God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Making Sense Isn’t Enough

In a widely-quoted post earlier this week on Koinonia, Bill Mounce delineates six “translation procedures”:

1. Concordance. [Translate the Greek consistently into English.]

2. One for one. Prefer a single word translation for one Greek word.

3. Less interpretive.

4. Euphony.

5. Must make some sense. But wait! There’s more! (Sounds like a Greek infomercial.) [The translation shouldn’t sound “weird.”]

6. Open to misunderstanding. [The translation shouldn’t be misleading.]

It took me a while to put my finger on what was bothering me, but I’ve figured it out. It’s his number (5). Essentially, for him, steps (1)-(4) are the translation process, and (5)-(6) are checks to see if the translation is successful. That is (as I understand it), Dr. Mounce takes the Greek and finds English that (as much as possible — a caveat he includes) is consistent (as per [1]) in its non-interpretive (3) word-for-word (2) rendering of Greek into similar-sounding (4) English.

As Mounce knows, the process sometimes yields results that don’t make sense in English. When that happens, Mounce’s procedure is to find similar English that does make sense.

But I think the reasoning is flawed, because the English translation has to do more than just make sense. It has to reflect the original. To put it another way, the right translation has to make sense, but there are lots of renditions that make sense that are not the right translation.

The very fact that steps (1)-(4) can produce English that doesn’t make sense tells me that his process is unreliable.

I suppose that Mounce’s reply would be that of course the English has to reflect the original, and in finding English that makes sense he also finds English that reflects the original. But if so what he’s really saying is that he can and does bypass steps (1)-(4). So either way, I don’t see the value of (1)-(4).

By the way, his post is also available on his blog.

Take a look and let me know what you think.


October 30, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 1 Comment

Sarx, Flesh, and Mismatched Metaphors

T.C. Robinson brings up the issue of sarx again. (We went through this some time ago: Peter Kirk on BBB, Doug Chaplin on Clayboy, Mark Goodacre on NT blog, Jason Staples, a short post here, and more.)

The word is a perfect follow up to our discussions earlier this and again today about metaphors. It’s pretty clear that sarx literally means “flesh.” I think the translation challenge is that the metaphoric framework of the NT uses the concept of “flesh” differently than we do now.

In our culture, “flesh” has at least three main metaphoric uses: physicality (“he’s here in the flesh”), robustness (“flesh out”), and sex (“the flesh trade”).

In the NT, and particularly as Paul uses the word, sarx has a slightly overlapping but very different metaphoric use. In his essay “Flesh” in Romans: A Challenge for the Translator (in The Challenge of Bible Translation), Dr. Douglas Moo observes that one usage out of five of the word sarx is to “designate the human condition in its fallenness.”

And there’s the rub.

The metaphoric use of “flesh” in English relies on a system of metaphor that differs significantly from the NT metaphor of “flesh.” It’s not that sarx in Greek means different things in different places, but rather, I think, that different metaphors are at work in different places, and only some of them are compatible with modern, Western ones.

Here are some questions that come to mind:

Should mastery of a new system of metaphor be required just to read the Bible? (If so, “flesh” is a fine translation of sarx. If not, “flesh” doesn’t work.) Is it possible to ingore our native system of metaphor?

Can the meaning of the text be conveyed independent of the metaphoric system that accompanies it? (If so, “sinful nature” is a fine translation.)

Or is the metaphor part of the meaning? (If so, part of the “sinful nature” concept of sarx is its connection to the flesh.)

October 29, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 18 Comments

On Metaphorical Dissonance

George Lakoff (in More than Cool Reason) points out that metaphors are conceptual, not merely linguistic. Then he has an example of how metaphors might differ, and what the consequences would be.

I think it’s helpful to keep these issues firmly in mind as we translate across cultures.

