God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Sparrows and Other Details

Hillary Putnam notes that the word “sparrow” refers to a different species in the U.S. and the U.K. (page 22 of Representation and Reality, his superb book about words and meaning).

Does this mean that the translation “sparrow” in Psalms, Matthew, and Luke is wrong in the U.S. or the U.K. (or both)?


September 20, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , ,


  1. While a translation may make sense in one quadrent of English, that may not be the case in all quadrents. Cultural meaning can also change over time. We wouldn’t classify a “bat” as a fowl today, but it appears the early Hebrews did…

    The following you shall abominate among the birds – they shall not be eaten…the bat. (Lev. 11:13-18, jps)

    I went to the JPS Tanakh because I thought that part of Lev. might be different from the traditional Christian translation, but it wasn’t. I think its expected to create conundrums in translations.

    Comment by A.Admin | September 21, 2009

    • There’s very little chance of accurately determining which kinds of birds the words in that passage refer to. Even today, in English, it’s hard to know what people mean when they say “hawk” or “buzzard,” and not everyone means the same thing. Still, either through blind luck or divine intervention, maybe the translation is right. But when a word means two different things — one in one dialect and another in another dialect — it’s probably inaccurate in at least one case.

      (And by the way, not only wouldn’t I classify a “bat” as fowl, the common translation “kite” does not make me think of a bird at all.)

      Comment by Joel | September 21, 2009

  2. It depends on what you mean by “wrong”. If you mean culturally inappropriate, then maybe, if the US sparrow is a larger bird, it would be better to find a term that refers to a small bird, which surely is the force of the gospel references. I suspect the actual breed of bird is secondary in the original context to concept of a small living thing.

    Also the passage is iconic and has entered common English usage so to change it would be quite insensitive. It’s not as if this “wrong” word has any serious doctrinal leverage.

    Comment by Tim Goodbody | September 21, 2009

    • You raise good points, Tim

      The translation could be inexact or imprecise and still not be wrong, perhaps because we’ve all come to expect the word.

      Comment by Joel | September 21, 2009

  3. If your translation is wrong anywhere it’s in the USA – at least according to Wikipedia. The house sparrow, Passer domesticus, is common and native to the Middle East as well as to the UK. It is also now widespread in North America but is not native. But I suspect that the Hebrew and Greek words were not very specific, and like the English word “sparrow” in common usage could be used to refer to any small brown bird.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 21, 2009

  4. […] Secondly, it’s an example of the problems we have in translating animals and other technical terms. Even in English, “jackal” is ambiguous, inasmuch as people use the term differently. (I alluded briefly to a similar issue regarding “sparrows” here.) […]

    Pingback by Q&A: Jackals and Sea Monsters in Lamentations 4:3 « God Didn't Say That | February 12, 2010

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