God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Similar Words Lead Bible Translators Astray

“Nuclear families” have nothing to do with “nuclear energy,” in spite of the word “nuclear” in both phrases.

Most people know that two unrelated words can look the same: the “bank” in “river bank” and in “money bank,” for example. Such words usually mean completely different things.

It’s less commonly appreciated that closely related words can also mean completely different things. In this case, the “nuclear” in “nuclear family” and in “nuclear energy” comes directly from the word “nucleus.” But even so, knowing what “nuclear families” are doesn’t help understand the phrase “nuclear energy.” (This kind of mistake is so common that “nuclear magnetic resonance imaging,” which measures the interaction between magnetic fields and atomic nuclei, was renamed just “magnetic resonance imaging” because “nuclear” falsely suggested that the process had something to do with radioactivity.)

This basic fact about languages has important implications for Bible translation.

One example comes from the Hebrew word hikriv, which means both “draw near” and “sacrifice.” It’s possible that these two meanings, as with “nuclear” in English,” have common ancestry. But that doesn’t mean that the two meanings are related. Nonetheless, it’s a common mistake to assume that “sacrifices” in the Bible had more to do with “drawing near” than the English translation suggests. They did not.

A second example is the Greek work sarx, literally “flesh,” but — as is widely known and often discussed — the word meant something different for Paul than it did for the authors of, say, Genesis.

If identical words can mean different things, certainly related words can, too. Yet many Bible translators ignore this fact.

An example comes from the two related words chamad and nechmad in Hebrew. They are both from the root Ch.M.D. The initial “n” in Hebrew essentially marks passive voice. And the vowel differences are a direct result of the lengths of the words. So it looks like chamad and nechmad should be related just like any other active/passive pair.

But they are not. The verb nechmad means “desirable” while the active verb chamad means “take.” This confusion led to a mistranslation of the last commandment, which should read “do not take,” not “do not covet.” (I have lots more here: “The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting” and in this video: “Thou shalt not covet?.)

Returning to the English “nuclear,” it would be a mistake to try to use “nuclear energy” to understand what “nuclear family” means, and it would almost always be a mistake for a translator from English to another language to try to use the same foreign word for “nuclear” in both cases.

Similarly, it seems to me, the Bible translation challenge in this regard is twofold: First, to differentiate between similar or even identical words, so that the meaning of one doesn’t wrongly shade the meaning of the other. And secondly, only to try to use identical English words for identical Hebrew or Greek ones when the original words mean the same thing.

October 26, 2012 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why Most Bible Translations are So Bad (And Why the Next Generation Should Care)

This past July I had the pleasure of presenting at a TEDx conference in East Hampton, the broad theme of which was “The Next Generation.”

So I offered an 18-minute segment on Bible translation, on what so often goes wrong with translations, and on how to avoid the common mistakes. I couched these topics in the broader theme of why the Bible is important for the next generation.

The edited version of my presentation is available here and on YouTube:

After watching it, you’ll be able to answer these questions:

  1. Why is the King James Version (“KJV”) so important for understanding Bible translation today?
  2. What are the three most common ways of understanding ancient languages?
  3. Why don’t those ways work? How do we know? And what are some consequences?
  4. What is a better approach? Again, how do we know?
  5. Why are the Ten Commandments still uniquely relevant?
  6. What does all of this have to do with supermarkets?

I’ve touched on many of these themes in individual blog posts here, and I go through all of them (except for the supermarkets) in And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, but here’s a compact and relatively complete introduction. Enjoy!

And then take a look at the other presentations.

I also want to express my thanks to Left of Frame Pictures for producing the videos.

September 14, 2011 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps, video | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Exploring the Bible Videos

I’m thrilled to announce the beta version of my latest project: Exploring the Bible videos. The site is a growing collection of short text-based videos about the Bible, frequently focusing on translation issues.

