God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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 | , , , , ,

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