“To Be or not To Be” How to frame the question?

I’ve been doing lectio divina in the Gospel of John, and I found myself paying a lot of attention to the use of the verb “to be.”  (I was thinking about the I am that I am answer that God gives to Moses when asked for his name).

But then I got a bit distracted by a nerdy translation question: How do people translate Exodus 3:14 (“And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you”) into languages that don’t include esse (to be) as a verb?

In Latin, you don’t have to use esse, but it’s an option.  I can say Gaius discipulus, and everyone knows I mean Gaius is a student, because the declensions of the nouns match.  I can say Gaius discipulus est if I’d like, but I don’t have to.  The Latin Vulgate translation of this verse has to reach for esse to say “Ego sum qui sum.”

But, in ASL, the esse-equivalent doesn’t exist at all.  The proper syntax for saying I am a student is “I student” or “Student I” or, for extra emphasis “I student I.”

So I have no idea how “I am that I am” would be interpreted.  I’m going to ask around, but I’m pretty sure ASL isn’t the only language without esse.  Can people think of any other examples to investigate?


I’m trying to encourage some of my multilingual facebook friends to crosspost.  They’ve been discussing translations in Arabic, Hebrew, and Japanese.  One Deaf friend made the following suggestion:

I would just do the fancy sweeping both-hands up-and-down pointing-to-self thing that you do when you’re introducing yourself formally. with a “this is obvious and this is all you’re going to get” expression on my face.

Maaan, this is why I really want an ASL video Missal.

"Well, I would love to know if you now believe that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered."

Go Ahead, Tell Me What’s Wrong ..."
"Any chance of you ever addressing the evidence that led you to accept the truth ..."

Letting Go of the Goal of ..."
""Wow, an unevidenced assertion from a religious dipshite. "Your quotes are the evidence and reason ..."

This is my last post for ..."
""Congrats on leaving your brain behind!"Comments like yours are why lots of atheists leave atheism. ..."

This is my last post for ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
    • Ryan

      ^My favorite part of this is the implications regarding the validity of the stron interpretation of the Sapir-Worf hypothesis, which I always argued against.

      • I’m with you, although Sapir-Whorf is fun to play around with. Much like Foucault is fun to play around with. (Oh wait, they’re basically the same.)

  • Ted Seeber

    Oh, Great, your lecto divina has turned into my pop music obsession for the day. I Palindrome I will be playing in my head for the rest of the day.

  • Basically, it’s a matter of equivalency: “I (will) be the same as /what/ I (will) be.” So I’d interpret it as “I = (maybe future tense) I”

    • Emily

      Oh, this is good. I like this.

  • Joshua Gonnerman

    The E-Prime Bible has “I proclaim myself to be the one who exists eternally.” You could probably tweak that.

    • leahlibresco

      What is the E-Prime Bible?

      • Irenist

        A Bible written in E-Prime, a version of English which excludes all forms of the verb “to be.”

        • David

          Then why does the E-Prime version have the words “to be” in the translation given here?

        • Pseudonym

          I’m confused. That quoted phrase contains the non-finite form “to be”.

  • Ivan

    Arabic, having the same odd relationship to present-tense existential verbs as Hebrew, often just transliterates the Hebrew weirdness and adds an explanatory parenthetical gloss with a more explicit verb (“I am being the one which I am being”). There’s a discussion here: http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=2479583

    • Heh, I just commented the same on Leah’s Facebook! For example, the Arabic Life Application adds a clarification: أَنَا الْكَائِنُ الدَّائِمُ, “I (am) the eternal Being.” Of course, that’s a pretty Protestant interpretation.

    • I was wondering how that would be handled. I knew Arabic has the كان , يكون verb, but I also knew the present tense wasn’t really used.

      And I’m also curious why that interpretation is protestant.

  • deiseach

    Okay, the 1981 version of the Bible in Irish has it as “14Dúirt Dia le Maois: “Is mé an te atá ann,” agus lean sé air: “agus abair é seo le clann Iosrael: ‘An té atá ann is é a sheol chugaibh mé.’”

    Now, that is not exactly the same thing as “I am that am”; literally translated, it would be “I am the one that is there”. A continuous present tense would be “Bíonn me” (‘I am’ – engaged in an habitual action; usually Hibernicised as “I do be”). “Tá me” or “Is mise” would also be “I am” but they invite further clarification; you are who? what? A way of saying it could be “Is mé (an té) a bhfuil” (I am (that one) that is), but that’s only my own personal opinion and I’m not a professional translator.

