God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Girl Things, Boy Things, and Translation

A comment to Peter Kirk’s discussion of Matthew 12:9-14 drew my attention to a passage from Appendix D of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. In it, Twain writes about his experience with German, and, among things, gender. Here’s part of what Twain writes:

See how [this crazy thing called gender] looks in print — I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

“Gretchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen.

Gretchen: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera.”

Below are two more passages as Twain translates them from German to English in jest.

I wonder how many of his mistakes make their way into serious published translations of the Bible.

The Tale of the Fishwife and Its Sad Fate

It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye, and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him. No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth — will she swallow her? No, the Fishwife’s brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin — which he eats, himself, as his Reward. O, horror, the Lightning has struck the Fish-basket; he sets him on Fire; see the Flame, how she licks the doomed Utensil with her red and angry Tongue; now she attacks the helpless Fishwife’s Foot — she burns him up, all but the big Toe, and even she is partly consumed; and still she spreads, still she waves her fiery Tongues; she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys it; she attacks its Hand and destroys her also; she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys her also; she attacks its Body and consumes him; she wreathes herself about its Heart and it is consumed; next about its Breast, and in a Moment she is a Cinder; now she reaches its Neck — he goes; now its Chin — it goes; now its Nose — she goes. In another Moment, except Help come, the Fishwife will be no more. Time presses — is there none to succor and save? Yes! Joy, joy, with flying Feet the she-Englishwoman comes! But alas, the generous she-Female is too late: where now is the fated Fishwife? It has ceased from its Sufferings, it has gone to a better Land; all that is left of it for its loved Ones to lament over, is this poor smoldering Ash-heap. Ah, woeful, woeful Ash-heap! Let us take him up tenderly, reverently, upon the lowly Shovel, and bear him to his long Rest, with the Prayer that when he rises again it will be a Realm where he will have one good square responsible Sex, and have it all to himself, instead of having a mangy lot of assorted Sexes scattered all over him in Spots.

From a Manheim Jounnal

[This one demonstrates the German system of compounding, which, unlike English, does not involve spaces or dashes.]

“In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called `The Wagoner’ was downburnt. When the fire to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork’s Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest itself caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-stork into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread.”


September 18, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , | Comments Off on Girl Things, Boy Things, and Translation

How Much Meaning Do You Want?

At the end of my discussion of anthropos, I concluded that one meaning of anthropos is “man,” and that we see that meaning in Matthew 12:10.

Here I want to suggest that, even so, “man” may not be the best English translation for anthropos. Here’s why.

One of my points before was that Greek makes it very difficult to talk about people without specifying their gender. (English makes it easy in the plural, but equally difficult in the singular. Had I written, “Greek makes it hard to talk about a person without specifying…” I would have been hard pressed to finish the sentence grammatically and elegantly.) Accordingly a Greek text about “just someone” will usually end up looking “masculine.”

Again (see here for the background), we can compare the situation to Modern Hebrew, with its two verbs halach and nasa. The former means “went by foot” and the latter means “went by vehicle.”

Suppose we have a Modern Hebrew text that reads, “Chris nasa to Tel Aviv to start his day.” We have two translation options:

1. “Chris traveled to Tel Aviv to start his day.”

2. “Chris went to Tel Aviv to start his day.”

At first glance, (1) looks like the obvious choice. Nasa means “traveled,” and it is what Chris did. We know he didn’t walk, because otherwise the verb would have been halach.

However, in favor of (2) is the fact that the original Hebrew doesn’t necessarily stress the means of transportation, while the English in (1) does. The Hebrew is as neutral as possible about how Chris got to Tel Aviv, while the same cannot be said for (1). As a speaker of English and Hebrew, I know that (2) is often the best translation of the Hebrew.

To look at the matter another way, imagine starting with an English sentence, translating it first into Greek and then back into English. I think we can agree that if we’re doing things right, the English that we start off with and the English that we end up with will be the same.

If we start with “Someone walked into the room,” we get either “anthropos…” or “gune…” in Greek, but we probably get the former. It stands to reason, then, that when we translate back, we should translate anthropos as “someone.”

At least, sometimes “someone” is the best translation of anthropos. We have a dilemma, because if we start with “a man walked into the room,” we might get the same Greek “anthropos….”

Part of the translator’s job in this case is to figure out whether the Greek text means to emphasize “man” over “woman” (in which case “man” is the better translation) or whether the maleness is incidental (suggesting “person,” “someone,” etc. as the better translation).

