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In Exodus (e.g.: 26:14), we learn one of the coverings for the tabernacle is to be made of "תחש" (tachash) skins. The translation of this term appears to be especially difficult or contentious as there is little consensus between translations as to how to translate this word:

E.g., some various translation of this covering:

  • "a covering of porpoise skins" (NASB)
  • "a covering of hides of sea cows" (NIV 1984)
  • "a covering of badger skins" (NKJV)
  • "a covering of sealskins" (RSV)
  • "a covering of goatskins" (ESV)
  • "the other of fine leather" (GN)
  • "blue skins as coverings" (Brenton)

Why, in this case, bother trying to translate the uncertain word at all? I have seen other cases in the Bible where uncertain words were left as a transliteration of the Hebrew. But here, translators seem to have enough clues (presumably from the word roots?) to make conjectures that are completely dissimilar—what translation philosophies would cause them to come to such different conclusions as to what tachash might be?

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related: Unicorns in the Bible? – Richard Oct 11 '11 at 22:03
This book may help you out. I originally was posting an answer based on it, but it didn't quite fit the question. – Richard Oct 11 '11 at 22:17
Are you asking about the approach? Or what the best translation of this word is? If the former, does this qualify as a hermeneutical question? I don't believed translation approaches have been identified as on topic up to this point – Ray Oct 12 '11 at 19:57
Approach for this specific word, I'll edit the subject to make that more clear – Jessica Brown Oct 13 '11 at 19:56
up vote 10 down vote accepted

In this particular case, the translator's note from the NET Bible is helpful:

The meaning of the word תְּחָשִׁים (tÿkhashim) is debated. The Arabic tuhas or duhas is a dolphin, and so some think a sea animal is meant – something like a dolphin or porpoise (cf. NASB; ASV “sealskins”; NIV “hides of sea cows”). Porpoises are common in the Red Sea; their skins are used for clothing by the bedouin. The word has also been connected to an Egyptian word for “leather” (ths); see S. R. Driver, Exodus, 265. Some variation of this is followed by NRSV (“fine leather”) and NLT (“fine goatskin leather”). Another suggestion connects this word to an Akkadian one that describes a precious stone that is yellow or ornge[sic] and also leather died with the color of this stone (N. M. Sarna, Exodus [JPSTC], 157-58).

It also includes a handful of other translations:

"fine leather" (NET)

"fine goatskin leather" (NLT)

"dolphin skins" (MSG)

"leather" (BBE)

"fine leather" (NRSV)

The New King James Version preserved the King James rendering of "badger skins", which probably has its own history that might be lost to time.

"Brenton" refers to:

The English translation of The Septuagint by Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton, originally published in 1851.

So it seems that even the earliest translators (the LXX) didn't really know what to make of the word.

This is the speculative portion of the answer wherein I attempt to read the minds of the translators. Caveat lector!

At an absolute minimum, we know from context that the word signifies some sort of skin. (The word it modifies is "skin" or "hide".) It could be a type of animal and, since it was used in the tabernacle, it would make sense that the skin be luxurious. The most conservative translation (in terms of not overstating the meaning of the text) would be to either not modify the word "leather" (BBE) or to modify it with a very general indication of quality (NET, NRSV, GN: "fine").

On the other end of the spectrum, its likely the word being used here was somewhat exotic and possible that some early readers wouldn't have any better idea what it means than we do. To convey the sense of wonder and strangeness that may have been carried by the word, just about any exotic animal, say "ocelot skin", would serve. Since there are etymological and cultural clues that point to a specific animal type, other translators take their best shot at rendering the unusual nature of the skins (NASB: "porpoise", NIV: "sea cows", RV: "seal", MSG: "dolphin").

Somewhere in between are translations that preserve the luxurious but downplay the exotic connotations. It seems they are taking the Egyptian etymology and generalize it to goatskin (ESV and NLT). My reading of these translation is that they presume the word was common (if perhaps technical), but dropped out of use over time.

In any case, I hope all the translations include a note explaining the difficulty with this word and perhaps propose one or two other options.

Your suggestion of transliterating the word is both very conservative (it doesn't say anymore than the original), but also pushes the "exotic" sense of the word. What could be more exotic than tachash skin? I like the suggestion. Perhaps translators don't like admitting they don't know everything about these ancient texts?

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"It doesn't say anymore than the original": but it might say less. Your average reader is going to say, "What in the world are tachash skins?" and the resulting confusion is a sign of lessened communication. I think transliteration is a cop-out. But good answer anyway +1. – Kazark May 21 '12 at 16:02

See the Encyclopedia Judaica on taḥash for the earliest ancient translations—"blue", "purple", "violet" (Volume 19, page 435), and the reference links at Wikipedia's tachash article (e.g. Living Torah on Exodus 25:5 footnotes "blue-processed" citing ancient sources; and Natan Slifkin's Sacred Monsters on "The Tachash" also citing the ancients "leather dyed"). See also some of the speculative and historical material in an older version of the Wikipedia page. Look at Adam Clarke's Bible Commentary on Exodus (blue, azure, black, violet, purple). Josephus in Antiquities 3:6:4 (132) says the outer curtains of the tabernacle were not unlike the color of the sky (which is indigo).

The ancient sources cited in these all indicate colored skins before A.D. 300. Written speculation on specific animals as the meaning of tachash begins with the Talmud c. 350-500. Rashi's commentary on Ezekiel 16:10 sets forth both glory and badger as the meaning; and Martin Luther saw a linguistic relationship between the Hebrew tachash, Latin taxus, and German dachs, although Latin, German and Hebrew are not related linguistically. Nevertheless, the Catholic translators of the Latin Vulgate and the Douay-Rheims Bible preferred the interpretation violet. Indigo (between blue and violet) seems most likely; on this there is among the ancients a general consensus of scholarly opinion.

This is supported by 20th century researchers Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and Rabbi Natan Slifkin, among others. The apparent answer to what has been the more recent "philosophy of translation" (since 5th century) is that it tends to be a rejection of the most ancient authors' interpretation of tachash/taḥash as a color process or dye in favor of the more recent Rabbinic Talmudic tradition and Protestant academic opinion that tachash specifies a particular animal, but there is no consensus on what animal it could have been. The most recent 21st century Jewish, Catholic and Protestant translations favor the interpretation of a colored leather/skin as the most likely ancient meaning of tachash.

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Hi Michael and welcome to our Q&A site. I appreciate this answer and your insight into this question. We've collected a few formatting hints that I hope will help you with future answers. Thanks again and I hope to see you around! – Jon Ericson Sep 30 '12 at 4:32

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