God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Review: Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for An Essentially Literal Approach.

Understanding English Bible Translation

Understanding English Bible Translation

Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach. By Leland Ryken. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009. Pp. 205. $12.99.)

Understanding English Bible Translation is an important book. It is published by Crossway, which also publishes the popular English Standard Version (“ESV”) translation of the Bible. And it was authored by Leland Ryken, a consultant to that translation. So the book is as official a justification of the ESV and its translation philosophy as can be obtained.

Unfortunately, Ryken’s work is marred by a disdain for scholarship, rhetoric disguised as argument, and a lack of attention to the very biblical text he claims to be investigating.

On page 28, Ryken sets the tone for his book with the bold statement that “we should not allow the high-flown technical jargon of linguistics deter [sic] us from seeing what is plain to us.” In other words, if readers think one thing, and linguists think something else, readers should assume that the linguists are wrong.

One of the main thrusts of Ryken’s book is that the domain of translation should essentially be limited to the word. Ryken claims on pp. 23-24 that, “translators must decide what English word or phrase most closely corresponds to a given word of the original text” (my italics). He thus frames the issue of translation asymmetrically, assuming that each Greek or Hebrew (or Aramaic) word of the Bible should be translated into English by itself, even though he recognizes that it may take an entire English phrase to do so. It is a bold and unorthodox suggestion, but when Ryken dismisses the mainstream counterclaim as mere “high-flown technical jargon” is it hard to evaluate his claim, let alone accept it.

Ryken’s term for this translation philosophy of his is “essentially literal translation,” by which he means (pp. 19-20): “a translation that strives to translate the exact words of the original-language text” (this is the “literal translation”) but “not in such a rigid way as to violate the normal rules of language and syntax in the receptor language” (this is where he gets the modifier “essentially”).

Language theorists such as Hilary Putnam and W.V.O. Quine agree that words in isolation do not have inherent meaning, and translation theorists from Horace to Vladimir Nabokov (who changed his mind on the matter) agree that word-for-word representations are not translations. Ryken disagrees with these scholars and practitioners.

But in place of solid argument in favor of his approach or even against competing theories, Ryken provides the reader with rhetoric, and in this regard Ryken excels. His statement on p. 91 that confidence in a translation comes “[w]hen essentially literal translators preserve the words of the original authors” demonstrates. Rather than convincing the reader that essentially literal translation preserve anything, he assumes the fact, and uses it in eloquent prose.

Similar though less subtle is his definition of “linguistic conservatism” (his approach), which offers (p. 20) “an implied contrast to the ‘liberalism’ of dynamic equivalence, which does not feel bound to reproduce the actual Hebrew and Greek words” (my italics). The snide slight “does not feel bound” contrasts with his praise for essentially literal translation, as for example on p. 131, where he states that committees that adopt the latter strategy, “keep their eye on what the original text says” (my italics). On p. 33, Ryken pits essentially literal translation against other approaches by what he calls, “[f]idelty to the words of the original vs. feeling free to substitute something in place of those words.” Even in the phrasing, we see Ryken’s bias.

We also see his rhetorical skill. The book is replete with well-crafted prose, as for example on p. 133. When readers learn that white garments and oil were signs of celebration in antiquity, Ryken suggests, they “experience a pleasant addition to their fund of knowledge and a salutary reminder that not everyone who has lived has done things the way we do them.” Ryken’s writing is clear and articulate, and is matched by the clear and careful organization of his book.

Nonetheless, in using rhetoric instead of evidence to frame the debate, Ryken makes it hard to focus on any real issues of theory.

Perhaps most disappointing, though, are Ryken’s examples of “success.”

On p. 58, Ryken condemns the Good News Bible (“GNB”) for changing “red pottage” in Genesis 25:30 into “red stuff.” Yet the original Hebrew does not contain any word that might be translated as “pottage.” It is not clear why Ryken’s own theory wouldn’t prefer the GNB here. (The translation “pottage” dates back to the 3rd century B.C., when the LXX added the word epsema to elucidate the passage.)

On the next page, Ryken laments the “change” in Psalm 1 from “Blessed is the man…” (RSV, my italics) to “Happy are those…” (GNB, my italics), noting that “[t]he RSV stays very close to its KJV model” while “[s]omeone reading the Good News Bible for the first time must have been shocked by the contrast.” Yet, the Hebrew word here, ashrei, is most naturally translated as “happy,” not “blessed,” and the KJV often translates the same word as “happy” elsewhere (Psalm 128:1, Psalm 137:8, Psalm 146:5, etc.).

