of the pond, we say, death warmed over)

I am reasonably bilingual in Italian, but I would have to talk with friends for quite a while before coming up with acceptable equivalents in Italian for some of these. In such cases, furthermore, people naturally look for an equivalent figure of speech, not an abstract proposition which covers de-connotated meaning.


My point is only that sometimes this connot be done. Like it is impossible to translate numbers and quantifying expressions into Pirahã, so sometimes it is impossible to translate an idiom in one language into an idiom of the other, ie not everything that is idiomatically semantically irregular is so in another (and vice versa).

I still think it is reading ("conjuring" in your words) into the Hebrew idiomatic expression to see a link with, say, "the way of a man with a woman", etc. If David meant nothing of the sort at the time of utterance, then anything of the sort is unnecessary in translation -- even an act of "conjuring", perhaps.


All I meant was that they accuse you of that kind of intellectualism associated with those who act like snobs; but I've never seen you be anything by gracious...and truly thoughtful. : )

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    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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