Is there a way to determine if a phrase is an idiom?


A couple of things got me to thinking about idioms. I was listening to a radio program where there was a discussion of bible translations, where some translations are supposed to be 'word for word' and some are 'thought for thought'. Then a comment was made that there are around 1000 idioms in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of the Bible, and that the King James Bible and other 'word for word' translations have translated these idioms 'literally'. I did a little web 'research' and found a lot of the idiomatic expressions along with examples of how the English translators had literally translated these idioms and many people misunderstand the passages because they are being read and understood 'literally'.

The second thing was, as I study the Bible in Spanish, I encounter idiomatic espressions from time to time, and of course, I don't know they are idiomatic expressions and I try my best to interpret them and that of course makes my heard hurt because the expression makes no sense literally.

For example, reading 2 Timothy 3:1

King James and Reina'Valera 1960 - This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come - También debes saber esto: que en los postreros días vendrán tiempos peligrosos.

New International Version/Nueva Versión Internacional - But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. - Ahora bien, ten en cuenta que en los últimos días vendrán tiempos difíciles.

Now, the idiomatic phrase is "ten en cuenta que". Of couse, there's no way of knowing if it is an idiomatic phrase until I come to and start researching, and then it all makes perfect tense.

It's easy for me to determine if a phrase is an idiom, either by asking someone here or searching through reference and find it. The bottom line is, I have to depend on a native speaker to confirm something is an idiom, so, with that thought in mind, how can you confirm that a phrase is an idiom that was written a couple thousand and more years ago, if you can't confirm it with a 'native speaker'? For example, if one were reading ancient Hebrew texts of the Bible and you knew every word you were reading, you're fine, but then you encounter a group of words that you understand perfectly individually, but they make no sense individually. Back then you might me able to ask a 'native', but what about now? You have to trust somebody that wrote a reference book i suppose.

So, considering the four examples I've given of so-called 'word for word' translations, they seem to be radically different. The first part of the verse seems to agree pretty much between the King James and the Reino-Valero 1960. I guess my big question is, using the NIV/NVI as examples, I think both of them use idiomatic expressions, namely But mark this amd Ahora bien, ten en cuenta.

In my opinion, there is no way to really know if something is truly an idiom if the language is dead and there's no one to speak it (like the old Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic). So how do we really know? Why would the NIV translators use "ten en cuenta (take note), plus it's using the verb Tener. If both Spanish translations are "word for word" it seems they would be closer to each other. On the one hand, I don't see how it's possible to do 'word for word' translations (realizing that there are a lot of words that can be translated word to word from English to Spanish and vice versa) but it seems to me that in all language translation there are a lot of idiomatic expressions in the mix. I'm constantly finding them in the Spanish bibles, and if there truly are around 1000 from the original texts, it really seems like an overywhelming job to try translating a book from one language to another.

What intrigued me about this 'argument' is, there are people that tear their clothes and throw dust into the air if you even talk about reading another translation of the Bible other than the King James (I know very well the pros and cons of this argument), and one of their main arguments is, "it's word for word from the original". The NIV translators also claim their version is "word for word from the original", so there you go.

So, if I literally interpret something, and it's "correct" (word for word), then a native speaker tells me that it's wrong, and then gives me "this is how we say it" but the words don't really mean that, at what point does that become an idiomatic expression? As I encounter more and more of these expressions in the Bible, I wonder, does an idiomatic expression give you a closer interpretation of the original, or is it possibly more problematic and more likely to be misunderstood?

Thanks for your thoughts

updated JUN 3, 2010
edited by Jack-OBrien
posted by Jack-OBrien
Good point.
You don't accpet inspired writing? Moses wrote the first 5 books of the Bible so I guess God did say..."sit down and write."
I do accept inspired writing. I'm confused as to why idioms would be used in a text that would be read 2 thousand years later.

6 Answers


That has a lot to do with a comment I made on an earlier thread, and chose not to pursue. I won't press it much here either, because as you have already pointed out, this is something that can easily stir passions and get people to tear their clothes and throw dust in the air (love that image!).

To me it simply does not make sense that The Bible (your favorite one, in whatever language) is a faithful transcription of the Word of God.

Many (most) of the Biblical stories were part of a rich oral tradition of many cultures for thousands of years, before someone started compiling them into written form. The stories and tradition are of diverse origin, and were told (and written) in a variety of languages: Aramaic, Greek, Egptian, Syrian...

So even the first written document that anyone can agree that is a "Bible" is already a collection of versions, translations and transcriptions of very diverse origins, each including its own idioms and idiosyncrasies. Of course I have no way of knowing, and for many people this is a matter of absolute faith - but I personally do not believe that one day God came down from the Heavens, picked some competent Scribe from the street and told him: "I Have Chosen Thee to Write the Greatest Bestseller in the History of the World, so Go Get some Paper and Get Busy Writing".

