God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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?

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September 9, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , ,

8 Comments »

  1. I love “thin whisper of a sound.”

    Comment by Will Fitzgerald | September 9, 2009 | Reply

  2. Thank you.

    Comment by Joel | September 9, 2009 | Reply

  3. it occurs to me that ‘soul’ for nephesh might this category as well?

    Comment by Ryan | September 12, 2009 | Reply

    • I think so.

      Comment by Joel | September 12, 2009 | Reply

  4. I also love “thin whisper of a sound” and I don’t know the poem. Maybe this is the obvious question, but I’m curious – is there no way to infer whether the poet in 500 AD shared your understanding of the citation?

    Comment by Bill | September 12, 2009 | Reply

  5. I also love “thin whisper of a sound” and I don’t know the poem. Maybe this is the obvious question, but I’m curious — is there no way to infer whether the poet in 500 AD shared your understanding of the citation?

    There’s no way to know for sure, though in this case context makes it pretty clear that I’m at least on the right track. (It’s a brilliant poem, by the way.)

    You raise a thorny issue in translation: how do we translate a phrase that appears twice, once in an older text, and once with a different meaning in a newer one?

    The classic example is Mat 4:4 and Luk 4:4: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by…” They are citing Deuteronomy 8:3.

    In Deuteronomy 8:3, the point is that people can live on whatever God says they can live on, manna, for example. The context is the Israelites having made it through the desert by eating substances other than bread. In Matthew and Luke, the point is that we need God’s words to augment physical food.

    The Hebrew in Deuteronomy is nicely ambiguous.

    Comment by Joel | September 13, 2009 | Reply

  6. Thanks for the reply, Joel. I understand and agree with your point about Deuteronomy 8. By nicely ambiguous, I assume you mean the overall chapter has a lot to say about God’s commandments as well.

    On the hebrew poetry, forgive me. I’m ignorant but fascinated. It seems if you are right about Ezekiel then you should assume the poet most likely would have agreed. Poems by Shakespeare and Milton are often printed with footnotes – regretable in a way, but helpful for the depth and enjoyable for the “wow factor” that comes when you get to read the line the second time. (Like the Marie Antoinette line I referenced on your other post.) Anyway, fwiw, I vote you stick to your own rendering, but note the reference appropriately in a footnote.

    This really was a great post, btw. Thanks again for blogging, and for fixing the RSS feed.

    Comment by Bill | September 14, 2009 | Reply

    • I understand and agree with your point about Deuteronomy 8. By nicely ambiguous, I assume you mean the overall chapter has a lot to say about God’s commandments as well.

      I mean that it’s ambiguous at an even more basic level. The Hebrew word motzah is used not just with “mouth” (as here) but with lips (Number 30:13, e.g.), and it seems to form an expression like “whatever crosses my lips,” or, more colloquially, “whatever I say.”

      If we use that convenient translation, we find in Deut 8:3 that we can live on “whatever God says.” The line itself is ambiguous. “Whatever God says” could be “whatever God says that we can live on” or it could be “that which God says,” which is to say, “God’s words.”

      Comment by Joel | September 14, 2009 | Reply


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