Here’s what Lakoff has to say:

1. One metaphor for us is “argument is war”:

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies[….] Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war[….] It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing. (p. 4)

2. Cultures could (and do) differ:

Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending[….] Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently […] and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all. (pp. 4-5)

October 29, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 1 Comment

Q&A: The Hebrew Suffix -ki

Again from the about page:

What’s going on with the pronominal suffixes in Psalm 103 3-8? I can’t find -ki as a pronominal suffix in any of my grammar books — neither singular nor plural!

Good question.

The suffix -ki (also spelled -chi) is a variant form of -k, and it means “your (sng, f).” We see it in Psalm 103, as you note, and also, e.g., in Psalm 116:19 (b’tocheichi, “within you [Jerusalem]”).

It may have been formed by analogy with the feminine singular future tense, or may be part of a broader pattern in which matres lectionis get added to words for reasons we no longer know (poetic affect, maybe). Other examples include the final heh that is added to some verbs, and, perhaps, the alternation between al and alei.

October 28, 2009 Posted by | grammar, Q&A | , , , | 1 Comment

Amos’s Clean White Teeth

Amos 4:6 is back, first in a comment and then in a post at Aberration Blog.

The Hebrew text reads: v’gam ani natati lachem nikyon shinayim b’chol areichem v’choser lechem b’chol m’komoteichem v’lo shavtm aday n’um adonai. That is, ” ‘I [Adonai] have given [or will give] you a purity/cleanness of teeth in all your cities and a lack of bread in all your places, and you didn’t return to me,’ says Adonai.”

At first, it looks like classic Hebrew parallelism (“saying the same thing twice”), where “cleanness of teeth” is like “lack of bread,” and “cities” is like “places.”

Noting (correctly) that “cleanness of teeth” doesn’t mean “hunger” in English, some translators explain the phrase in translation, rendering it as “hunger” (NLT) or “empty stomachs” (NIV).

But our translation question is whether “cleanness of teeth” is an idiom or a metaphor. If it’s an idiom, then, yes, it should be rendered as idiomatic English.

But I think the line is meant to be ironic, and that it’s built on the biblical metaphor by which white is purity.

We see the metaphor in Isaiah 1:18 (where “scarlet sins” shall become “white like snow”) and Psalm 51:9 (where “I will be white like snow” is part of purification).

The rare word nikayon (which becomes nikyon before another noun) generally refers to purity or innocence, as in Genesis 20:5 (where Abimelech explains to God that he acted justly, with nikayon of hands), or Hosea 8:5 (where the lack of nikayon among the Israelites enrages God).

Amos 4:4 starts an ironic tirade: “Come to Bethel,” Amos taunts, “and sin.” “Offer your sacrifices … burn a Thank Offering of leaven” even though according to Leviticus 7:12-14, the Thank Offering isn’t supposed to be burned. Amos continues, “for this is what you love to do.”

Then in Amos 4:6, we read, “I will give you purity…” Sounds good. But wait.

“… of teeth” and “lack of bread.” It’s not good.

In fact, it’s more irony. This time, the cleanness (nikayon) and whiteness (of teeth) is ironically symbolic of hunger.

As it happens, white stands for purity in English, too, so it seems to me that we ought to be able to capture the irony in translation, but I’m not quite sure how.

The first thing we have to fix is “I will give you … teeth,” which in English sounds like a bunch of detached teeth will be coming our way. The Hebrew “give” also means “let” or “make,” so “make your teeth clean” is one way to go (followed, perhaps, by “make food lacking”). But it still doesn’t seem right.

Any ideas?

October 26, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 7 Comments

On Idioms and Metaphors

In More than Cool Reason, George Lakoff writes:

Metaphors are so commonplace we often fail to notice them. Take the way we ordinarily talk about death. The euphemism “He passed away” is not an arbitrary one. When someone dies, we don’t say “He drank a glass of milk” or “He had an idea” or “He upholstered his couch.” Instead we say things like “He’s gone,” “He’s left us,” “He’s no longer with us,” “He’s passed on,” “He’s been taken from us,” [etc.]

