God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Where’s the Poetry?

Ibis

Ibis

It turns out it’s hard to write poetry, at least good poetry. But even so, many efforts seem to focus more on the words than on the poem.

Job 38:36 is an interesting example, because no one knows for sure what the words there mean, particularly tuchot and sechvi. Still, the poetic nature of the line is clear.

Yet we end up with translations like, “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” (NRSV) and “Who gives the ibis wisdom [about the flooding of the Nile], or gives the rooster understanding [of when to crow]?” (TNIV). And the NAB offers the particularly unfortunate, “Who puts wisdom in the heart, and gives the cock its understanding?” It doesn’t sound poetic to my ear.

With so many possibilities for what the Hebrew words mean — the LXX expands the options by translating, “And who has given women skill in weaving, or knowledge of embroidery?” — surely no one can feel locked into any one word or phrase. Yet still we don’t have poetry.

Why?

And does anyone have a suggestion for a poetic rendition?

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September 3, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , | 3 Comments

Preserving Parallel Passages

John Hobbins has an interesting analysis of near-parallel passages in Mark 1:16-18 and Matthew 4:18-20.

I’m struck by the fact that I can’t find a translation that makes it possible to follow along in English. (I have a table below.)

The KJV, for reasons I can’t fathom, adds the word “Jesus” to Matthew, and it misses the different wording (“trap-throwing” vs. “throwing a trap net”) between the two passages.

The NAB does better, only missing the different wording for “make you [to be] fishers of men.”

The NLT almost completely masks the differences between the passages.

The NRSV adds the word “Jesus” to Mark, and otherwise masks the differences between the passages.

The NIV adds the word “Jesus” to both Mark and Matthew, and it, too, nearly completely masks the differences between the passages.

Thse are, of course, not trivial passages, and they must have received a good deal of attention. How, then, do all of the translations so poorly match the Greek?

(Regarding “fishermen”/”fishers of men” etc., see our discussion in Scripture Zealot.)

Comparison of Translations

Mark 1:16-18 Matthew 4:18-20
J. Hobins: And while passing along the sea of Galilee he saw Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew trap-throwing at sea for they were fisherman, and Jesus said to them, “Come, after me, and I’ll make you to be fishers of men.” And leaving the nets right then they followed him. While walking along the sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon known as Peter and his brother Andrew throwing a trap net into the sea for they were fishermen, and he says to them, “Come, after me, and I’ll make you fishers of men.” Leaving the nets right then, they followed him.
KJV Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him. And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.
NAB As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
NLT One day as Jesus was walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother, Andrew, fishing with a net, for they were commercial fishermen. Jesus called out to them, “Come, be my disciples, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and went with him. One day as Jesus was walking along the shore beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers — Simon, also called Peter, and Andrew — fishing with a net, for they were commercial fishermen. Jesus called out to them, “Come, be my disciples, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and went with him.
NRSV As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
NIV As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
NAB As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
ESV Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

You Have to Choose

Recents discussions (on Dr. Jim West’s blog, ScriptureZealot, etc.) have focused on what to do with Greek pronouns in English.

But the discussion seem to gloss over the fact that subject pronouns are generally missing in Greek. So instead of “he said,” Greek offers us just eipen “said.” It can be “he said,” “she said,” or “it said.” A translator has to supply a pronoun in English. So the question for the translator is not whether to add an English word to the Greek, it’s which English word to add to the Greek.

You have to choose.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | Leave a comment

Why Girls Are Neuter In German

Grammatical and Real-World Gender

It seems to me that a lot of the confusion about gender and translation stems from a misunderstanding of the two ways that gender works, as I’ll describe here.

Two Kinds of Gender

On one hand, men are different than women, and we can use the words “gender,” “masculine,” and “feminine” to indicate that difference. We can call this real-world gender, and it has very little to do with language but everything to do with how we live our lives.

On the other hand, gender can be a purely grammatical term, similar to “nominative” or “accusative.” So “feminine” nouns — say, arxe (“beginning”) or ge (“earth”) in Greek — are simply in a different grammatical category than “masculine” nouns like ouranos (“sky”). To say that some nouns are masculine and some are feminine (and for that matter some neuter, like fos [“light”]) is essentially no different than saying that words are “type I,” “type II,” or “type III.” We can call this grammatical gender, and it has everything to do with language and very little to do with how live our lives.

A Diversion: Number

We might compare gender to number. Nouns come in “singular” and “plural.”

As with gender, number can be real-world, as for example the difference between having one of something and having lots of them.

Or the number can be grammatical, as for example the difference between the word “cat” and the word “cats.”

We can see the difference between real-world and grammatical number by noting that verbs in English also come in singular and plural (“meow” and “meows,” for example), and that the difference is purely a grammatical one. “Meow” means the same thing at “meows.”

Usually we use grammatically singular words (“cat”) for real-world singular things (a cat), and grammatically plural words (“cats”) for real-world plural things (a whole lot of cats).

But sometimes we use grammatically plural words for real-world singular things. The word “scissors” is an example, as in “the scissors are on the table.” We use a grammatically plural noun (“scissors”) and a grammatically plural verb (“are”) even though there’s only one thing there (singular in the real world).

And sometimes we use grammatically singular words for real-world plural things. The word “swarm” is an example. (We know it’s real-world plural because a swarm can do things that only a group can do: “The garden was teaming with the swarm” makes sense, while “the garden was teaming with the insect” does not.)

Gender Again

Unlike number, the difference between grammatical and real-world gender is hard for many English speakers to keep track of. That’s because English does not have grammatical gender. In ancient Greek and Hebrew (and many modern languages) words have to match each other in various ways, including both number and gender. So regarding the pure table in Leviticus 24:6, the Greek word for “pure” is feminine, to match the grammatically feminine Greek word “table.” The Hebrew word for “pure” is masculine, to match the grammatically masculine Hebrew word “table.” In English, the word is just “pure,” neither masculine nor feminine. And in the real world it’s just a table. (Well, it’s not “just” a table. It’s part of the Tabernacle, but….)

Gender Mismatches

As with number, there is no reason why grammatical gender has to match real-word gender. However, because the two kinds of gender often coincide, some people have mistakenly concluded that the two always coincide. That is, because some grammatically masculine nouns are used for real-world masculine people, and vice-versa, some people have concluded that it always works that way.

And I think this is the source of the confusion, and the cause of a lot of the disagreements.

For example, the grammatically masculine Greek word pateres may refer to real-world masculine things, real-world feminine things, or any combination. We have to be careful not to assume that the grammatical gender of the word tells us what real-world gender it refers to.

A Modern Example

An example from Modern French will help. The French word for “person” is personne, and it’s grammatically feminine. (So it matches grammatically feminine adjectives.) But it can be a male person, female person, or whatever. The French for “he’s a good person” is il est une bonne personne. The words for “a,” “good,” and “person” are all grammatically feminine, but they refer to a real-word masculine person.

We don’t have gender mistmatches like this in English, because we don’t have anything to mistmatch — we don’t have grammatical gender.

It seems to me that it’s simply a translation mistake to assume that grammatical gender in Hebrew or Greek has to match up with similar real-world grammatical terms in English.

As a final example, we might note that the German word for “girl” is mädchen, and it’s neuter. Surely this doesn’t mean anything about German children. It’s just a grammatical curiosity, like the feminine French word personne and the masculine Greek word pateres.

The obvious question, then, is when grammatical gender matches real-world gender. We’re lucky that we have a pretty reliable way to find out, as I’ll describe in a future post.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , | 4 Comments