And again on pp. 112-3, Ryken notes the felicity of the ESV translation of Psalm 192, commending the wording “You know when I sit down and when I rise up” in verse 2 and the wording “You search out my path and my lying down.” Yet all four of the phrases I italicize here are nouns in Hebrew. Ryken doesn’t tell the reader why “…my sitting down and my rising up” wouldn’t be better. (The KJV “my uprising” is clearly wrong in today’s English.)

Chapter 14 addresses “oral reading of the Bible,” and here Ryken praises the KJV as “incomparably the best English translation in regard to rhythm,” though he does “not have leisure to explain” why. He does give some examples, though, and while one might agree or disagree about the poetic and metrical merits of the translations he compares, Ryken doesn’t address the broader and more important question: Is the good or bad rhythm a good or bad translation?

Ryken values fidelity, as we read in the rhetorical question on p. 29: “What good is readability if the result is not what the biblical writers said?” The careful reader might equally ask, “what good is rhythm if it is not what the biblical writers wrote?” — particularly in light of what Ryken explains on p. 155: “Hebrew poetry was not based on regular meter as English poetry is.” There may be some good answers, but Ryken does not address the issue.

In general, one gets the impression that Ryken’s is a personal, impassioned defense of the KJV, rather than a discussion of its merits. The examples above (“red stuff” versus “red pottage” and “blessed” versus “happy”), and many others, show his preference for the KJV even over the original text. Ryken also includes two whole chapters on the history leading up to the creation of the KJV, even noting (p. 38): “For people who have multiple English Bibles on their shelves, it is important to be reminded that the vernacular Bible was begotten in blood.”

On p. 61, Ryken repeats his plea to ignore scholarship, this time claiming: “We do not need to conduct a scholarly exploration…. We can hear the difference [in translations] immediately.” His point is that new translations are different than the KJV, so they must be wrong. His discussion there never refers back to the original language of the Bible. His point is that translations that are closer to the KJV are inherently better.

Still, Ryken offers three points that merit careful attention.

First, on p. 128, Ryken suggests that, “[t]he theological language of the Bible needs to match the language of our theology books,” and further suggests (without evidence, though I believe he is probably correct) that essentially literal translations do a better job.

The last chapter of the book offers two more non-accuracy-related reasons to favor Ryken’s approach: It may produce a more stable English translation (“the variability among English Bible translation [used to be] within the normal range of lexical tolerance,” p. 164). And — regardless of the original Hebrew and Greek — perhaps a translation needs to be exalted in order to be effective, or, as Ryken puts it (p. 172), “some translations preserve the commanding dignity of the King James tradition.”

In essence, these three points argue that an essentially literal translation may be desirable regardless of any (in)accuracies. It’s an interesting issue that deserves a fuller treatment, but, again, Ryken’s lack of attention to detail leaves the reader wanting more information.

In spite of these significant shortcomings, Ryken does a good job pointing out some specific and even systematic insufficiencies of translations such as The Message and the GNB. He also summarizes the misplaced goals of some of these translations: They translate into simple English even when the original is complex. They remove poetic imagery. They dumb down the text. They decide what the English should sound like without taking the original into account.

Yet even here, Ryken’s comparisons are to the KJV and to other translations in that tradition, so it is difficult for readers who have not mastered Hebrew and Greek to evaluate his claims. (And on p. 39 Ryken commends Tyndale for his “devotion to clarity.” The reader wonders why Tyndale’s devotion to clarity is beneficial, while the seemingly similar approach of the GNB is not.)

Ryken recognizes (p. 18) a continuum of “increasing boldness in departing from what the original biblical text actually says, starting with the NIV [New International Version] and culminating with The Message.” His inclusion of the NIV in this list is particularly unfortunate, and it is hardly an accident that in later parts of the book, he groups the NIV with his “good” translations.

Yet in spite of this misstep, Ryken correctly identifies a clustering of goals that are embodied by various schools of translation, which he collects in his chart on p. 33. As a general guide, for example, translations that tend toward gender accuracy also tend toward simplified language (though there are exceptions). With a more solid grounding in theory, this could have been a much more valuable presentation, but as it is, Ryken’s careful comparisons — like much of the book — are mixed with unsupported theoretical claims and inattention to accuracy.

So Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach summarizes some specific deficiencies in some Bible translations and offers a glimpse at their underlying philosophies, but it does not provide the larger framework the title promises, nor the evidence to support the subtitle. And even though it shows that the ESV is closer in nature to the KJV, it does not offer any convincing reason beyond personal preference to choose the ESV or any other essentially literal translation. This is a shame, because the ESV is one of the best-selling translations, and a solid exploration of its potential merits — one which takes careful note of the original Hebrew and Greek, and which incorporates rather than dismisses current translation theory — would be most welcome.