It’s pretty difficult to discern these nuances from the text, which is but one of many reasons that translation is hard.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 14 Comments

Gendered Culture and Gendered Language

In another discussion of gender, John challenges: “Given something like Acts 7:32 ‘I am the God of your fathers [pateres], the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’, who would have the burden of proof? Was it the God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel? If the one writing this text was of a gender neutral mentality, isn’t that what he would say?”

I think we have to distinguish between gender bias in culture and in language. It’s pretty clear that Acts here (apparently quoting Exodus 3:6, which, curiously, has “…God of your father [sic],….”) only refers to the men. But this doesn’t necessarily tell us what pateres means, because we have two options that are both supported by the text:

1. The word pateres only means men.

2. The word pateres means ancestors of any gender, but in this case only the men were important.

In other words, the specific listing of the men and not the women may be evidence of a gender bias in the language or in the culture (or both). To put it another way, we can admit that the writer was not “of a gender neurral mentality” without coming to a conclusion about what pateres, means.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 1 Comment

The Curious Case of the Withered Hand: A Translation Dilemma

Matthew 12:9-14

The parable in Matthew 12:9-14 demonstrates so many key translation points (many of which have already come up recently, in posts too numerous to mention) that I think it’s worth taking a systematic look at that text and the issues it raises.

The Plot

As I understand it, the general plot of the episode goes something like this:

[9] Jesus enters a synagogue. [10] There’s a man there with a withered hand. The people there goad Jesus and ask him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus addresses the group and tells them that if they had a sheep who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely they would rescue the sheep. [12] Because a man is worth more than a sheep, Jesus says it’s okay to heal the man on the Sabbath. [13] The man stretches out his hand and Jesus heals it. [14] The Pharisees leave and plot Jesus’ death.

Our first translation criterion is that the English convey the plot accurately and in a way that English speakers can understand.

The Rhetoric

The word anthropos is used throughout the parable. Here’s the paraphrase I just used, with the words for anthropos italicized:

[9] Jesus enters a synagogue. [10] There’s a man there with a withered hand. The people there goad Jesus and ask him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus addresses the group and tells them that if they had a sheep who had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely they would rescue the sheep. [12] Because a man is worth more than a sheep, Jesus says it’s okay to heal the man on the Sabbath. [13] The man stretches out his hand and Jesus heals it. [14] The Pharisees leave and plot Jesus’ death.

Our second translation criterion is that we make the rhetorical style of the Greek available to the English reader. A paraphrase like this does the trick:

[9] Jesus entered a synagogue. [10] There was a man inside with a withered hand. The people in the synagogue goaded Jesus and asked him if it’s permissible to cure someone on the Sabbath. [11] Jesus asked the group, “if one of you men had a sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you rescue it? [12] A man is worth more than a sheep. So it is permissible to heal someone on the Sabbath.” [13] The man stretched out his hand and Jesus healed it. [14] The Pharisees left and plotted Jesus’ death.

The Irony

In this particular case, the rhetorical repetition of anthropos to refer first to the man and then to the group is an interesting subtextual ironic message. The people don’t recognize how similar they (each being an anthropos) are to the man (anthropos) with the withered hand. This sub-theme meshes with the larger theme about the Sabbath.

One of the reasons the second translation criterion — capturing the rhetorical style — is important is that the irony in the story depends on it.

The Morals

The story has more than one moral. The most obvious seems to be that healing on the Sabbath is permissible. A second might be that we should identify with those in need of help. A third moral, from verse 12, is that people are more valuable than sheep. Because the Greek word anthropos means both “human” and “man,” it’s easy in Greek to shift seamlessly from using anthropos for “the man [with the withered hand]” to “all people.”

Our third translation criterion is that the English convey all of the morals of the story. It’s not hard to do that for verse 12 in isolation:

[12] …people are more valuable than sheep…

It’s particularly important to get verse 12 right because people want to be able to quote it out of context.

The Nuances

Even though the plot is straightforward, some nuances seem relevant. Jesus is asked if it’s permissible “to cure” someone on the Sabbath, while his answer is that it’s permissible “to do well” or “to do good” on the Sabbath. In answering the question, Jesus also shifts the focus of it.

Another nuance is lexical. Does the Greek word exestin mean “it is permissible” or “it is legal”? It’s an important distinction. There are times when it’s permissible to do what is not legal, and vice versa.

Similarly, does the Greek word xiros mean “withered” or something else? (The same adjective is used in Heb 11:29 to describe the condition of the Red Sea as the Israelites passed through it, suggesting that “dried up” or “withered” is right.)