What Dr. Lakoff doesn’t write is that we also say “He kicked the bucket.”

And here we see the difference between metaphoric language and idiom. Metaphoric language reflects an underlying metaphor. (A metaphor, Lakoff insists, is a pattern of thought, not the words used to express it. In the case of death, our metaphoric approach is of “conceiving of birth, life and death” as “arrival,” “being present here” and “departure.”) By contrast, idioms are conveniently thought of as multi-word words, and they do not reflect any underlying thought process.

Two related properties of idioms make them easy to identify (if you speak the language). First, they cannot be passivized. (“The bucket was kicked by him” doesn’t mean “he died.”) Secondly, parts of idioms can’t be replaced by synonyms. (“He kicked the pail” doesn’t mean “he died.”)

The distinction is really important, because I think that metaphors should be preserved (if possible) in translation, while idioms should be replaced. We see a great, if difficult, test case in Amos 4:6, which I’ll turn to next.

October 26, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , | 5 Comments

The Letter of the Text

Bill Mounce has a post about gramma in Romans 2:27 and 2:29. He’s responding to a question about the ESV’s translation of the word as “letter” in 2:29, but “written code” in 2:27. (Dr. Mounce defends the decision.) Let’s look at how gramma is used.

The word gramma refers most basically to letters (of the alphabet), but also metonymically to collections of letters (“words,” “texts,” etc.) and to mastery of letters (“learning”). Interestingly, the English “letter” works almost exactly the same way, referring to a letter of the alphabet (“the letter A,” for example), but also correspondence (“a business letter”), more generally that which is written (“the letter of the law”), and — in some dialects, though not my own — to knowledge (“man of letters”).

For example, in John 5:47 we find the contrast, “but if you do not believe his grammas, how will you believe my rimas.” (We don’t have a good way to translate rima, which refers both to that which is spoken — “word,” but, more generally “statement” — and that which is spoken about — “thing.” The English “word” is close, but not quite right, because “word” seems to refer equally to spoken and written words, while rima was [primarily?] oral.)

The contrast between gramma and rima there is twofold. It is between a building block (letter) and a whole unit (word), but I think more importantly in John 5:47, between the written and the oral. The NRSV therefore translates, “But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” The ESV opts for “writings” and “words” here, but that pair doesn’t seem to capture either contrast.

In Luke 16:6 and 16:7, the word refers to what we would call a “bill.” (I think The English word “bill” comes ultimately from the Latin for “seal,” that is, the thing that was used to seal a private letter of correspondence.)

In Acts 26:24, the word refers more generally to study.

In Acts 28:21 the word refers to letters of correspondence.

Romans 7:6, Romans 2:29, and 2 Corinthians 3:6 explicately contrast gramma with pneuma (“spirit”). Romans 2:27 is part of the same theme.

So I think the question is whether the English “letter” can be used, like gramma, to indicate “that which is written,” and I think the answer is yes. I don’t see any reason not to use “letter” in Romans 2:27. (By the way, Romans 2:27 is nice place to practice your Greek syntax.) I think “written code” is the point, but spelling out the the point of imagery is usually a translation mistake.

October 26, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , | Comments Off on The Letter of the Text

Q&A: On Matthew 5:17-19

Cameron asks via the About page whether “until everything is accomplished” (eos an panta genetai) in Matthew 5:18 could be punctuated as part of Matthew 5:19, the original being unversified and unpunctuated. That is, could the text read:

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law. Until everything is accomplished, anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments…

instead of the usual:

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments…

This is really a question for someone who knows more about Greek phrasing than I do, but I believe that the word oun (“therefore”) at the beginning of 5:19 makes it pretty clear, even without punctuation, that the “until” phrase ends in 5:18. (The NIV, which Cameron quotes, doesn’t translate oun here. I don’t know why not.)