September 30, 2009 Posted by | book review, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Two Examples of Just How Tricky Gender Can Be

Gender, and in particular the gender implications of anthropos, have come up over and again recently (for example, my posts here and here, some great information from Suzanne here, and a response by Peter here). I hope to have time in a few days to prepare a fuller post with a little more background and information.

In the meantime, here are two examples — one from Russian and one from Spanish — that show how tricky gender and language can be.


moi doktor ne znala shto deleat
my (masc.) doctor (???) NEG knew (fem.) what to do
“My doctor didn’t know what to do.”


el azucar blanca
the (masc.) sugar (???) white (fem.)
“The white sugar….”

In (1), we see that the normally masculine word “doctor” gets a masculine adjective (moi) but a feminine verb (znala) because she is a woman. (This contrasts with how gender usually words, as in the example I gave here about the French personne, which gets feminine agreement even when it refers to a man.)

In (2), we see the noun azucar (properly with an accent that I can’t figure out how to type) with the masculine determiner el but the feminine adjective blanca. (La azucar blanca is also possible, and depending on dialect, so is el azucar blanco.)

These highlight the complex nature of gender in language.

More soon.

September 26, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 9 Comments

A Case of Gender Awkwardness

Still with the goal of providing a solid framework for understanding gender and translation, here’s another example from Modern Hebrew.

Modern Hebrew has two ways of expressing the generic “you” of English (as in, “you shouldn’t put your elbows on the dinner table,” which means “one shouldn’t….”). The first is a plural masculine verb with no subject, and the second is the masculine singular pronoun “you” (atah) with the corresponding verb.

So “when you see a zebra…” in the sense of “when one sees a zebra” in Hebrew is ka’asher atah ro’eh zebra… or ka’asher ro’im zebra…, literally, “when you(m,sng) see(m,sng) zebra” and “when see(m,pl) zebra.”

Every Hebrew speaker knows that these expressions apply to women and men equally, even though the grammar is masculine.

However, when only women are involved, the phrasing becomes awkward. For example, “when you’re pregnant [you need more sleep]” should be ka’asher ata b’hirayon, “when you(m,sng) are-pregnant.” But it sounds odd because men don’t (yet?) get pregnant. Unfortunately, the obvious solution of using the feminine pronoun also sounds odd: ka’asher at b’hirayon (“when you(f,sng)…”) most naturally refers to a specific person, not to “women in general.” So the sentence gets rephrased in Hebrew, along the lines of “when a women gets pregnant….”

I’ll have more to say later on the general phenomenon that I think is at work here, but for now I’ll note my suspicion that similar awkwardness might be at play in a some of the gender translation cases we’ve been discussing lately.

September 24, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , | 4 Comments

Q&A: Should We Translate the Hebrew Word ‘Et’?

Bob MacDonald asks on the About page:

Here’s a question — what about that word et?

Here it is as preposition (Genesis 4:1): kaniti ish et YHWH, (“I acquired a man with the LORD”).

While I would not normally translate it when it is an object marker (it seems unnecessary most of the time it is used), I have read (Rabbi Steven Greenberg) that it is sometimes a word that is “read into.” As in (Exodus 20:12) kabed et avicha v’et imecha (“Honor your father and your mother”) or even the very first verse of the Bible.

What do you think? Is it OK to include grandparents, step-parents, adoptive parents in the father and mother — as if it were implied in the aleph-taf? Or as if the heavens and the earth included more than the whole visible universe.

There are two Hebrew words et. One means “with” (as in Genesis 4:1) and the other is a preposition that we don’t have in English. It (usually) marks a direct object that’s definite. So the Hebrew equivalent of “I saw Bill” would be “I saw et Bill.”

Bob’s is an interesting and important question because it highlights the inherent conflict in religious translation.

From a scientific point of view, the word et should not be translated. It’s a purely gramamtical word, and, as such, it should be used to understand the original Hebrew but it does not get represented directly in English. In this way, it’s similar to case endings in Greek. No one tries to mark nominative or accusative on the English translations of Greek nouns, for example.

From a religious point of view — and, in particular, from a Jewish religious point of view — every word has meaning. Indeed (traditionally in Judaism) every letter has meaning, as do the spaces between the letters. In this case, Rabbi Steven Greenberg notes that the word et starts with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph) and ends with the last (Tav). Therefore, he opines, the word brings connotations of “A to Z” (or Alpha to Omega, we might say) with it.