A frequent translation error has the people asking Jesus if it’s permissible “to heal on the Sabbath.” At least in my dialect, “to heal on the Sabbath” could be sitting around passively. If I have the flu and I’m allowed to heal on the Sabbath, to me that means that I’m allowed to lie in bed all day and drink lots of liquids.

Our fourth translation criterion is get the details and nuances right.

The Conflicts

So here are the translation criteria:

1. Convey the plot.

2. Convey the rhetorical style, including the irony.

3. Convey all the morals.

4. Get the details right.

The problem, of course, is that they conflict. (2) requires the repetition of a word — probably “man” but maybe something else — first in verse 10 and then again in 11 and 12; it’s particularly important in 10 and 11 to get the irony right. But (3) requires “people” in verse 12 and, if I’m right about the Greek, (4) requires “man” in verse 10. Bit it’s hard to get “man” to work in verse 11 without sacrificing fluidity in English (“If any man among you…” barely sounds like English.)

We can’t use “person” in verse 10 because it’s less specific than (how I understand) the Greek, and we want to get the details right. Substituting “person” for “man” when a specific man is involved is like substituting “animal” for “sheep.” Even if I’m wrong about the Greek, “a person” won’t work in verse 10 because it’s awkward in English. We don’t usually start stories with “there was a person with a withered hand.” We use “there was someone with a withered hand.”

In fact, “someone” in verse 10 would be great for criteria (1) and (4), but then we get stuck on (2) and part of (3).


Any suggestions for a successful translation?

September 16, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 18 Comments

The Point(s) of Translation

A recent post by Mike Aubrey (quoting and disagreeing with Paul Helm) again raises the issue of “dynamic equivalence,” and, more generally, the goal of translation.

In a comment, Jason Staples suggests:

Good post. I think the basic translation philosophy of attempting to most clearly convey the meaning of a text (which is effectively “dynamic equivalence”) is the whole task of translation. The more translation I’ve done, the more I’ve come to see “literal” as a bit of a problematic concept in itself, since equivalent words don’t always have equivalent meaning across languages and language tends to be figurative anyway.

I agree that conveying the original meaning is one goal (and I agree that word-for-word renderings usually don’t do this), but I don’t think it’s the only goal, because there’s more to a text than what it means.

The point of some texts is purely poetic and they don’t mean anything. (This isn’t to say that they are meaningless.) Some of the poetry of Psalms comes to mind.

A text can raise awareness, or make people think. A text can be funny. A text can be a source of inspiriation. And so forth.

I think a translation that captures the meaning but misses everything else gives people a very shallow understanding of the original text (though a translation that misrepresents the meaning is doing even worse).

Here’s a question: beyond any potential role in conveying the meaning of the original, is there any point to trying to translate each word?

September 16, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 4 Comments

On Anthropos: Men, Women, and People



Following up on the brouhaha I seem to have started, here are some more thoughts on anthropos. Everyone agrees that, in various forms and contexts, anthropos is sometimes gender neutral (meaning something like “person”) and sometimes specifically masculine (meaning something like “man”). Can we tell when the word is used which way?

I think the answer is yes.

What Are We Looking At?


To get started, we note that words that are gender-specific in the singular are frequently gender-neutral in the plural. Examples from modern languages are very common, and two from Modern Hebrew will illustrate the point. (I pick Hebrew just because I know it so well. We could just as effectively use many other languages.)

The Hebrew words student and studentit both mean “[university-level] student.” The former is for men and the latter for women. Native speakers never say “he is a studentit” or “she is a student.” The plurals for these two words are studentim and studentiot. The former is gender-neutral, while the latter is limited to women. So the following are grammatical: “Those two men are studentim.” “Those two women are studentiot.” “The man and the woman are studentim.” In other words, even though a student must be a man, studentim need not just be men.

Furthermore, in some contexts studentim can be used for women only. That’s because it’s gender-neutral, and that neutrality encompasses “men,” “women,” or any combination. (Another time I’ll talk about the difference between studentim for all women and studentiot for all women.)

The Hebrew words yeled and yalda, “boy” and “girl,” work essentially the same way. The plural y’ladim can include girls, even though a girl cannot be a yeled.

From this we learn that we cannot use anthropoi (the plural of anthropos) to figure out what anthropos means, or, at least, it is a methodological mistake to start with the obvious fact that anthropoi is used for women and conclude that anthropos can be used for a woman.

Generalities and Instances

Just as a word can have different gender roles depending on whether it is plural or singular, a word can behave differently when it’s used to express a generality versus a specific instance. We see this in Hebrew and also in some dialects of English.