Logo

The first three videos (also available on YouTube) are:

Longer than a soundbite and (much) shorter than a lecture, each video presents a single idea in two or three minutes.

These first three videos mirror blog posts I’ve written (here, here, and here).

My hope is that these videos will be an effective way of discussing the text of the Bible, because the medium of video makes it possible to display the text as I talk about it.

Please let me know what you think.

I’ll also be grateful if you can ask a few friends or colleagues to take a look — particularly if they don’t follow this blog — so I can get a sense of what these videos are like for people who encounter the material for the first time.

Enjoy!

March 28, 2011 Posted by | announcements, translation practice, translation theory, video | , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting

In the original Hebrew, the Ten Commandments don’t address coveting, so common renditions like “do not covet” or “thou shalt not covet” are mistranslations.


New! This post is also available as a video, part of the Exploring the Bible Videos series.

The Hebrew verb in the 10th commandment (or, for some, the 9th and 10th commandments) is chamad. As usual, we learn what the word means by looking at how it is used elsewhere.

The clearest case against “covet” is Exodus 34:24, which has to do with the three pilgrimage holidays, for which the Israelites would leave their homes and ascend to Jerusalem. Exodus 34:24 promises that no one will chamad the Israelites’ land when they leave for Jerusalem to appear before God.

It seems absurd to me to think that the Israelites were afraid that in leaving their land for a while, other people would desire (“covet”) it. After all, other people could desire the land whether or not the Israelites were around.

So it’s pretty clear that chamad doesn’t mean “covet” or “desire” there.

In Deuteronomy 7:25, we see chamad in parallel with “take” (lakach): “Do not chamad the silver and gold [of statues of false gods] and take [lakach] it…” Just from this context, the verb could mean “covet,” but other than our preconceptions of what the text should mean, we see nothing to suggest that translation. (By similar reasoning, it could mean “draw a picture of” or any number of other possibilities for which there is no evidence.)

Furthermore, the parallelism here suggests that chamad is like lakach. That is, to chamad is to take in some way, not to want in some way.

We find the same juxtaposition of chamad and lakach elsewhere. For example, in Joshua 7:21 we read “[Achan said,] `when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I chamaded them and took them” (NRSV, my emphasis). Proverbs 6:25, too, puts the two verbs together. These examples further reinforce the close connection between chamad and lakach.

And in Proverbs 12:12, we see a pair of opposites: “righteous” and “give” versus “wicked” and “chamad.” So chamad seems to be the opposite of “give.”

All of these point in a clear direction: chamad doesn’t mean “covet” or “want.” It means “take.”

So the last commandment should read: “Do not take…”

March 2, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 84 Comments

Tennessee Courthouse Displays Translation Mistake in Ten Commandments

As the debate about public displays of the Ten Commandments heats up again (also via the AP), this time in Mountain City in Johnson County, Tennessee, I think it’s worth remembering that most people are fighting over an inaccurate translation of the Ten Commandments.

In particular, the original Hebrew of the sixth commandment (fifth for Catholics and some others) applies only to illegal killing, so “thou shalt not kill” is overly broad, that is, wrong.

The sixth commandment does not address legal killing such as the death penalty. (As I explain in great detail in Chapter 7 of And God Said, we know this from looking at how the original Hebrew verb in the Ten Commandments is used elsewhere. But most modern translators know that “kill” is wrong, and therefore go with “murder” here. Though that translation is too narrow, it is better than “kill.”)

It’s true that “kill” is a common mistranslation, going back at least to the KJV, but it is nonetheless wrong.

The Johnson County case is particularly interesting because (my emphasis):

The display itself claims that the Ten Commandments are the historical foundation of American law. Accompanying it is a pamphlet written by local clergy that contends U.S. law springs from biblical morality and insists that the United States was founded on Christian principles. (source)

If the point of the Johnson County display is to reflect biblical morality, shouldn’t the best scholarship be used?