  • Joe

    I saw this on a website called “The White Robed Monks of Saint Benedict” not totally sure they are credible but I thought the quote was interesting.
    “Christ’s native language as Aramaic. The word “Body” in Aramaic is guph or basar which mean body “not as the body as distinguished from the soul, but rather designating the complete entire (person), ‘I,myself.'” The English word this in Aramaic is da which connotes this which is here. In Aramaic and Hebrew, there is no copulative verb to be. Hence, Christ actually said: This (here), I, myself. “All discussion of the meaning of ‘is’ in the words of Eucharistic institution is wasted effort. Christ himself, then, in His own concrete reality equates with the consecrated bread (and wine).” Christ, then, is Present (L. prae + esse, to be before one). He presents himself to us just as he is, just as a rose is a rose.”

    • Irenist

      It’s charming, but I don’t think it’s credible. אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה has been translated as “I am that I am” for millennia. Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_am_that_I_am
      אֶהְיֶה, i.e., “I Am” is a form of the verb “to be,” which, AFAIK, in Hebrew is הָיָה,
      In the Aramaic of the Peshitta, there is some dispute over whether, e.g., the relevant verb in John 8:58 (“Before Abraham was, I am”) should be translated as “Before Abraham was, I was,” but there’s certainly a copula there in the verse: ܐܡܪ ܠܗܘܢ ܝܫܘܥ ܐܡܝܢ ܐܡܝܢ ܐܡܪ ܐܢܐ ܠܟܘܢ ܕܥܕܠܐ ܢܗܘܐ ܐܒܪܗܡ ܐܢܐ ܐܝܬܝ ܀

      • Irenist

        Just to be clear, that “AFAIK” above stands only for what I know after some rather weak google-fu. And given that Ivan tells us above that present-tense existential verbs are odd in Hebrew, caveat emptor.

  • Irenist

    Since Klingon, IIRC, was constructed to lack the verb “to be,” I looked up Exodus 3:14 in the Klingon Language version, with brackets for quotation marks so as not to confuse either those looking for glottal stops or any html parsers:

    joH’a’ ja’ta’ Daq Moses, [[ jIH ‘oH ‘Iv jIH ‘oH, ]] je ghaH ja’ta’, [SoH DIchDaq ja’ the puqpu’ vo’ Israel vam: [jIH ‘oH ghajtaH ngeHta’ jIH Daq SoH.’] ]]

    The key phrase, [ [jIH ‘oH ‘Iv jIH ‘oH, ]] is just “I It Who I It,” which is more or less what I’d expect from the mechanical-subsitution pidgin-Klingon method used at my source: http://klv.mrklingon.org/

  • Tim Andrews

    Researching the Russian for “I am who I am” – which is simply “Я есмь Сущий”, it would seem that it’s a direct translation of the original Greek Septuagint text, which, rather than using the verb “I am” instead used a present tense participle “ὤν”.
    When the Latin translation was made, there was no way to translate the present participle, hence the subordinate “qui sum” was added. So Russian at least simply avoids that whole construction (although I suppose you could say “Я есть тот, кто есть” or something like that if you wanted to – but why would you?…). However, I don’t think that any of that would help with your current question…

    • Emily

      I was curious about this too, and found the translation you provided and “Я Тот, Кто Я Есть” They both sound odd and awkard to me, as I’ve never heard or read “есмь”, and using the infinitive is unnatural…but I’m not a native speaker, and the participle could be more common in old-fashioned or liturgical contexts. Would there be a “The Message”-style translation that would get the idea across by changing the wording more, do you think?

      • Ivan

        Yup — “Я есмь” is an extremely Slavonic verbal holdover (as is “Сущий,” really). The Protestant Слово Жизни Bible has “Я Тот, Кто Я Есть,” which is perhaps even clunkier!

    • Juraj Farkasovsky

      I have to correct you on this one. Я есмь Сущий doesn’t mean “I am who I am” but “I am Сущий”. Сущий is an adjective that can be translated in many ways. if you talk about the state of process, it means “completed”. if you talk about the fullness of something, it means “full”. if you talk about the perception of something, it means “self-evident”. sometimes it can mean “declared” or “pronounced”. it comes from the noun “сущность” which means “essence”, ” substance” or “entity”. so I think the best translation of that sentence is “I am the ultimate Life.”

  • Scott Elliot

    It’s funny that you raise this issue, because Hebrew has no word for “I am.” The verb “to be” has no conjugation in the present tense. The verse from Exodus reads “eheyeh asher eheyeh,” which translated absolutely literally means “I will be that I will be.”

    • “I will be that I will be” is certainly a perfectly good translation, but Hebrew doesn’t have a future tense, either — the Hebrew is imperfect aspect, which just indicates an unfinished action, and in English unfinished action is often indicated by future tense (but also often by present tense, or by more complicated expressions, depending on what context suggests as most appropriate).

