God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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

Translating Words That Mean More Than One Thing

Frequently a Hebrew or Greek word will, in the eyes of English speakers, “mean more than one thing.”

A Foreign Word With Multiple English Translations

A Foreign Word With Multiple English Translations

There are two ways for this to happen. The first is when there are really two foreign words, similar to the situation with “bank” in English (both a financial institution and the side of a river); that’s not what I have in mind here. The trickier case is when the foreign word only has one meaning, but that meaning is more general than any English word, so it takes two (or more) English words to cover the same semantic territory as the one foreign word. This is depicted graphically to the right.

A simple example might be eitz in Hebrew, which means both “tree” and “wood” in English. It’s not that eitz means more than one thing. Rather, the Hebrew term is more encompassing than any English word. So we say that it “means more than one thing,” but really we just have a mismatch between English and Hebrew. (When the situation is reversed, we again generally resort to English-centric terminology, and say that the foreign language has two words “for the same thing.”)

Translating Words With Multiple English Translations

Translating Words With Multiple English Translations

I see three possible translation scenarios, depicted to the left. In the first two, context makes it clear how to translate the foreign word into English. These two cases are usually easy for the translator, and it’s generally only a linguistic curiosity that the foreign language has but one word for the two English ones. Continuing our example, the “eitz of knowing good and evil” is a “tree,” while the eitz of which the ark was built is “wood.”

But sometimes the usage of the foreign word spans both English words, and this is always a true dilemma for the translator. Neither English word suffices as a translation. We don’t see this with eitz, but lots of other words come to mind.

One example seems to be sarx in Greek (as was discussed extensively about a month ago by Peter Kirk, Clayboy, Mark Goodacre, Jason Staples and others, and again in passing yesterday by T. C. Robinson). It’s not exactly that sarx means more than one thing. Rather, its meaning includes “body” in English, but it is broader than that English word. When sarx is used for “body” or “flesh” (say, in Leviticus 13:24), it’s easy to find an English translation. But when it includes “body” and other important denotations as well, a good translation is elusive.

I think another set of examples comes from gender words. The Greek adelphos, for example, includes the English “brother,” but also what we might awkwardly call “co-member of society.” Again, the word doesn’t have more than one meaning, just more than one good translation, depending on context.

What other important words like this present themselves?

October 22, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , | 8 Comments