God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Are You a Good Dragon or a Bad Dragon?

In response to Scot McKnight’s third post on Translation Tribalism, MatthewS says:

A prof told me once that some missionaries in China feel that translators might have made a mistake by translating the word “dragon” in Revelation literally. It is supposed to convey negative affect but the dragon in Chinese culture is a positive thing. This is a literal word-for-word translation that tends to immediately convey the opposite intended impression.

He’s talking about Revelation 12 and 13, for example (12:3), “Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads” (NRSV).

Is “dragon” the right translation into Chinese even if the original was a bad omen and the Chinese a good one? Or to put the question differently, do drakon and whatever the Chinese is really mean the same thing if they have such different connotations?

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September 15, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , ,

8 Comments »

  1. Whenever dragons come up I think of those Medieval drawings in The Cloisters Apocalypse, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – they are quite amusing making the dragons almost laughable.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 15, 2009 | Reply

  2. Dear Joel,

    In the Deutero-canonical book of Esther, we find that two dragons are fighting (in Mordecai’s dream) and presumably there is a fight between a good and a bad dragon. In Chinese culture, dragon is mainly a good symbol, so the king wears a dragon-robe, sits on a throne carved with dragons, etc. But dragon in Chinese mythology can be also a negative symbol – dragons can get angry and cause floods and destruction on earth.

    Comment by Tony Siew | September 15, 2009 | Reply

    • dragons can get angry and cause floods and destruction on earth

      Yeah, I hate it when that happens.

      Comment by Joel | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  3. “Revelations”?!

    Comment by Craig L. Adams | September 15, 2009 | Reply

  4. […] back then had the same impact as “dragon” now (something I address briefly here)? For that matter, even if they were real, maybe “serpent” or what-not represents […]

    Pingback by Unicorns, Dragons, and Other Animals You Meet in the Bible « God Didn't Say That | March 23, 2010 | Reply

  5. I believe that the bible speaks of the dragon of being evil, but it also speaks of a gentle dragon as well.
    I prefer the latter and always will, dragons can be a good thing.

    Comment by David L | September 9, 2013 | Reply

    • –In the Bible dragons, serpents, Satan and the Devil all refer to what has been called the reptilian part of our brain. I’m not sure if that perspective is still current. In any case it is our more primal motivations. These are not necessarily bad, but they do need to be managed so as to not act outside of social-cultural norms or to not act on those impulses to excess. One who notes the serpent impulses, but only acts on them in appropriate ways or at appropriate times, has tamed his dragons.
      –If I understand the Bible correctly, it refers to taking control away from this earthly aspect of ourselves as putting it to death. It still exists, but its role as being in charge seems to be what is put to death.

      Comment by Caleb | September 15, 2013 | Reply

    • In the Bible dragons, serpents, Satan and the Devil all refer to what has been called the reptilian part of our brain. I’m not sure if that perspective is still current. In any case it is our more primal motivations. These are not necessarily bad, but they do need to be managed so as to not act outside of social-cultural norms or to not act on those impulses to excess. One who notes the serpent impulses, but only acts on them in appropriate ways or at appropriate times, has tamed his dragons.

      Comment by Caleb J. | September 16, 2013 | Reply


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