God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

It Doesn’t Matter the Condition of the Grammar

I think back to a radio spot for lechayim, an “auto donation program” (that is, a program for donating your car, not for donating yourself). The announcer in the ad tells listeners that if they donate their car to lechayim they will get a tax deduction, and furthermore, “it doesn’t matter the condition of the car!”

It’s pretty clear that the text was written by someone who speaks Yiddish.

Somehow the ad was written, edited, produced, and aired without anyone noticing that it makes no sense except to a small subset of English speakers.

This sounds like many Bible translations I’ve encountered.

I think the ad can teach us about three ways that some Bible translations go astray:

1. People doing the translations speak another language — Yiddish in the case of the ad, Hebrew/Greek in the case of Bible translation — and this knowledge shifts their internal grammar of their native language. They start to think that “it doesn’t matter the condition…” (in the case of the ad), or, say, “I spoke unto him saying…” (in the case of Bible translation) is English.

2. People evaluating the translations become so familiar with the flawed English that they, too, start to think it’s grammatical.

3. Context is often powerful enough to override — or, at least, significantly mask — ungrammaticality.

October 12, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , ,

1 Comment

  1. Joel,

    “it doesn’t matter the condition of the car!”

    I had to stop and think why this sounds perfectly normal to me. I think the reason is my neighborhood is full of ESL speakers. What gets me most is the even the “white people” don’t speak English. I was chatting with a guy a few days ago who was a ethnic Greek but from Lebanon. That was a new twist, I had him profiled as Eastern Europe. The sentence you think sounds Yiddish could easily be Russian.

    Comment by c. stirling bartholomew | October 13, 2009


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