Last Sunday, our pastor preached on this passage (among others). As I was scrambling to keep up in my Readers Hebrew Bible, I realized that the translation that he read was not even close to what I had in my Hebrew Bible. He read something like this: ‘Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles, but the one who gathers by labor increases it’ (NASB). A look at several different translations show the struggle to understand this verse:

NRSV – Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little will increase it. 

NET – Wealth gained quickly will dwindle away, but the one who gathers it little by little37 will become rich.

NIV – Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow.

ESV – Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.

NASB – Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles, but the one who gathers by labor increases it.

JPS – Wealth may dwindle to less than nothing, but he who gathers little by little increases it.

The Hebrew, however reads: הון מהבל ימעט וקבץ על־יד ירבה. Translated as literally as possible this reads: ‘wealth from breath becomes little, but what one gathers by hand is multiplied.’  The translation options for the first clause are to either understand מהבל (‘from breath’) as an error by metathesis and read it as מבהל (‘in haste’) or to try and come to grips with the metaphor ‘from breath.’

If we do not accept the emendation  מבהל (‘in haste’), which we won’t for the sake of argument, we have to deal with this metaphor. First–understanding it. Waltke suggests that the concept of gain from breath or vapor “suggests what English speakers call ‘easy money,’ including tyranny, injustice, extortion, lies and windfalls, at the expense of others” (Waltke, 561). The next metaphor ‘by the hand’ he suggests “symbolizes a slow, small, steady accumulation of wealth by the handful” (Waltke, 561). In my thinking the contrast seems to be more money not really earned (i.e., acquired from a puff of air) vs. money truly worked for (i.e., acquired by the hand). 

Now keeping in mind John Hobbins’ reminder to translators to be seeking an ‘ouch-level’ accuracy (see here and here), I ask the question how do we translate this metaphor? When I read along with my pastor it was unintelligible to me. Only when I heard the English translation that attempted to interpret the metaphor was I able to understand and offer my own interpretation of it. So as I see it we have two options. 1) Translate the verse as early as possible: ‘wealth from vapor becomes little, but gathering by hand is multiplied’ and leave the reader with the job of interpreting the metaphor Or 2) interpret the metaphor and lose the metaphoric language: ‘wealth not earned becomes little, but gathering by hand is multiplied.’ 

My question, however, remains: what is the best way to translate accurately but communicate accurately a metaphor?