So in this context, “Honor et your father and et your mother” includes more than just your “father” and “mother,” because of the implied inclusiveness of the word et.

The translator has to choose which path to follow, the scientific one or the religious one.

My opinion is twofold.

First, I think translators should be clear about which route they are taking. I’ve seen a lot of confusion stemming from religious translations that are mistaken for scientific ones, and considerable disappointment from the reverse situation.

Secondly, my general preference is for a scientific translation that as accurately as possible conveys the original text. I think that’s the job of a translation, and — again, just my opinion — the proper starting point for Bible study.

So in this case, I wouldn’t try to translate et, because it’s not the job of a translation to make every possible exegetical word-play (and letter-play) possible in translation. In this particular case, I don’t see how it could be done, because the “translation” would require a two-letter word that starts with “A” and ends with “Z.” So even if translating et were desirable, I think it would still be impossible.

That you, Bob, for this clear example of the differences between scientific understanding and (one kind of) religious understanding of a text.

September 24, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 9 Comments

I Could Care Less About Translating Each Word

We have an expression in English: “I could care less.” And what’s funny about the saying is that it seems like it should be “I couldn’t care less.” The image is of something about which I care so little that there is no way I could care less.

I imagine two approaches to translating that English phrase into a foreign language. One approach translates word by word, not daring to add the “missing” negative. The other apporach translates phrase by phrase.

Three questions come to mind:

1. Which approach will yield a better translation?

2. What investigative techniques would let a translator recognize that this English phrase shouldn’t be taken literally?

3. What can we learn from this example to help us translate ancient Hebrew and Greek?

(While the English “I could care less” is extreme, it is not unique. Modern Hebrew has a pleonastic negative. In Hebrew, “Park wherever you don’t find a spot” means “park wherever you find a spot.” I think French has something similar, but I can’t remember the details.)

September 23, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , | 5 Comments

The Blank Slate of Incoherent Translation

In a comment to Mike Aubrey’s post on Dynamic Equivalence, Davis asks:

Do you think a lot of this misunderstanding in the method of translation comes from a shallow understanding of the original languages? Since most people are trained to basically decode a sentence into English, instead of actually learning the languages so that they think and understand in Greek and Hebrew, then entire translations are produced that are more of a decoding rather than a translation.

I think Davis is absolutely right. And I think two reasons lie behind what is frequently a superficial approach to translation.

First, some people don’t have the means to understand the ancient texts. Learning ancient Hebrew or Greek involves a lot more than learning the vocabulary.

Secondly, though, some people — consciously or unconsciously — don’t want to fully learn the ancient languages. I think there is sometimes something spiritually satisfying about an opaque text. Ironically, a phrase without a specific meaning can sometimes be incredibly meaningful, precisely because it offers a blank slate upon which readers can superimpose their own meanings.

For example, I do not believe that most English speakers today can understanding the following KJV translation of Matthew 17:25:

He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?

Yet many of these same English speakers prefer the KJV to the NLT:

“Of course he does,” Peter replied. Then he went into the house to talk to Jesus about it. But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him, “What do you think, Peter? Do kings tax their own people or the foreigners they have conquered?”

I think one reason Bible readers sometimes prefer the KJV is that the archaic language makes it easier for them make the text mean what they want it to mean.

September 22, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 7 Comments

The Son of Man and Other Fixed Phrases

Even gender-accurate translations retain “son” and “man” in the phrase “the Son of Man,” presumably because it has become a fixed phrase. They do this even though most people recognize that anthropos (“man”) means “humankind” in the phrase, and that uios (“son”) is at least potentially inclusive, even if it refers to a specific male.

Any translation other than “Son of Man” — I think the translators think — would sound jarring or, because it was unfamiliar, would not convey the already-established sense that people automatically hear in “Son of Man.”

I understanding their reasoning, but I don’t agree with it.

Essentially, their point is that a phrase is currently mistranslated, but because it has been mistranslated for so long, it’s too late to change it. But isn’t this the same thing as saying that the translation is knowingly propagating an error?

September 22, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 4 Comments

More About the Revisions to the (T)NIV

Thanks to A.Admin on Aberration blog for pointing out the recently posted FAQ about the revisions to the (T)NIV.


Of the 31 questions in the FAQ, 7 are specifically about gender, and another few are about “flashpoints” (their word and their scare quotes) — presumably gender and the word sarx — in the translation.

