Translating a shipwreck

Posted: 27th March 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

In 1 Timothy 1:19, Paul writes that “it was through spurning conscience that certain persons made shipwreck of their faith” (REB). Shipwreck in this case means “a complete ruin” or “an irretrievable loss”. But of course, shipwreck is also a literal event, one which Paul experienced three times in his apostolic career (2 Corinthians 11:25), but of which only one is fully documented, that being in Acts 27.

I was reading this chapter in the REB earlier today and found it remarkable how nautically correct the language was. Phrases like “sail under the lee of…”, “weighing anchor”, “the landward side”, “run before [the wind]”, “took a sounding and found twenty fathoms”, “the ship’s boat”, “set the foresail to the wind”, “the bow stuck fast” and “the stern was being pounded to pieces by the breakers” all speak to a familiarity with the nautical world by a translation team that has preserved the authenticity of shipwreck.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to compare these phrases with some other more common translations.

According to the TNIV, in Acts 27:4 the ship “passed to the lee of Cyprus” (also vss. 7 and 16). The lee of an island (or other object) is the side that faces the direction that a wind is blowing toward. The lee is the sheltered side of the island, so in this case, the ship passed by with Cyprus between it and the source of the wind. The underlying Greek hypopleō primarily means “to sail close by”, though a literal nautical translation might be “[we] passed leeward of Cyprus because the winds […]”. The REB’s “under the lee” more vividly describes the safety of hugging the ship to the physical mass of Cyprus that protected it from the winds on the open water. The NASB also renders a sense of this with “under the shelter of Cyprus”, but doesn’t make the nautical reference.


If “leeward” was too nautical a term to use in an English translation, then it is perhaps a surprise to see the REB’s “a violent wind […] swept down from the landward side.” (27:14) In this case, Luke is describing the source of the wind from the ship’s perspective. “The landward side” would be the side of the ship facing, at this point in the story, the island of Crete. The TNIV translates this as “swept down from the island” (similarly the HCSB, ESV and NRSV). The NLTse reverses course with “a wind […] caught the ship and blew it out to sea.” This is a compromise with the next verse, which the REB translates as “It [the wind] caught the ship and, as it was impossible to keep head to wind, we had to give way and run before it.” To “run before the wind” is classic nautical language for opening the sails and allowing the wind to push the ship forward without tacking. The TNIV and HCSB water this down to literally say that the ship was “driven along.”

The REB, TNIV, HCSB, NRSV, NLTse and ESV all use a variation of “Northeaster” in their translation of the storm that hit Paul’s ship off Crete (Greek: typhōnikos anemos kaleō eurakylōn). However, the proper noun “Northeaster” is specifically used to define a type of cyclonic storm over the cold waters of the North Atlantic ocean, which can be especially devastating in the fall and winter months (Paul was sailing shortly after the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which falls in September or October).

The KJV calls this wind a “Euroclydon“, based on the underlying Greek eurakylōn, which is seems to be a Mediterranean cyclone with a warm core, as opposed to the cold core of a proper Northeaster. The NASB uses “Euraquilo”, which has been explained as “a compound of Greek euros, ‘east wind,’ and Latin aquilo, ‘northeast wind,’ hence, euraquilo, ‘east northeast wind.'” There is also support for calling this wind a Levanter or a Gregale in modern Mediterranean wind terminology (HT: Peter Kirk).

Given that we can’t be sure whether the eurakylōn in Acts had cyclonic wind activity (as with a “Northeaster”), perhaps the better English translation would be to just render it as “a strong northeast wind”, but with a footnote, “lit. Eurakylōn“. Note that “typhoon” is not correct, as this a regional name for storms in the Pacific Ocean; “hurricane” would probably also be incorrect, though not outside the realm of possibility. Note that the TNIV translated the Greek typhōnikos anemos as “a wind of hurricane force”.

