There’s No Translation Like No Translation

This afternoon, in an increasingly desperate attempt to avoid useful work, I was reading the Gospel of Luke and I came across this familiar line:

εὐκοπώτερον γάρ ἐστιν κάμηλον διὰ τρήματος βελόνης εἰσελθεῖν ἢ πλούσιον εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν.

–Luke 18:24

usually translated

“It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

You waste more time if you look everything up, so I was interested to find that τρῆμα (the word usually translated as “eye”) can mean “orifice”, and βελόνη (the word usually translated as “needle”) can refer to a pipefish or garfish.

So maybe what Jesus was actually saying was, “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the yinyang of a pipefish…” This doesn’t add any moral or spiritual meaning that I can detect, but it is funnier, sort of like the lion jumping straight through the crocodile in Baron Munchausen.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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15 Responses to There’s No Translation Like No Translation

  1. kythiaranos says:

    I hear that there’s a gate in Jerusalem called the Needle, or the Eye of the Needle. In order to get a camel through, you have to unload all its gear and then scooch it through on its knees. The application for the wealthy, I leave to your imagination.

    • JE says:

      I’ve read that, too. Nothing could exceed my ignorance about the topography of Jerusalem, but I have to say that this explanation has always seemed too rationalistic to me. Proverbial speech is full of these impossible contingencies (“If wishes were horses than beggars would ride” etc.), and I like the idea that Jesus is making a stronger, wittier statement here. (I don’t absolutely insist on the pipefish, though they are kind of nifty-looking.)

      I admit that the higher the balance in my bank account gets, the more the rationalistic explanation appeals to me. However, that’s not usually much of a problem.

      • kythiaranos says:


        Also, it’s totally cool that you’re reading the Bible in Greek. Learning to read Greek or Hebrew is definitely on my dream to-do list.

        • JE says:

          It is fun to read the New Testament in Greek. I can’t say that I’ve had any big revelations: the standard English translations do a pretty good job of rendering the meaning of the texts. But the Greek is more flavorful, somehow: earthier and funnier and harsher and more eloquent.

          I briefly tackled Hebrew many years ago when I was an undergraduate–always wished I had kept with it. That is a cool-sounding language, and I bet the poetry in the Hebrew Bible has a lot more impact in the original.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’ve looked into the “small gate” story and never found any evidence for it. It also doesn’t make much sense given Jesus’ response to his disciples’ incredulity.

        You waste more time if you look everything up,

        That is why I always got a B in Greek instead of an A. I knew most of the vocabulary, but when it came down to the final, there’d be just enough niggling doubt that I’d open the lexicon too often and wouldn’t finish. Bother.

        Of course, we didn’t bother with Luke. Why waste your time learning good Greek when you can translate John and learn bad? 🙂

        –Jeff Stehman

        • JE says:

          I’m glad I never got graded on my rendering (or rending) of the Gospels. But I have to admit that, of the four, I like Luke’s the best and John’s the least. Luke is the only one who lets us know where he got his info, for one thing. Also, I always like books that are part of a series, and Luke’s Gospel has a sequel…

  2. zornhau says:

    Did you check the meaning of “enter”…

    …and of “kingdom of heaven”?

    Oh and “rich”?

    There could be a whole wealth of moral or spiritual meaning here.

    • JE says:

      There weren’t any intriguing alternative meanings under πλούσιος (“rich”) etc.–none that intrigued me, anyway; εἰσέρχομαι (“enter into”) can be a legal term (which is interesting in this judgemental context) but the absence of other legalisms here makes me think he just means “enter” here.

      • zornhau says:

        So not a reference to a proto Perfumed Garden?

        Too bad.

        • JE says:

          Re: So not a reference to a proto Perfumed Garden?

          I was thinking of the camel passing through the pipes of the pipefish in the other direction (from stem to stern, as it were). But I suppose that’s a private matter between the camel and the pipefish, sort of like the elephant and the ant (as in #17 here).

  3. peadarog says:

    Have you ever come across the phrase: “Although the meat has gone off, the ghost is a volunteer”?

    • JE says:

      Yes, and I think I see what you mean: mining the dictionary isn’t necessarily the best way to make sense of a text. But I wonder how unlikely the meaning of βελόνη would have been to Jesus’ first audience, many of whom were fisherman.

      I don’t insist on it, though. I just thought the image of the pipefish swelling to camel-size was funny, in a sort of cartoonish way.

      • peadarog says:

        Yes, I got your point, but I was just being silly — very unusual for me, I think you’ll agree 😉

        • JE says:

          Yes, it’s very out of character! Sorry if my response sounded a little humorless. It suddenly occurred to me that I might be able to write an academic note about this passage (not necessarily the pipefish stuff), and that kind of thinking bleaches all the fun out of life.

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