God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Translation Strategies: An Exercise

Today’s on-line edition of Le Monde is currently running the headline: Les magasins de jeux vidéo vont-ils disparaître?

How should we translate that into English?


  1. The stores of video games, are they going to disappear (italics a la KJV)
  2. The stores of video games, are they going to disappear? (“essentially literal”)
  3. Video game stores, are they going to disappear? (also “essentially literal”)
  4. Soon there might be no more video game stores. (Good News)
  5. Eek! What if there are no more video game stores? (The Message)
  6. Will video-game stores disappear?
  7. Are video-game stores going to disappear?
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October 1, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , | 10 Comments

The Artificial Strangeness of Word-for-Word Translations

Related to my previous post, Douglas Hofstadter discusses (on page 380 of Godel, Escher, Bach) translating a Russian novel into English. He wonders:

[B]ut if you translate every idiomatic phrase word by word, then the English will sound alien. Perhaps this is desirable, since the Russian culture is an alien one to speakers of English. But a speaker of English who reads such a translation will constantly be experiencing, thanks to the unusual turns of phrase, a sense — an artificual sense — of strangeness, which was not intended by the author, and which is not experienced by readers of the Russian original.

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

That Familiar Sense of Unfamiliarity

It seems that people who frequently read a particular Bible translation generally come to expect a certain “Bible style” that often includes an oddness of vocabulary and syntax. They then associate that oddness with the Bible itself.

And because they think that the Bible is odd in the ways that their translation suggests, they refuse to accept any translation that departs from the oddness, thinking that it’s a departure from the Bible.

(I’ve suggested here that people might have more than an accidental personal investment in strange or even incoherent translations.)

But what if (as I believe) the oddness is merely an artifact of bad translation?

October 1, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , | 4 Comments

Fear and Awe in Jonah: A Short Case Study

The first chapter of Jonah contains the verb yarah four times, so we see another example of the tension between local and global translation, or between text and context. What works well verse by verse doesn’t always work to convey a longer passage.

In verse 5, the sailors on Jonah’s boat “yarahed” in response to the storm God sends. Then in verse 9, when the people question Jonah, he identifies himself as “a Hebrew,” who “yarahs Adonai.” In response, in verse 10, the people yarahed greatly (or, as the Hebrew grammar would have it, “yarahed a great yarahing”). Then in verse 16, after the storm subsides, the people “yarahed Adonai greatly” (or “yarahed a great yarahing for/of/toward Adonai”).

The verb yarah and the related noun yir’ah combine “fear” and “awe” in a way that’s hard to express in Modern English. (It’s approximately the feeling one might have for a beautiful lightning storm — it’s awesome, awe-inspiring, scary, etc.) This is why translations vary.

But the running theme of yarah is destroyed in every translation I can find.

Here’s a sampling:

Verse 5 Verse 9 Verse 10 Verse 16
ESV: were afraid fear exceedingly afraid feared the LORD exceedingly
KJV: were afraid fear exceedingly afraid feared the Lord exceedingly
NAB: became frightened worship seized with great fear struck with great fear of the LORD
NIV: were afraid worship [this] terrified them greatly feared the Lord
NLT: fearing for their lives worship were terrified were awestruck with the Lord’s great power
The Message: were terrified worship were frightened, really frightened were … in awe of God
NRSV: were afraid worship were even more afraid feared the LORD even more

In particular, verses 10 and 16 both start with the same four Hebrew words, yet in none of the translations does the English start identically.

(The translation “worship” in verse 9, which is almost certainly wrong, comes from the LXX. But the LXX seems to be working from a different text, as it also has “servant of the Lord” instead of “Hebrew.”)

For all this bickering about which translation approach is best, they all seem to get Jonah wrong.

October 1, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 1 Comment