Finally, anyone who has spent any time with nautical charts knows that water depths are measured in fathoms, where one fathom is six feet (~1.8 meters). A fathom was originally the distance between a sailor’s outstretched hands; you can imagine that as he is raising an anchor or sounding weight from the water, he counts off the number of segments of rope equal to his outstretched hands. It is nautically correct to measure water depth in fathoms, though the TNIV, HCSB and NLTse were compelled otherwise to use the equivalent lengths in feet. Happily the other translations I’m looking at (REB, NASB, NRSV, ESV) all use “fathoms” and all translations, except the NLTse, use the proper “took a sounding” terminology (the NTLse renders this in landlubber’ese as “dropped a weighted line”).

Now, lest you are drowning in nautical nonsense, I will bring this post to a close with the classic mariner’s maxim:

In the evening you say, “It will be fine weather, for the sky is red”; and in the morning you say, “It will be stormy today; the sky is red and lowering.” (Matthew 16:2-3, REB)

Perhaps more rhythmically known as “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor takes warning.”

  1. Lingamish says:

    Ahoy, matey! Great post. There are many instances of specialist vocabulary in the Bible but translators must make an extra effort to discover how to communicate it accurately. Northeaster is a great example of someone latching on to an anachronistic equivalent and then several other translations following that example.

    One thing I wondered about the 1 Timothy text when we were translating it last year is whether “shipwrecked” was a dead metaphor. It’s one of those things that is very hard to know about an ancient text. Especially with such a limited number of examples.

  2. The metaphor “shipwrecked” certainly isn’t part of any language groups I’ve been around lately, though I love the image. What threw me for a loop in the REB (and others) was the absence of “a” or “the” — I was expecting “… persons made a shipwreck of their faith”. The HCSB has “suffered the shipwreck of their faith”, but the TNIV is like the REB.

    On the topic of nautical translation, I’ve always been a fan of William Barclay’s translation of Hebrews 2:1 — For this reason, we must more eagerly anchor our lives to the truths that we have heard, so that we do not drift into sin.”

  3. TC says:

    Elshaddai, great post! I think translators should attempt to preserve the ancient metaphors as much as possible.

    Personally, I think presevered ancient metaphors add taste to the text. Perhaps, I’m adrift here.

  4. What’s interesting to me is that little of the nautical language is presented in Strong’s or other lexical tools. I can only scratch at the Greek using online tools like the Blue Letter Bible, but it’s apparent that the nautical language in the REB et al. is an overlay by the translation teams to present the passage in specialist vocabulary. The literal NASB was quite dull to read in comparison.

    So I’m not sure how much is actually being preserved of the ancient metaphors and how much is being translated into the language of the receiver audience. I’m just glad that the translators didn’t choose to use the colloquial “Nor’easter”!

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    If you are being so fussy about allowing “Northeaster” as a north-east storm only in one part of the world and not in another, I will have to equally take issue with your preference “tropical storm”. The Mediterranean is not tropical. So storms there cannot be tropical storms, although they may be extratropical cyclones, sometimes called mid-latitude cyclones, or possibly tropical cyclones which have undergone extratropical transition.

    But I note that according to Merriam-Webster, probably a more reliable source than Wikipedia, a northeaster is “1 : a strong northeast wind 2 … : a storm with northeast winds”, with no limitation to any one geographical area. So maybe this rendering is not so bad after all.

    The KJV form “Euroclydon” is apparently a textual error or correction of the original eurakulon, i.,e. Euraquilo, for which you give the explanation. So why prefer “Euroclydon”, a form which means nothing except to KJV readers? And since Euraquilo means “east north east” and that wind direction fits the climate and geography, surely the best translation is something like “east north east wind”. That is if you don’t accept “Northeaster” on the basis of an artificially narrow definition. Or else go for Gregale, which seems to be the best modern counterpart name.

    As for 1 Timothy 1:19, in the translation I am working on into a language where there is no verb “shipwreck”, the rendering can be translated literally into English as “[they] sank their faith like a ship meeting a disaster”.