Many speakers use “man” to mean “someone,” as, for example, “man is the highest form of intelligence.” (You don’t have to agree with the statement to understand the grammar in it.)

Yet even the people who use “man” for men and women alike do not use it for a specific woman. They only use it for a specific man. So even speakers who use “man” generically do not say, “there’s a man I’d like you to meet” when they have in mind a woman. They certainly do not say, “Sarah is an interesting man” if she’s a women.

So we see that “man” (in some dialects) refers to people in general but only to a male adult specifically.

Accordingly, when we look at anthropos we have to distinguish between its general use (Aristotle’s “anthropos kai probaton,” for example) and its specific use (“I saw an anthropos yesterday.”)


In short, what we are looking for as we try to figure out what anthropos means is only the singular, specific use of the word.

Before actually doing that, a few thoughts about one way languages can differ are in order, and I turn to them next.

Be Specific

Languages differ in the degree of specificity they require in different contexts. For example, in English we conveniently have a word “person” that includes males and females of any age. (“Human” does the same. As the cliched exercise for the reader: what’s the difference in English between the two?) But it’s not hard to imagine a language that didn’t have such a general word. In such a language, speakers might have to indicate the approximate age of the people they were talking about

An Example: Students

To help understand the issue, we can look at English and Hebrew. In English we have a word “student” that conveniently encompasses elementary school students, high-school students, college students, graduate students, etc. In Hebrew, by contrast, there’s one word (talmid) for grade-school students, and a whole other word (student) for college onward. (It’s a common mistake for English speakers to think that student means any “student.”)

So it is impossible in Hebrew to use one word to refer to a “student of any age” the way we think of the concept in English. So what if I have a “student” in mind, generally, of no particular age, maybe in grade school, maybe in college? I have to spell the notion out in Hebrew, perhaps with the phrase “talmid or student.

Similarly, an Israeli will almost never tell a story about a student without specifying whether the student is in grade school or higher education because it’s so hard to do linguistically.

Another Example: Travel

It’s such as important point that another example seems in order. In English, we have a nice general word “go.” It includes walking, running, biking, driving, flying, boating, etc. When I say “I went to New York City,” I don’t specify at all how I got there. In Hebrew, there are two verbs: halach and nasa. The former excludes travel by vehicle, while the latter excludes travel by foot. So in Hebrew, a speaker almost never mentions going to a place without at least giving some indication of the means of getting there because it’s so hard to do. (Russian is even more complex. It has different verbs for various modes of travel and also for mono-directional travel versus bidirectional travel. In Russian, going to New York and not coming back is not the same verb as going to New York for the day and then returning.)

Once again, for us the important point is that it’s impossible in Hebrew to say “go” without specifying whether or not a vehicle was involved.

How Is Anthropos Used?

With all of this in mind, we can look at how anthropos is used.

To the best of my knowledge, when it is specific and singular, it always refers to a specific man, never to a specific woman. In other words, anything of the sort “an anthropos was….” refers to a man. If the person is a women, we instead find the word gune. (My search is limited to the OT LXX and the NT, so there may be examples I don’t know about. What we’re looking for is something like “I saw an anthropos and she said….”)

Unfortunately, we may not have a fair sampling of how anthropos might apply to women, because the overwhelming majority of people in the Bible are men, and of the women, many are mentioned in the context of their specific role as women, either as mothers or wives. For example, in Genesis 24:5, Abraham’s servant is concerned that the “gune might not be willing to follow me back.” If anthropos were entirely neutral, used when gender is irrelevant, we might expect to see anthropos here, rather than gune. But on the other hand, even though Rebeka is just a person here, she is also the person Isaac is going to marry. So Gen 24:5 is suggestive but not convincing.

Still, we have a few clearer examples. Some of the ones I’ve found are these:

  • Joshua 2:4. The woman who hides the Israelite spies is just a person, really, and she doesn’t have any particularly feminine role, yet she is a gune, not an anthropos.

  • Matthew 15:28. Jesus calls the Canaanite woman, gune, not anthropos, even though she isn’t doing anything that only women can do.

  • Matthew 26:7 and 26:10. The woman with the alabaster jar (side note: someone has to remind me what alabaster is) is referred to as gune, not anthropos.

To me, two facts are important:

1. We see gune for a specific person when the person is female, even when her gender doesn’t seem germane.

2. We never see anthropos for a specific woman.

These two facts, combined with the theory above that tells us where we should look, point me to a very clear answer.