Yet I don’t see any clear division in their answers between “gender inclusivity” and “gender accuracy” (I wrote about the important difference here.) They do say (Answer 5), that “It is not possible at this stage, therefore, to give a definitive answer to the question about the use of gender inclusive language in the new NIV.” But they are also committed (Answer 23), “to accurately translate God’s unchanging word into contemporary English.” It seems to me that that philosophy demands gender accuracy.

Regarding the generic “man” for “people” — and specifically regarding the potential claim (Question 24) on the part of readers that “Christians are intelligent people. We understand that ‘man’ means woman and man.” — the response is that, “As with the NIV founders, we still feel deeply conscious of the need that exists for a Bible that offers the whole church — from experienced Bible-handlers to interested newcomers — access to God’s unchanging word in language that all can understand.” I read this as them saying that experienced Bible-handlers are okay with “man” while newcomers are not. Q/A 25 offers roughly the same answer to the same question asked from the other side of the debate

To me this seems like the wrong way of framing the gender issue (though it might be more helpful regarding technical words like sarx).

According to the FAQ, “Instead of answering [some questions] individually, we have stated the theme of the question and have included the answer. Other questions are as they appeared when sent to the site, altered in some cases to correct spelling and grammatical errors.”

This approach is potentially important for understanding Question 16: “I am saddened to hear that the TNIV will no longer be in print. […] I certainly hope that the new NIV2011 Bible will lack the divisiveness of its predecessor, but please prayerfully consider the importance of gender-inclusive language, especially in cases where it is actually more faithful to the original text. God used the TNIV to bring me (and I suspect many other thoughtful women) even closer to Himself as I felt him speaking more directly to me as his daughter” (my italics).

I know there are people who think that gendered language should be used for God in English; others vehemently disagree. I wonder if the inclusion of a question phrased like 16 gives us a clue about the direction of the next (T)NIV. (To me, it sounds like the authors of the FAQ wrote both the answer and the question in this case, paying careful attention to the words.)

General Philosophy

Q/A 22 restates what we already know. The new translation will not attempt to be a word-for-word translation. The question is, “Who are you to change the language of the Bible? (This is a general question many have asked in polite and not-so-polite ways.) and the answer is “Translators of the Bible are sometimes accused of ‘changing the words of God.’ Guilty: Anyone who translates the Bible changes every one of ‘God’s words’ — because ‘God’s words’ have come to us in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. […] The real question, then, is how best to translate the original words of God into English words.” The answer then explains that the word-for-word approach doesn’t work.

Answer 29 gives a little more detail: “The committee simply considers how best to communicate the original authors’ ideas and the cadence of their language in the way they would have spoken themselves had they been speaking in English to the global English-speaking audience today.”

It’s a tall order.

September 21, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sparrows and Other Details

Hillary Putnam notes that the word “sparrow” refers to a different species in the U.S. and the U.K. (page 22 of Representation and Reality, his superb book about words and meaning).

Does this mean that the translation “sparrow” in Psalms, Matthew, and Luke is wrong in the U.S. or the U.K. (or both)?

September 20, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Children, Oxen, Asses, and Cribs

Isaiah 1:2-3 reads (NRSV):

[2] Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. [3] The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

When I read “children…cribs,” I naturally think of, well, children and cribs, that is, children and where they are kept.

But it turns out that a “crib” is also what I would call a feed trough and what the Oxford English Dictionary (unhelpfully for me) defines as a “cratch.”

Verse 3, using classic ancient parallelism to reinforce a point, sets the stage with two animals (ox and donkey) and two things upon which the animals depend (owner and, metonymically, food). Then the second half of the verse, again using classic parallelism, contrasts the animals with Israel/my people, which does not know/understand.

Verse 2 similarly employs parallelism, with hear/listen, heavens/earth and then reared/brought up.

The Message offers this for Verse 3: “The ox knows who’s boss,//the mule knows the hand that feeds him.”

At least I know what that means, and, in this case, the English matches the original. (This is unusual for The Message. The “translation” of Isaiah 1:2 reads, “Heaven and earth, you’re the jury.//Listen to God’s case.”)

The NLT paraphrases as, “Even the animals — the donkey and the ox — know their owner and appreciate his care, but not my people Israel. No matter what I do for them, they still do not understand.” That’s what the poetry means, but it’s no longer poetry.

What’s more important, retaining the technical word eivus — variously “crib” or “manger” — or conveying the point? What’s more important, the point or the poetry?

And if we want to reach the modern reader, maybe we should do away with “ox” and “donkey” (“ass” is surely wrong these days) — animals that most readers no longer own — and translate “dog” and “cat.”

What do you think?

September 20, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 7 Comments