God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Gender in Modern Hebrew – An Example

I think it might be informative to look at how av (usually translated “father”) and its plural, avot, work in Modern Hebrew. Even though we can’t directly conclude anything about ancient Hebrew or Greek from Modern Hebrew, we can learn more about how gender — at least potentially — works in human language.

In no particular order, here are some facts about av and avot in Modern Hebrew:


  • When people talk about their literal father, one word they use is av.* (When they talk about their mother, one word is em.)
  • The word av is grammatically masculine.
  • The plural avot is grammatically masculine, even though it ends in -ot which is often reserved for feminine plurals.
  • When Lucy, the “first human,” was discovered, she was called av kadmon in Hebrew, literally “original av.”
  • When people talk about how “fathers” are different than “mothers,” the words they use are avot and imahot (the plural of em).
  • The Hebrew for “old-age home” is bet avot, literally, “house of avot.” (The phrase applies equally to men and women.)
  • When people talk about their “ancestors,” the word they use is avot. (Again, the phrase does not have specifically male connotations.)

It seems to me that if a theory of gender and language doesn’t allow for the possabilites above, it’s probably inaccurate, or, at least, incomplete, so we shouldn’t use that theory to try to understand ancient languages.

(*) In addition to av, there’s a less formal word aba in Hebrew. The two words approximate the difference between “father” and “dad.”

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September 9, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 1 Comment

When the Translation Becomes the Text

There seem to be times when the translation of a text becomes the text, at least emotionally, if not rationally.

This creates a translation dilemma, because it’s hard to fix a bad translation that everyone thinks is the original text.

Here are three examples:

  • The “jubilee year,” the 50th year that commemorates the end of seven sets of seven years, is, in Hebrew, the yovel year. The Hebrew word yovel, probably a horn of some sort, has nothing to do with rejoicing or jubilation. But the Latin for yovel is iobileus, which just happens to sound like iubileus, and that word is related to the verb iubilare, “to celebrate.” So we end up with the inaccurate “jubilee year.”

    To change it now (“Year of the Yovel horn”? Or “Year of proclamation”? Or, as in the LXX, “Year of manifestation”?) would make it unfamiliar to the probably millions of readers who know what the “Jubilee year” is. Are we locked in to a bad translation forever?

  • Buber’s famous philosophical book on theology was translated into English as “I and Thou.” But Buber’s point was to emphasize intimacy, and he chose the German “Ich und Du” to contrast with “Ich und Sie,” using the informal, personal, intimate du rather than the formal Sie. (This is like tu vs. vous in French.) So a much more accurate translation would be “Me and You,” because “thou” doesn’t indicate informality in English.

    Again, to retranslate the title now would make it unfamiliar to three generations who already know what “I-thou” represents.

  • The KJV translation “still small voice” (I Kings 19:12) for kol d’mama daka is so well known that the phrase has become a common expression in English. I’m working on a translation of the 1,500-year old liturgical poem Unetaneh Tokef. The poem cites I Kings. I think the phrase is best rendered in English as “thin whisper of a sound.”

    Never mind whether I’m right or not. If I am, and if I translate the English correctly, am I destroying the original effect of quoting I Kings in the poem?

September 9, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , | 8 Comments