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Bible Translation

What’s in a Word?

Yesterday in Church, the reader was reading from the NIV and I was following the reading in the NLT on my phone. One little word change between the two, really made me sit up and pay attention.

In the NIV Luke 1:44 reads:

As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.

While in the NLT it is:

When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy.

Just a little difference: ‘leaped for joy’ or ‘jumped for joy’. Essentially leap and jump mean the same thing and they are both good translations of the Greek word  εσκιρτησεν. But, to my ears at least, there is a significant difference between ‘leaped for joy’ and ‘jumped for joy’.

Quite simply, we don’t say ‘leaped for joy’ much in English. It gives the idea of someone being happy but it really doesn’t come alive as a phrase. ‘Jumped for joy’ on the other hand is a common expression (partly because of the alliteration) and conveys the picture of someone bounding around with happiness.

Personally, I much prefer ‘jumped for joy’ it’s a lively translation whereas ‘leaped for joy’ just sounds flat to me. Which do you prefer?

There are a couple of brief thoughts I’d like to bring out of this:

Translation is an Art. Translation is not simply about changing the meaning of a statement in one language into another language. It also inevitably involves making some aesthetic judgements about how the translation sounds in the receptor language.

You Don’t Just Translate Words: There is not a big difference in meaning  between the isolated words  ‘leaped’ and ‘jumped’. However, when you put them in the context of ‘… for joy’ there is immediately a difference in feel and meaning. I’ve touched on this numerous times (for example, here) but it bears repeating. Translation is not simply a case of changing words from one language into another. Meaning is found in phrases, paragraphs and utterances. Translation needs to take into account the whole context of what is said, not just the words.

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4 replies on “What’s in a Word?”

Yes, I’d definitely go for ‘jumped for joy’. What I find interesting and instructive is that the distinction and the slight edge of ‘jumped’ would only be picked up by a native speaker who was very familiar with common patterns of word combinations, seeing that people say ‘jumped for joy’ quite frequently. A non-native speaker might miss it and a mother tongue translator who was focussed so much on another language might overlook it too.

I guess the two occasions when you wouldn’t do this would be if the word ‘leap’ here was a thematic word coming up several times through a passage and being best translated ‘leap’ elsewhere. That is, decisions about the detail must be considered in the wider context too. But that’s not the case here.

The other thing the NLT does is to condense “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears” to “When I heard your greeting”. The NIV already skims over the troublesome ‘behold!’ word at the start, and the NLT flattens it even more. The result (as far as I’m concerned) is that you get the sense but not the full emotion that Elizabeth is conveying. That’s something I’ve noticed in quite a few translations that aim to be very natural. Of course, if we translate it as the ESV “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” it just sounds slightly odd and unnatural, but at least you have the opportunity to notice Elizabeth’s emphasis. I haven’t worked out a full way I’d prefer to convey the surprise, awe and drama of the moment in English yet, but I do like to see a bit of appropriate spice as well as clarity in translation.

yeah i like that we say jumped for joy and we don’t really talk about leaping for joy anymore, but then again we don’t ever say a baby jumped for joy – i’d b interested to know if the original greek was a word that could normally be used to describe soemthing a baby did, or whether it wasn’t usually applied to babies but was here. cos ‘jumped for joy’ has the nuance to me that the person doing the jumping is conscous of and understands the joy.
also, leaping for joy is something i associate more with goats in nigeria, tho having said that i quite like the way they leap for joy and would quite like to experience that myself:-)

At the risk of going on in a boring way, the word is used in Luke 6:23 – when you’re hated because of the Son of Man, then rejoice and jump for joy! Intriguingly the greek word is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament to translate a range of jiggling/jumping words, including Genesis 25:22 – the twins Esau and Jacob having more of a fight than a jump for joy – and a good deal of lambs and heifers leaping about enjoying their freedom.

@niff you mention the ‘conscious’ idea, and it set me wondering to what degree the jumping for joy does imply consciousness. It seems through the Bible that the reality of the Creator and Sustainer of the world is so great that babies, infants and all of creation (that isn’t conscious as we think of it) are aware of Him and respond in appropriate praise.

Interesting – I would prefer the expression “leaped for joy” , but I seem to be the only one. Maybe it’s a Welsh thing Eddie?

You make a good point though. I always find it interesting using the NLT in an ‘NIV church’. It’s a real eye opener to the differences in translations and the meaning you get from them.

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