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Most modern translations of Exodus 20:18a render it something like the ESV (all emphasis mine):

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking

But Young's Literal Translation has this minority report:

And all the people are seeing the voices, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mount smoking

Is there any basis for translating this as "seeing the voices"?

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As an aside, John 12:29, Rev. 1:12 and Rev. 10:3-4 are interesting cross references. –  Soldarnal Mar 26 '13 at 3:49

2 Answers 2

The Hebrew word קוֹל (kol) can be translated as both "voice" and "thunder." The word basically means "sound." While one may wonder at the notion of seeing voices, isn't seeing thunders/ thunderings just as peculiar? We tend to hear both, not see them. So, I'd chalk it up to translator preference/ bias. Considering the context, with הַלַּפִּידִם (which the AV translates as "lightnings") adjacent, I'd go with "thunders."

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

This seems to be a case where word play is lost in translation. As H3br3wHamm3r81 mentions, the Hebrew word קוֹל (kol) can be translated as both "voice" and "thunder." The nearness of both ideas when God speaks is seen in poetic parallelisms like 2 Samuel 22:14.

The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.

In other words, the Lord thundering and his voice resounding are nearly synonymous.

The surrounding context of also points towards an intentional ambiguity. Again, as H3br3wHamm3r81 notes, the adjacent word, הַלַּפִּידִם, often translated as lightnings, points us in the direction of "thunder". However, the fear of the people at the sight (sic) of the thunder/voices issues in the request found in the following verse that Moses speak to them rather than God. This would point in the direction of "voices".

Since the word itself involves an ambiguity, and since the context suggests an ambiguity, it seems best to see this as word play that cannot quite be capture in any one English translation.

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Did you mean to ask only about voice vs thunder, or also about the different tenses in the translations you quote? –  Gone Quiet Mar 27 '13 at 5:13
@MonicaCellio Yeah, I just meant thunder vs voice. It's in the title, but I guess the body of the question is less clear. –  Soldarnal Mar 27 '13 at 14:54

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