October 25, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 2 Comments

Miracles and Wonders

Are there miracles in the Bible?

The KJV uses the word “miracle” (or “miracles”) less than 30 times. The ESV, only about a dozen. And the NAB half of that, even with the apocrypha. Yet the word appears over 150 times in the NLT. So miracles pervade the Bible only in some translations. Why?

What’s going on, I think, is this:

The most common use of “miracle” in English is to refer to something (good) that science can’t explain. So it’s a miracle when a patient lives in spite of a deadly disease, or — depending on one’s view of the details — when a sea splits to let a people leave oppression. Miracles, by this way of thinking, are extra-scientific events.

But there was little science when the NT was written, and even less in the days of the OT. So to an ancient author, the splitting of the Red Sea would have been in the same category as, say, an eclipse. And neither of them would have been miracles, because — there being no science — neither one could have been considered extra-scientific. They were “wonders,” but they weren’t “miracles.”

So one approach holds that the word “miracle” is an anachronism in Bible translation, no different, really, than “neuron” would be. This is why many versions prefer “signs,” “wonders,” and even “portents” to “miracles.” (Though in many translations it seems that “miracle” was sometimes mechanically replaced by another term. For example, the ESV takes the KJV’s “John did no miracle” [John 10:41] and turns it in to “John did no sign.”)

The other approach suggests that we might know more about the text than the original authors: what if what the ancients considered “wonders” were really miracles, only they didn’t know it back then? (I think this question applies whether or not one believes the literal truth of the text. Before the text can be believed or not, it has to be understood.) Should a translation reflect our improved understanding?

October 25, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Q&A: On Counting Seeds and Descendants

Dannii asks on the About page:

In Galatians 3:16 Paul makes an essentially linguistic argument about Genesis 22:18. Does the Hebrew word for ‘seed’ have a similar range of meanings as the English word? Paul’s argument feels strange in English because when ‘seed’ is used to mean descendants it is a non-count noun. Is the Hebrew world also a non-count noun?

What a great question!

The issue is this:

The Hebrew word zera means “seed,” including “human seed” and, metonmyically, “descendants.” The Greek sperma works essentially the same way.

As it happens, the Hebrew and Greek words are singular even when they mean “descendants,” similar to the American English “family.” (It’s not uncommon for a singular word in one language to be plural in another — or vice versa — and usually it doesn’t matter very much.)

In Genesis 12:7, 13:5, etc., God makes promises to Abraham and his zera (singular) — sperma (in Greek; also singular) or “descendants” / “offspring” / “progeny” in English. The plural word “descendants” is a great translation for zera there. “Offspring” and “progeny” aren’t bad, either. (“Seed” doesn’t work in my dialect.) The singular/plural issue is nothing more than a curiosity.

But in Galatians 3:16, Paul refers to the grammar of the word itself:

“The promises were made to Abraham and his sperma [“seed”]. It does not say spermas [“seeds”]” but “sperma, who is Christ.” Paul’s wordplay uses the grammatically singular form of sperma in Greek — which matches the grammatically singular form of zera in Hebrew — to explain God’s promise to Abraham as referring to one person only.

Dannii correctly points out that translations of this line usually sound strange. For example (NRSV): “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is, to one person, who is Christ.” But in its oddness, the translation captures the Greek very well. The plural spermas is also odd in Greek, as zeras would be in Hebrew.

I don’t think Paul is making a “linguistic argument” so much as using a word play. Paul’s point doesn’t strike me as a rational one here (though neither is it irrational — it is non-rational), and, in fact, it’s the same sort of word play that pervades the (Jewish) Midrash from the same time period.

So the answer is that the Hebrew zera and Greek sperma behave almost the same, and the English “progeny” comes pretty close, too. The word play notwithstanding, the singular zera in Hebrew and sperma in Greek can refer to one descendant or to many.

October 22, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | 5 Comments