God bless you in the exalted name of Jesus Christ, Yeshua Hamashiach.
Two thirds of the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and I am so thankful for the work of our translators to put it into English. However, no translation is perfect as it is virtually impossible to capture and communicate everything taking place in the source language. As a result, they wrestle with how to find words in the new language to represent the original. Many biblical texts are hard to understand. They don’t quite make sense when translated into English. So, something has to be missing. What the readers miss has often been lost in translation. The Bible is filled with puns and word-play that usually do not survive translation. Every word has both sound and meaning and usually translation means we lose the sounds of the Hebrew words in which the word-play occurs.
Seems obvious, right? Of course, words sound different in different languages and when translated, those sounds are necessarily lost. Although we may not understand how the loss of sound matters, most of the times it does matter we go clueless about it. Some people who study languages maintain that word sounds are arbitrary, but Hebrew comes out of an oral culture that placed a high priority on how words sound. God had the Hebrew writers of the Bible draw connections between different words that sound alike, but mean something different. Although that type of word-play doesn’t show up in every verse of the Bible, it’s hardly a rare occurrence. According to one scholar, there are more than 500 cases in which the Old Testament text plays with how words sound in order to drive home, a larger point (Greenstein, “Wordplay, Hebrew” Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:968-71). That would mean that sounds would play an important role more frequently than once every other chapter. Examples of wordplay include the figures of speech paronomasia and alliteration.
Paronomasia is the repetition of words similar in sound, but not necessarily in sense. The figure takes this name because one word is placed alongside of another which sounds and seems like a repetition pf it. Its purpose is to emphasize the two things and call our attention to the emphasis by the similarity of sound. Since we read English and not the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts of the original we often cannot detect this emphasis.
The figure of speech paronomasia or rhyming words is common to all languages, but the instances cannot readily be translated from one language into another. To do so would generally sacrifice the exact translation of what was written. Only by a very free translation of the sentence can the two words be thus represented (Bullinger FOS p. 307). An example you might be aware of is the use of tohu bohu.
An example of paronomasia can be found in the second verse in the Bible. Genesis 1:2, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth became without form (tohu) and void (bohu).” The paronomasia using the Hebrew rhyming words tohu bohu magnify the words “form” and “void” and emphasize the chaos that resulted when Lucifer was cast out of heaven. However, the correct translation “without form and void” neglects to uncover the paronomasia that the Hebrew presents.
Bullinger does suggest a few translations of that could keep the paronomasia without sacrificing a correct meaning. I Kings 2:36 reads, “go not forth thence any whither” (aneh veanah). Bullinger suggests, “go not forth hither and thither.” Psalms 18:7 reads “the earth shook and trembled” (vattigash vattirash). Bullinger suggests, “the earth quaked and shaked.” Lastly Psalms 40:3 reads, “many shall see it, and fear” (yiru vyirau). Bullinger suggests, “many shall peer and fear.” Can you feel the emphasis those paronmasias supply?
The figure of speech alliteration is the repetition of the same letter or syllable at the beginning of two or more words in close succession. This figure is seen, of course, only in the Hebrew and the Greek. It is difficult to reproduce it in a translation. And where it occurs in the English it may be only accidental, and carry no weight or emphasis (Bullinger FOS p. 171).
An example of alliteration is found in I Thessalonians 1:2. It says, “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers.” The alliteration in the Greek phrase pantote peri panton, meaning always concerning all, (i.e. of you) emphasizes the importance of the prayer we must make always for all of us. Hebrews 1:1 contains another. It reads, “at sundry times and in divers manners” (polymeros kai polytropos palai). That alliteration means “in many parts and many ways of old.” It stresses God’s monumental effort to communicate with His people.
So, even if we don’t read the languages the Bible was originally written we can recognize and appreciate these hard to translate figures by using reference works that can do that for us. So, let’s use the resources available to us. Why not? We are God’s best and certainly God blessed.