      • Scott Elliot

        I’m interested in your source is for that, because a brief flip-through of my Hebrew bible revealed several sources where similar conjugations of היה were unambiguously referring for actions beginning in the future:
        Ezekiel 37:22
        1Samuel 23:17
        Jeremiah 32:5
        On the other hand, Ruth 2:13 seems to use the verb in the imperfect sense

  • TookBiblicalHebrewInCollege

    אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה
    Hebrew doesn’t really use “TO BE” either or not in the sense that we use it in english.
    אֶהְיֶה is translated as “I AM” but it is a really wierd construction of what appears to be the first person form of a verb that is probly closer in meaning to “To Exist”. (keeping in mind that the diacritic marks that help make the word comprehensible would not have been used in original texts) “Yahweh” appears to be a wierd contstuction of the same verb in the third person singlual masculine.
    The middle part of the phrase, אֲשֶׁר, is a sort of catch all that translates into many different words like: that, which, and who.
    Grammatically speaking, the phrase has issues. My hebrew teacher encouraged us to translate the phrase as something like “I be who I be”. It’s lack of conformity to human modes of though is part of it’s charm.

    • Erick

      Speaking from the inner city environs where I grew up, “I be who I be” was an often used phrase conforming quite well to human thought.

      • TookBiblicalHebrewInCollege

        I was refering to the hebrew phrase not the english one. Sorry for my confusing antecedant

  • Hieronymous Anonymous

    This reminds me of how much I love the Greek tradition of labeling iconography of Christ “ὁ ῶν” — translating that as “the being” or “he being” doesn’t do it justice, it’s more like, “he (personified) the being thing” or “he who is” or “he who has the suffix that turns other verbs into participles” (kidding on the last one).

    • Emily

      One of the things I really love about Greek is how evocative the articles and suffixes are. You can say a lot in a few syllables in a way you can’t quite capture in English.

  • Hieronymous Anonymous

    The Chinese Union Bible translates Ex 3:14 as: 我是自有永有的 , which is a hell of a thing to translate.
    My thirty-second attempt would be: “I am (that which) alone has the property of having eternally”.

    • Clyde

      My Chinese is not very good, but I read it as roughly “self-existant eternally existant one” with 有 meaning “exist” here.

  • Maiki

    Japanese just does “Watashi wa aru”, if I recall correctly, I can check my bible later tonight. It is just “As for “I”, it is”. Funny they use “aru” which is the verb to be for inanimate objects vs. iru or irrashyaru for animate objects. But I think it conveys better the idea of existence/non-existence vs. doing/not doing since iru is used in gerund forms. I think the noun-object-verb form makes it complicated to translate the reflectiveness of the sentence.

  • Emily

    Signing Exact English has “Am”–It’s an A hand shape that moves out slightly from the mouth. “Are” is an R hand doing the same thing.
    I might sign it in ASL as “I same I”, but that doesn’t catch the actual statement all that well. Of course you could also fingerspell “be” or “am” to make sure that the meaning is adequatedly conveyed.
    It’s one of the great and not-great things about ASL–no verb forms to memorize…but also….problems like this.

    • Joe

      Im sorry this is an unrelated question and probably a stupid one to boot, but I have always wondered how a deaf person thinks. Does their interior dialogue consist of their imagination producing a pair of hands doing ASL or do they have a totally different form of cognition then hearing people?

  • J. H. M. Ortiz

    You know, languages that do have forms of the verb “to be” have gotten them by using some OTHER verb, then taking that verb’s earlier meaning figuratively, then sort of forgetting about that earlier meaning (resulting in a “fossilized metaphor”). What meaning?
    Well, the Spanish and Portuguese verb “ser” is from the Latin “sedēre”, meaning “to sit”. And an equivalent of “been” in French (“été”), as well as in Spanish/Portuguese (“estado”) and in Italian (“stato”), is from the Latin stem “stat-” meaning “stood”. And these derivations make sense: “I stand shocked!” and “I’m shocked!” are sometimes equivalent. Likewise “Sit still!” and “Be still!”

  • A similar problem I recall from a course on African philosophy was the issue of context. Some languages don’t allow for the verb to be without a spacial context. The issue mentioned in the course related to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God…” The problem was, where was he? In some African languages, this is a grammatical requirement. The same problem occurs in your example, “I am what I am.” Great, where are you? I tried to find the original text, but we had so many relating to different language issues between various African languages and English which drastically affect philosophical outlook, that I just can’t find the right one. I will keep looking.

    • grok87

      Well here’s the swahili for Exodus 3:14

      Nitakuwa kama nitakvyokuwa

      i will be as i wish (or will) to be

    • John D

      SiSwati (spoken in Swaziland and parts of South Africa) does not have a direct translation of the verb “to be” either. They do have the prefix “ngu” which equates two things. My translation skills are pretty terrible (I’m a recently arrived peace corps volunteer) but “Nginguye Lenginguye” looks like “I equal what I equal” or “I identify with what I identify with.”

      • grok87

        Good luck in your service. I hear South Africa is getting a little dicey. Hope all goes well.

  • jenesaispas

    Wow, this was interesting.