I don’t think anthropos means “person.” Rather, it is one masculine form of gune (the other being aner — a topic for another time). When the word is used to refer to an individual person, that person is a man. When the word is used to refer to a person in general (“one” in English, or the French on), it can be a man or a woman. And when the word refers to “people,” it again can be men or women.

In fact, Greek had no way of referring to a specific person without specifying gender. In other words, Greek didn’t have a word “person.” (This is parallel to Modern Hebrew, which doesn’t have a general word for “student” or for “go.”)

So even though anthropos in its various forms and contexts means different things, I think we can usually know when it is gender specific and when it is not.

The next question, what to do with that knowledge when we translate, will have to wait.

September 16, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , , | 19 Comments

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?

September 15, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 8 Comments

The Funny Thing About What Words Mean

The funny thing about what words mean is how hard it is to notice when they mean more than one thing, as, for example, “funny.” The way I’m using it here the word doesn’t mean “humorous” but, rather, “odd.”

Two thousand years hence, will scholars be arguing over whether “funny” should be translated into the then-equivalent of “humorous” or the then-equivalent of “odd”? Will they even know enough to ask the question?

September 14, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , | 3 Comments

On Translation and Explanation

In a recent discussion here, Paula asks about where the line is drawn between “translation” and what I called “explanation.” It’s a really important question.

I don’t think I have an answer in terms of definitions, but I have a few examples, starting with just English. (It’s helpful to look at English to English “translations” and related “explanations” because this takes some of the uncertainty out of the data and helps us focus on the theory.)

The English “sofa” and “couch” are so close in meaning that “sofa” seams like a reasonable “translation” for “couch.” By this I mean that if we had a word in a foreign language that meant “couch,” and we translated it into English as “sofa,” we’d be doing pretty well.

By contrast, “piece of furniture with that seats two to three people” is a fairly accurate description, or explanation, of “couch,” but it’s certainly not a translation. If we had a foreign-language word “couch,” my long phrase here doesn’t seem like it would be the right translation.

Similarly: “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree.” Certainly part of the line’s charm is the rhyme and meter. I can’t think of another way of saying that in English that demonstrates the same rhyme and iambic tetrameter, so I can’t think of an English-to-English translation.

What are we to make of the following? “In my opinion, the asthetic beauty of nature is greater than that of human artifacts, and I choose to present my opinion in rhyming iambic tetrameter.” Surely that’s not a translation, but rather an explanation.

Moving away from just English and toward real translation, we might look at a discussion here about Matthew 12:10-12. The T-NIV translates anthropos in Matthew 12:10 as “man,” but in 12:12 as “person,” because the point of 12:12 is “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” However, that seems like an explanation in part, not a translation. The original text (“how much more valuable is a man…!”) specifically refers back to the man in need of healing in Matthew 12:10. The Message goes even further away from translation toward explanation: “Surely kindness to people is as legal as kindness to animals!”

In other words, Matthew 12:10-12 uses a parable that involves a man and a sheep to demonstrate a point (ultimately about the Sabbath, not about the value of people, as it happens). I think a translation should do the same thing: make the same overall and ancillary points using the same techniques. Anything else is explanation.

As a third and final example, we might consider the lyric beauty of almost any passage in Isaiah. Let’s take Isaiah 60:1. The Hebrew starts off with two verbs, kumi, from the root for “stand,” and ori, from the root for “light.” So most English translations begin, “Arise, shine….” So far, so good. But then we have a repetition of a word from the root for “light,” namely oreich, “your light.” Here English translations, however, substitute a new word (usually, “light”) rather than repeat “shine.” So where there is a repetition in Hebrew (“stand” … “light” … “light”), we find the poetry destroyed (“arise” … “shine” … “light”) in English.

This kind of error also strikes me as “explanation” instead of “translation.”

September 14, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 12 Comments

Another Gender Example from Modern Hebrew

I’m following up on my last post about gender and Modern Hebrew. And again, the point is not that ancient Hebrew and Greek are the same as Modern Hebrew (they’re not), but rather that we can learn about how gender works in human language by looking at examples.

The Hebrew word ish is one word for “man,” and in some contexts it is used to distinguish “man” and “woman.” One would never call a woman an ish but rather an isha.

Yet even so, in constructions like ish lo nifga, literally, “ish not was-injured,” the word ish is inclusive, and the phrase means, “no one was hurt.” It does not mean “no man was hurt.”

Again we see that the same word can be exclusive in one context, yet inclusive in another.

I think we have to take this very widespread linguistic phenomenon into account when we translate.

September 14, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | Comments Off on Another Gender Example from Modern Hebrew