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Translators publishing for the Christian market translate the title in Isaiah 9:6:

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

—Isaiah 9:6 (ESV)

But the Jewish Publishing Society's 1917 edition of the Tanakh renders the same verse (which is numbered slightly differently) as:

For a child is born unto us, a son is given unto us; and the government is upon his shoulder; and his name is called Pele-joez-el-gibbor-Abi-ad-sar-shalom;—Isaiah 9:5 (JPS)

Wikipedia implies that the the decision to translate or transliterate is largely motivated by doctrinal issues that exist outside of the text. What principles should be used by translators to judge whether to render a name or title into words that carry the same meaning in the target language (as some do with the Adversary) or the simply reproduce the sounds of the words from the source language (as is done with Israel)?

Bonus question: I assume the phrase is ambiguous in Hebrew; either of the common translations can be made to work. Is there a way to translate this phrase in such a way as to avoid privileging one doctrinally-based interpretation over another?

We've been reading one of my favorite Christmas books as a family and this question is touched upon there:

"She said, 'His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.'" ...
"My God!" Imogene said, "He'd never get out of the first grade if he had to write all that!"
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

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This is such an excellent question. It might seem rude of me but I find this kind of translation as more or less gibberish. It might seem rude but when I read an English Bible I expect English words. Can you imagine a Bible that had (which means God) or (which means Jesus) everywhere while preserving the original sounds of the Hebrew and Greek? That would be just plain silly. If one can't determine a probable English meaning then yes just make a transliteration and provide possible meaning in a footnote if that is feasible. Anyway the question was more informative than most. –  Mike Feb 3 '13 at 3:32
Interesting. So even jewish translation consider the whole Pele-joez-el-gibbor-Abi-ad-sar-shalom as part of the child's name –  Jim Thio Feb 19 '14 at 6:08

2 Answers 2

One consideration for translations is to distinguish translated names from the in-text explanations of names that we sometimes get (e.g. the explanations for the names of many of Yaakov's sons). A translation should never give the impression that the text explicitly assigns a name when it does not. So, for example, since "ha-satan" can mean many things, from "prosecuting attorney" to "source of all evil in the world", it's best to just leave it as ha-satan.

But we don't want to be unnecessarily opaque either; if we know what the words mean a translation should convey that. The Isaiah passage in the question is an excellent example of that.

A reasonable compromise would seem to be a footnote: transliterate the name and footnote the translation, for all names for which a translation can be determined. (Sometimes a name is just a name, but those aren't the cases this question asks about.) If names are going to be translated then one would expect them to be translated everywhere, but that would probably be cumbersome to read. ("And God-Wrestler said...", "the word of the Lord came to Judgment of God...", etc.)

I don't know if the following is relevant, but: the phrase here translated "his name is called" is וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ . That's not strictly correct; this is active voice, literally "and he called his name" (see comments). This usage strikes me as unusual (though I haven't checked a concordance); it is different from "he called" (which would just be וַיִּקְרָא), "he is called" (which would be a different formulation of that verb), and "his name [is]" (which would just use שְׁמוֹ, implying the "is"). I don't know how often in Tanakh the construct in this passage is used. The use of this construct might argue more strongly for translating the name, and perhaps that is the reasoning ESV uses. (Were I doing the translation I would still provide both transliteration and translation, though.)

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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That's helpful: especially the footnote compromise. My guess is that the ESV is following the KJV (which probably was influenced by the Latin translation). It's interesting to note that the slightly awkward English phrasing reflects the Hebrew to some extent. Thanks for the answer. –  Jon Ericson Dec 19 '12 at 18:59

All translation is based on an understanding of the underlying text, and so is to a greater or lesser extent doctrinal in nature. Most of the time it doesn't matter. But these things are really a matter of opinion. The Hebrew is invariant, the transliteration is of the Hebrew that would be translated. I suspect that the Jewish translation is more motivated by bias than the Christian, simply because the verse is so very significant in Trinitarian theology. But there basically isn't a way to render this in English that conveys the two underlying meanings. At various points in the NT the practice was to give the original language name and then the translation. For example,

And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing. (John 9:6)

The "which by interpretation is..." is in the Greek text, it is not a translation artifact. So perhaps English translators could adopt the same practice:

For a child is born unto us, a son is given unto us; and the government is upon his shoulder; and his name is called

Pele-joez, which is Wonderful counselor;

El-Gibbor, which is Mighty god;

Abi-ad-sar-shalom, which is prince of peace.

Which would use the same technique used in various other parts of the Bible by the Bible writers themselves.

BTW, I have rendered El-Gibbor is Mighty god with a lower case because I think the doctrinal practice of treating this as a Trinitarian verse is wrong, unless you think that Hezekiah, to whom this verse refers, is also El Shaddai.

EDIT: I forgot to say in my original answer that I set the interpretations, such as which is Mighty god in italics deliberately. This is a tradition in some translations of the Bible such as the KJV, NKJV, NASB etc to indicate words not in the original text but supplied by the translators for clarity. I should say that it is a pretty hit and miss indicator in those translations, nonetheless, I continued it in the above proposal.

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This is a helpful answer though I'm not sure it's possible to know which translator is more biased. Probably a footnote describing all reasonable translations seems the least biased or a the most balanced. –  Jon Ericson Dec 20 '12 at 18:40

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