God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Birds And The Bees

Readers keeping up with the theoretical issues surrounding gender and translation may find this helpful or interesting or both. It’s reposted from my The Glamour of the Grammar column for the Jerusalem Post:

Unlike in English, Hebrew nouns, verbs, and adjectives come in two varieties, commonly called masculine and feminine. The endings -a (singular) and -ot (plural) frequently mark the feminine, and while the masculine nouns have no particular ending in the singular, typically their plural marker is -im. So “man” is ish and “woman” is isha. Adjectives (which in Hebrew follow the nouns they describe) match – ish tov is a “good man” and isha tova is a “good woman.” But that’s just the beginning of the story….

UPDATE. The link works now: Read more….


September 2, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , | Comments Off on The Birds And The Bees

Mothers, Fathers, and Ancestors

I’ll admit. I had an agenda when I composed my last post. And the agenda is this:

The Greek pateres is one of the words that has more than one correct translation into English. Among the reasonable possibilities are “fathers,” “parents,” and “ancestors.”

For example, in Ephesians 6:4 (and Colossians 3:21) it is clearly male parents: “Pateres, do not antagonize your children….” The instruction is to literal parents, one generation removed from their children.

By contrast, in, for example, John 6:31, it is clearly what we call “ancestors” in most modern dialects of English: “Our pateres ate manna in the desert….”

Once again, it’s a simple point. The same Greek word may have more than one English translation. (For those who know where I’m going, the NIV has “fathers” in Ephesians and “forefathers” in John, while the T-NIV has “fathers” and “ancestors.”)

September 2, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , | 25 Comments

When Ancient Words Mean More Than One Thing

It’s hardly surprising that ancient words don’t match up perfectly with modern English ones.

To pick one example out of thousands, the Hebrew kol is variously “sound” or “voice” (and the Greek translation fone is even broader, including “word” and somtimes “language”).

In Genesis 27:22, Isaac hears Jacob’s kol; and in Psalm 47:5, we read about the “kol of the trumpet.” Though the words are the same, every modern translator knows that Genesis 27 demands “Jacob’s voice” while Psalm 47 requires “sound of the trumpet.”

This basic fact sometimes makes translation difficult, because we don’t always know which English word is best. In Genesis 3:8, for example, do Adam and Eve hear “the sound of God” or “the [actual] voice of God”?

And somtimes this fact makes translation all but impossible, as for example when the text purposely repeats a word, but we can’t do the same in English. Ezekiel 37:8-9 is an example: “…there was no ruach in them. Then [God] told me … tell the ruach that this is what the Lord God says, ‘from the four ruachs come, you ruach….'” Translations generally destroy the poetry of the original, rendering ruach as both “breath/spirit” and as “wind.”

People who think that we should “just translate the words” haven’t thought the matter all the way through.

September 2, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | Comments Off on When Ancient Words Mean More Than One Thing

On Gender Inclusivity and Gender Accuracy

Comments like, “Even if you remove the male pronouns, is the Bible not still a patriarchal text?” (from a comment on Rumblings) and observations such as those from Mark Stevens that the T-NIV has been “unfarily criticized” for its gender neutrality make it clear to me that people are using “gender inclusivity” and “gender neutrality” in at least two different ways.

When I talk about gender and translation, I mean that a translation should fairly reflect the original. When the original is gender inclusive, the translation should be, too. (I give one example of hundreds here.) If the original point was “everyone,” then translating the text as “men” (or “women”) is simply wrong, just as translating “animals” as “horses” is wrong. I don’t want to fix the text (it’s pretty good the way it is!). I want to convey it in English. While this is popularly called “gender inclusivity,” a better term is “gender accuracy.”

Another usage of “gender inclusivity” refers more generally to what we can do if we don’t like the original text, and, in particular, any gender bias we might see in it. While I have my personal opinions on the matter — most of us do — I don’t claim any particular insight into the matter. But it seems to me that we should keep separate the notions of (1) correctly rendering the text (“gender accuracy”); and (2) fixing the text when don’t like it (“gender inclusivity”). Otherwise it will be hard even to talk about either one.

September 2, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 3 Comments