They return, but not upward, they are like a deceitful bow; Hosea 7:16
Upward – There are basically two schools of thought about translation. One is called literal translation. It is an attempt to render one language into another on a word-for-word basis. With literal translations, I am able to work backwards from the translated word to the original word. At least that’s the theory. In reality, we often find that many different English words are used for the same Hebrew word, making the backwards investigation work very difficult. In a true literal translation, each Hebrew word would have one English equivalent. Of course, this is really impossible since many Hebrew words have multiple meanings. No matter what we do, we must always consult the original in order to understand the real meaning.
The second kind of translation is called dynamic equivalence. In this method, the original language is translated into what it would mean in the new language. The words of the original are not as important as the meanings expressed in the original. So, when dynamic equivalence is used, we often find that the translation is put in contemporary linguistic structures familiar to the reader. The original words are lost somewhere behind the relevant translations. Dynamic equivalence is great at capturing idioms since an idiom is a culturally relevant expression in the first place. But often dynamic equivalence hides the presuppositions of the translators. So, for example, when the NIV translates sarx (flesh) as “sinful nature,” the translation imports a particular theology that isn’t in the text itself. It has to be read into the text. The Message is perhaps the best contemporary example of a purely dynamic equivalent translation. It is simply impossible to work backwards from The Message to discover the original words.
Of course, literal translations have their problems too. This verse from the NASB is a perfect example. The Hebrew word is al, a word that we have learned functions as a preposition with a very wide range of meanings (remember “no good besides You”). Here the word-for-word translation tells us that the original word is al, but it doesn’t let us see the metaphorical meaning. After all, what in the world can Hosea mean by saying that they don’t return upward? That’s just crazy. Hosea must be using an idiomatic expression that gets lost in this literal translation. Of course, as soon as we really dig into the original text, we discover that al is also used as an appellation for God, namely, The Most High. That makes perfect sense since the word al is about what is above, over, upon and beyond. Hosea is telling us that these wicked people who refuse God’s offer of redemption turn their direction, but not back to the Most High.
Why this little lesson about some obscure Hebrew preposition that can also be used as an idiom? Because so often I am asked, “What English Bible is the best?” The answer is “It depends.” You have to know what kind of translation method is used, and then you have to adjust for the possible consequences. No English Bible captures all that the original text means. Start there, then work your way to a place where you can be comfortable with searching deeper. Don’t let anyone tell you that a verse in English or any other translated language is what the Scripture really means. Get some excavation tools and start digging for yourself.
Topical Index: Translation