Yes we can all more or less agree about the text on St. John's letters, give or take a few variations in interpretations between Bible versions and languages - but can we be absolutely certain that that´s precisely what John, or Abraham, or Abel, or Rachel or anyone in the Bible really said? I have my doubts.

updated JUN 3, 2010
posted by Gekkosan
I agree.
You don't accpet inspired writing? Moses wrote the first 5 books of the Bible so I guess God did say..."sit down and write."
I have not sufficient scholarly knowledge, not unquestioning Faith, to feel qualified to debate that, Q. I only have my beliefs. You may find *one* point of view here:

Just to mention it, when they try to figure out the meaning of a Bible word, they check all other instances of it, and try to define it in a way that makes sense in all contexts. Idioms probably aren't near as bad a problem as the fact that the written Hebrew at the time omitted the vowels that were in the spoken version of the language. For instance, we know the written form of God's name, but since no one is around to tell us how it was pronounced (to supply the vowels) so coming up with a true translation is impossible. (and the fact that the Jews weren't allowed to speak His name aloud in later times, didn't help).

And then there is punctuation, which I doubt exists in the original scrolls: I'm sure that you are familiar with Luke 23:43

43 And he said to him: "Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise".

The other interpretation is "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Of course, there was no comma in the original.

These two different interpretations can be used to justify two contradictory viewpoints concerning an Afterlife. (or where Jesus was during the time of his death and the time of his resurrection.)

The Bible, however, is supposed to be pretty accurate. When they found the Dead Sea Scrolls and other texts and compared them to the much newer, copied-over versions they matched remarkably well.

They also have the theme of the Bible to help them in translations. You not going to translate Jesus as saying something in the New Testament that totally contradicts something that God said in the Old testament. If you are, you're probably translating it incorrectly.

updated JUN 3, 2010
posted by 0074b507

The notion of a "word-for-word" translation of the Bible (or anything, for that matter) is total nonsense. It would have no audience because it would be unreadable by the speakers of the "target" language. Even in closely related languages, such efforts would be pointless (Italian to Spanish or vice versa) would be largely understood but there would also be cases of total nonsense. With mostly unrelated languages (such as English and Classical Hebrew/Greek), there would be frequent occurrences of grammatical constructs which (translated on a word-for-word basis) would be absolute nonsense.

By report, Jesus went around speaking Aramaic (a Semitic language), the canonical gospels were written in Koine Greek (one translation [across quite different languages]) The were then again translated into Latin (more Medieval than Classical). For the English speaking world, they were again translated (Wyclif et al) but the big seller was the version supported by King James. Because of the profound influence the the King James' version had on the language, (or so my professors of Classical Greek told me) it has become almost impossible to translate some words from Greek into English. The obvious choices in English have been colored by centuries of Christian interpretation. What a word probably meant to a Greek has been lost because it has taken on a "special" meaning in the context of Christianity. Naturally, this applies to some words in Greek (plenty of words were so common that there is no argument about their meaning/translation). However, we also have all of the words that came into vogue (or developed new/special meanings) because of the Christians.

If you want to run around saying "This is what the Bible says ..." (as opposed to "This is what my favorite translation of the Bible says ...", I'd suggest that you take 10-20 years to become familiar with Classical Hebrew and Koine Greek (and, perhaps Aramaic [for the Dead Sea Scrolls]) before offering an interpretation.

updated JUN 3, 2010
edited by samdie
posted by samdie
even though the gospels were translated into Latin, it was pretty much kept under lock and key by the Catholic church. The Wyclif was from the Latin, Tyndales translation came directly from the Greek and Hebrew texts. Supposedly 85% of the King James is
from the Tyndale translation.

OK Jack, so you want a version of Word with a multi-lingual idioms checker which will turn all known or suspected idioms green (or whatever - nice little option to set them to the color of your choice). You need to write to Microsoft about it. I wish I could give you a better suggestion.

Ah but! you just might have better luck with Open Office; it could be more their sort of thing.

Naturally, it would need a right-click menu option to tell you which language was the origin, level of probability etc.

Hey! Maybe there's a product here!!!


updated JUN 3, 2010
posted by geofc
Yeah, that would be the ticket :~) I guess such a thing would be an absolute impossiblity.

As Quentin already pointed out, scholars look for (any) other occurrence of the word (or, better yet, the phrase) and seek a translation that makes sense in all contexts. Sometimes, of course, they come up against words/phrases that are only used once or are used in similar contexts, so that they can't really get a feel for the possible range of meanings.

Occasionally, things like the Rosetta stone are found that provide parallel translations and, if one knows more about one of the "other" languages, one can make inferences about the less known language/phrase.

However, such finds are the exception. Translators are still left with words/phrases that occur in such limited contexts that they are forced to guess at the meaning. The most obvious (and probably, most common) practice in such cases is to "go with" the desires/preferences of those supporting (financially) the effort of translation.

updated JUN 3, 2010
posted by samdie

You not going to translate Jesus as saying something in the New Testament that totally contradicts something that God said in the Old testament.

That sounds like a policy decision rather than a decision about the translator's craft.

From somewhere on the web:

This was why the law of Moses prescribed an ‘eye for an eye’ and a ‘tooth for a tooth’, in accordance with the epoch in which Moses lived. When Christ came, He said: ‘Return goodness for evil,’

Sounds rather revisionist to me.

Of course, Jesus was reported to have said that he came to "fulfill the word" not to "overturn" it. Nonetheless, by all accounts he was seen by the "establishment" as doing a lot of overturning.

updated JUN 3, 2010
posted by samdie