    Of course not all languages have nautical terminology, especially those of people living far from the sea. I once had the interesting experience of seeing evidence of the loss of the last working anchor in a whole country! This landlocked country has just one sizeable lake, and I took a trip on the only large boat on this lake. At one place on the boat there was a winch and a place where there obviously had been an anchor, I could even see its outline on the paintwork, but there was no anchor. Was there a word for “anchor” in the language of that country? If so, probably only a loan word.

  6. Peter, thank you for the correction on tropical vs. extratropical. I’ll update my post accordingly.

    The fussiness about “Northeaster” is that with a capital “N”, the term is specifically used today to describe North Atlantic cold water cyclonic storms. Most of the translations I looked at used a capital “N” – the NRSV, if I recall correctly, had a small “n”. I’ll have to confirm that tonight when I get home, but it was the specific proper noun usage that I objected to.

    I took “Euroclydon” as a transliteration of eurakylōn, which is listed in Strong’s for this verse. I agree that Gregale may be the correct term for more literal translations, or “a northeast wind” for more functional ones, especially if there isn’t any support for cyclonic winds in Luke’s account – thanks for the additional link.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    The NASB has a curious annotation of a “Euraquilo”, which has been explained as “a compound of Greek euros, ‘east wind,’ and Latin aquilo, ‘northeast wind,’ hence, euraquilo, ‘east northeast wind.’”

    Of course, the Vulgate has it “Euroaquilo.” The curious thing is why that spelling for εὐρακύλων? Κύλων is not a very good transliteration of “Aquilo.”

    And Κύλων (or the Latin transliterated Cylon) is also the name of the “Athenian noble who married the daughter of Theagenes, tyrant of Megara, and with his help seized the Acropolis at Athens with a view to setting himself up as a tyrant (c.632 BC). ”

    To solve the mysteries here, one needs to find an extant text where either the Greek phrases or the Latin phrases pre-date Luke’s Acts.

    But then the other problem is translation. If Luke’s using Latin, or even a Greek-Latin hybrid, then why does the Vulgate have to do a weirder Latin than that (or is it a weirder Greek)? It always irks me that translators feel they can flatten out language. This happens with most English translations of John 1:42 in which there’s a Greek transliterated Hebrew name which Jesus replaces with an Aramaic name, which John transliterated into Greek, and also translates into Greek.

    Willis Barnstone, who can’t stand the Christianized English transliterations of the transliterated Hebrew names into Greek in the NT works another way: he translates the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew names back into an English transliteration of the Hebrew names. Weird. But it marks how unmarked our English readings have become.

    So here’s Barnstone’s John 1:42,

    “He led Shimon to Yeshua.
    Looking at him, Yeshua said,
    ‘You are Shimon, the son of Yohanan.
    You will be called Kefa’
    (which is translated Petros).”

    I’d rather do it this way:

    “He led Simon to Joshua.
    Looking at him, Joshua said,
    ‘You are Simon, the son of John.
    You will be called Kephas’
    (which is translated Rocky).”

    So back to Acts, if Luke is using Latin within his Greek, then I want to keep Latin (or an English-Latin hybrid) within my English: something like “Easterly-Aquilo.”

  8. TC says:

    Peter said:

    “As for 1 Timothy 1:19, in the translation I am working on into a language where there is no verb “shipwreck”, the rendering can be translated literally into English as “[they] sank their faith like a ship meeting a disaster”.

    Peter, per 2 Cor 11:25 I think we should keep the nautical metaphor at 1 Tim 1:19.

    Using metaphors is a part of every language. Metaphors add taste. I love them!

  9. J. K. Gayle says:

    Metaphors add taste.

    Me too, TC.

    Metaphors are taste.

  10. Nathan Stitt says:

    I finally sat down and read this passage to the end of Acts in the REB, what an incredible read.