Does the fact that the Johnson County display is promoting a specific interpretation of the Bible, rather than the Bible itself, make a difference to the case?

And while we’re at it (and I hope I don’t regret asking), what do you think: Should displays of the Ten Commandments be allowed in public?

[Update: The Tomahawk has more details here.]

January 13, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Killing

The Pope’s latest comments about condoms have again brought up the Ten Commandments, and, in particular, “thou shalt not kill,” which Catholics and some others number as the fifth commandment, while Jews and most Protestants call it the sixth.

Unfortunately, “kill” is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew, which does not say, “you shall not kill.”

The Hebrew verb here is ratsach, and it only refers to illegal killing.

We see this pretty clearly from Numbers 35, which deals with different kinds of killing — somewhat like modern murder vs. manslaughter laws.

For example, in Numbers 35:16, we learn that one person who kills another with an iron instrument has ratsached. Verses 17-18 expand ratsach to include killing by hitting someone with a deadly stone object or a deadly wooden object. The reasoning seems to be that iron is assumed to be a deadly weapon, while stones and wood come in both deadly and non-deadly varieties. Hitting someone with a deadly instrument is a case of ratsaching.

The point of these clauses is that there are lots of kinds of killing, and only some of them are instances of ratsaching.

Other kinds of killing — for example, killing the assailant from verses 16-18 — is not only allowed but required. That sort of required killing (capital punishment, as we call it now) is not ratsaching, and is not forbidden by the Ten Commandments.

Similarly, many other kinds of killing are not addressed in the Ten Commandments.

I go through much more evidence in Chapter 7 of And God Said, so I won’t repeat it here.

Much of this information, though, is not new.
Continue reading

November 24, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Importance of the Ten Commandments

A short excerpt from a lecture I gave a while back. (A little off topic, but still….)

July 20, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic, video | | 3 Comments

Christopher Hitchens on The Ten Commandments

In a widely viewed video, Christopher Hitchens mocks the Ten Commandments with, among other jabs, the contrast between a commandment and an observation. “#6: Thou shalt not kill,” Hitchens (mis)quotes at 2:46 into the video. Then he notes (2:48 into the video): “Almost immediately after the events at Sinai, and the delivery of these instructions by God at the top of the mountain, Moses orders all his supporters to draw their swords and kill all their friends and brothers for their profanity.”

His point, I guess, is the incongruity between “not killing” and then “killing.”

But it’s widely known that the 6th commandment (numbered 5 by Catholics) doesn’t prohibit all killing. Hitchens is misquoting the commandment based on a mistranslation that dates back to the KJV.

I go through the evidence in my latest book, but the information is well known, and even a cursory look at published translations shows how many people know that the original version didn’t read “do not kill.” The NIV, NRSV, and even ESV translate this commandment as “you shall not murder.”

So I wonder. Does Hitchens really think that the KJV is accurate here? Or is he setting up a straw man just to be argumentative?

June 7, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Ten Commandments Aren’t Commandments

The Ten Commandments — listed in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5 — aren’t called commandments in the original Hebrew or in the Greek LXX.

In Hebrew, they are d’varim in Exodus 20, either “things” or “words.” (This dual use of d’varim is a bit like “things” in English — I can own ten things or tell you ten things.)

To the best of my knowledge, of the major translations only the NAB renders the Hebrew as “commandments” in Exodus 20.

For that matter, the number “10” doesn’t come from Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, but rather from Exodus 34:28 and two other places in Deuteronomy. There, the KJV and other translations (NIV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, and others) translate “ten d’varim” as “ten commandments,” sometimes capitalizing the phrase and sometimes with a note that the Hebrew doesn’t say “commandments.”

(Later Jewish tradition would replace d’varim with dibrot, which also doesn’t mean “commandments.”)

Two questions come to mind: Should we keep calling these the “ten commandments” even though that doesn’t seem to be what they are in the Bible? And is the NAB justified in its translation decision?

May 18, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

   

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