by Lenny Esposito
A friend of mine from Holland recently asked if there was an English equivalent to the Dutch phrase "'s Avonds een vent, 's ochtends een vent." The phrase translates to the English "At night a man, in the morning a man" and it's a very popular idiom there, or so I'm told. The Dutch will recognize its meaning immediately, but as an English speaker, I'm going to be hopelessly lost unless my friend unpacks the phrase a bit more. As it turns out, it implied that if one wishes to act like an adult and stay out late (perhaps drinking or partying), then one must also act like an adult in the morning by getting up on time and putting forth a full effort at his or her responsibilities of work or school.
How Culture Affects the Use of Language
Reading the translation of the idiom by itself, I don't think anyone unacquainted with Dutch culture would ever understand its meaning. The United States was heavily influenced by the Puritans, so we don't have any figure of speech that equates drinking with being a grown up. Instead, we have Benjamin Franklin's "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise," which is much more in line with our work ethic.
I offer this example because idioms and figures of speech are used throughout the Bible and simply reading a Bible translation without understanding how the language is being used can lead the student to as much confusion as only translating the Dutch idiom above. Let me give you one example: In Amos 4:6 God tells the Israelites, "I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities." To a 21st century culture, one may rejoice. But the phrase is a curse as it is followed by "and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me." God is telling the Israelites that he caused a famine; their teeth were clean because there was no food left to get stuck in them!
Because modern society places an emphasis on white teeth and good oral hygiene, we bring certain presuppositions to the text without even realizing it and one can often miss the point…
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